From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

January 30, 2007*: Carrying cognitive baggage from the old country

I can't complain when I get introduced before a lecture as one of the pioneers of the educational internet in Israel. Quite frankly, it's an honor. But it seems that it's a short lived one. The benefits of being a pioneer seem to be dwarfed by the crutches, or the wheelchair, that people seem to expect as an accessory to that status. Perhaps I'm a pioneer, but in today's digital landscape, it seems that I'm viewed more as a dinosaur. Internet generations seem to come and go so quickly that even generation x'ers are viewed by some members of younger generations as properly residing in the geriatric ward. Whatever I may try to do to prove how much I'm still aware of what's happening on the internet front, new protocols, new tools, and new generations (with an ever increasing number of names) are always springing up to let me know that I'm outdated.

How outdated? Well, it seems that, a number of years ago already, I've been demoted. Rather than being a pioneer, it turns out that I'm an immigrant. Is there a difference? Perhaps not. After all, many pioneers are often, at least at the outset, immigrants. But yes, there is a difference, even if it's primarily semantic. As a pioneer I was someone who braved out into yet unmapped territory, someone who took chances. As an immigrant I've become someone who, for at least one of a number of possible reasons, has simply passively decided to cast my lot in surroundings where the fishing conveniently seems better.

As a digital immigrant, I'm apparently never going to be able to truly feel at home in a digital environment. While all around me kids will be instant messaging between groups of friends on their cellulars, barely giving a second thought to the technology they're using, I'll still be sitting in front of a computer screen within my email program, writing letters - the sort of thing that might get printed out on paper - enthralled by the wonders of such a tool. For the immigrant, tasting from the tree of digitality is perhaps similar to tasting the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Having tasted from it, I'll never be able to return to my pre-digital homeland. But I'll apparently also never be fully integrated into the digital promised land.

Although there seems always to be a market for nostalgia, there doesn't seem to be much interest in ragged immigrants, huddled over the side of the ship, straining to get a glimpse of digital-land. Perhaps in the eyes of the natives we're too much of a reminder of their plebian roots. Nobody is keeping these immigrants out, but nobody seems to be holding the door wide open for them either. They're pretty clearly not the market for third generation cellphones. It's the natives who are in, who command attention. But it's not because immigrants can be a potentially lucrative market that they merit respect. Respect is their due because they're the people who can best figure out what to do with all the new tools that are constantly appearing on the scene. Sure, natives may adapt to using new tools more quickly, but if it's a tool that actually makes life more engaging, that creates a tangible advantage over our pre-digital lives, it's the immigrants who are going to understand what to do with it. Taking something for granted isn't necessarily a virtue.

This is particularly true within an educational setting (which can, of course, also be simply at home). The assumption that pupils, simply because they're digital natives, know how to use a tool well before their teachers, is still widespread throughout the educational system. But prevalent or not, it's also a very inaccurate description of reality. Examples of pupils who have access to digital tools, but neither know, nor understand, what to do with them, can be found on every level of schooling. Natives who disregard the experience and expertise that immigrants bring with them are in danger of realizing only a small part of the potential of the digital world. Today's natives are in great need of the perceptions and the understandings that digital immigrants packed with them when they came to this new landscape. If the natives will let these immigrants unpack and settle the territory, they've got an awful lot to gain. So if I'm going to be perceived as an immigrant, I can't complain. Our knowledge of what things were like "back then" is precisely what enables us to envision how digital tools can truly have a powerful and empowering impact on the here and now.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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