Understanding the modern world as a digital immigrant

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By Graduate Consultant, Emily Dunn

Do you remember a time not so long ago when cassette players were the bee’s knees and VHS players were the future of home entertainment? Well if you do then you probably belong to a category defined by academic Marc Prensky as ‘digital immigrant’.

Prensky, a digital immigrant himself, first coined the definition back in 2001 as referring the generational gap between those who were born into the digital age (which he fittingly calls digital natives) and those who have had to adapt to the digital age (generally individuals born before 1980 are considered a digital immigrant).

While most of his studies are based on social observations, Prensky initially based his theory on the psychological analogy that the brain operates like a sponge, for example – imagine that knowledge is a pool of water, overtime, as the ‘brain sponge’ absorbs water from the knowledge pool, the brain becomes unable to absorb or retain the same amount of ‘water knowledge’ it was capable of doing when it was empty.

Therefore, Prensky observes that individual experiences of the analogue to digital transition will depend greatly on their age, and resultantly many brain ‘sponges’ will face difficulties finding a patch of dry brain turf to store all this new information.

This isn’t to say that all individuals eligible for the digital immigrant category have faced the same issues, these rules simply apply on a day-to-day use basis (such as accessing the internet, using a smart phone or tablet and accessing social media) and don’t apply in the same respect to individuals who go out of their way to learn digital skills.

Also, if you’re under 35 don’t jump to give yourself a high-five for being a digital native, because while digital natives in their twenties and early thirties are reasonably equipped with digital prowess (this will also depend on up-bringing, education and efforts to learn digital tools), younger people (aged 6-17) currently studying primary, secondary and pre-tertiary studies are the first generation to grow up completely immersed in digital technologies.

These kids have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, playing video games, using digital music players, smart phones and all the other gadgets and gizmos of the digital age, so it won’t be long now until the current young guns in the office feel the cool sting of the digital generation in the workforce.

The realities of the digital world might be a hard pill to swallow for the die-hard, stick and ball, marble-throwing, steam-engine traditionalists but unfortunately the digital age is only going to become more abstract and refined as time ticks (or zaps, or whatever sound a digital clock makes…) on.

Many of you might be wondering whether you suffer symptoms of a digital immigrant. Therefore, the following passage from Prensky’s chapter “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” in the book Cross Currents: Cultures, Communities, Technologies (2013) will hopefully provide some insight as to where you may fit in the digital immigrant debate –

“Today’s older folk were socialised differently from their kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain…

As digital immigrants learn… they always retain, to some degree, their ‘accent’, that is, their foot in the past. The ‘digital immigrant accent’ can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program itself will teach us how to use it…

Other examples include printing out your email [and] bringing people physically into your office to see an interesting website (rather than just sending the URL)…emotional symptoms often experienced by digital immigrants include bouts of frustration of confusion towards a digital devices or programs if they don’t appear to do what is expected,”(Prensky, 2013, p. 45-6).

So how do you measure up?

While at this stage you’re probably feeling like all hope is lost, it is important to remember that digitalism is not always a good thing. For example, digital natives are used to receiving information really fast and they like to parallel process and multi-task, they thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards, but can often overlook the minor details and the importance of the personal touch.

On the other hand, digital immigrants function best when networked and understand the importance of personal approaches such as face-to-face conversations and talking on the phone over sending emails. They look forward to future plans and work towards long-term goals, and while they don’t quite understand abbreviated social media lingo, they have a firm grasp on the English language.

Next issue I’ll be looking at common issues digital immigrants may face in the workplace and at home, as well as easy solutions to combating the technicalities of the digital world.

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