Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Preaching to the Choir - Digital Natives and the Future of the Internet

I'm sitting, staring at a blinking cursor, wondering where to even begin...
I just finished the book I Live in the Future and Here is How It Works by Nick Bilton. He is the Bits blogger for the New York Times and just recently published the book. In the book, he outlines shifting business models from atoms to bits, like the Times being delivered as an electronic periodical on the Kindle or Nook instead of as printed paper. Aside from the fascinating analysis of the future of digital products and business models, he makes an interesting distinction between "digital immigrants" and "digital natives".
This terminology should be pretty self-explanatory but just in case, a digital immigrant is, in his words, anyone over the age of 25, a native being under the age of 25. Digital natives may also be called Millennials, but the fact of the matter is that they were born into an age wherein the Internet is a given, much like running water and gravity.
I consider myself a digital immigrant, though one who has spent over half his life thinking with a digital mentality. For me, reading I live in the Future on my new Kindle, an ereader, felt natural though it's only the second book I have ever read in that paperless format. I understand the model of the Amazon Kindle store, how to navigate the device and I quickly developed a relationship with the thin plastic gadget akin to that of a book. The differentiation I would like to make, however, is that it was not a process. I simply adjusted to, as opposed to having to relearn, how  to interact with my Kindle as one interacts with a book. In other words there were no analogues, no symbolism. Reading on an ereader was as natural an experience as picking up and holding a book.
Digital immigrants must often create analogues in order to grasp the digital concept and translate the concept in order to understand and process the new experience. For example, reading on the Kindle is like reading a book rather than thinking that reading on the Kindle is reading a book. Analogues are helpful but problematic in that the new digital world is not a series of if this then thats. It's like learning a new language wherein a word in a target language does not have a direct translation to English and the word loses its meaning once loosely translated.
The digital natives command this new language with dexterity and authority; interestingly for me, as a digital immigrant on the cusp, I am teaching digital natives.

The digital generation divide was apparent in the Philippines, teaching my students who quickly learned HTML, computer hardware maintenance and other computer projects, but it wasn't until today, when I taught my Korean students about the history if the Internet, that the divide slapped me in the face.
During my lecture, I touched on when the Internet came into being, why it came into being, a few landmark technologies, such as email, IP and DNS and the possible future of the Internet. After the lecture, I posed the question to my students, "if the U.S. invented the Internet, invested heavily in its infrastructure and 70% of the Internet is in English in large part as a result of American content contribution, who does the Internet belong to?" My students gave me a blank look, which I misinterpreted as their misunderstanding. As I tried to rephrase the question, one student piped in, "everyone" -- exactly the answer I was looking for. As I stood there, I watched students all nod in agreement. Their blank look wasn't that of misunderstanding but that of complete understanding, as if I stood there saying "the sky is blue." Well obviously.
The students knew conceptually what an IP address was, had never heard of DNS and didn't care that Ray Tomlinson invented email, but it didn't matter. Every one of my students has an email address, can navigate the Internet competently and with agility and, as I have come to understand, without needing to know such trivial details. They were born into the Internet and made it theirs as much as I have made it mine. It's as if we as immigrants are given our 40 acres and a mule once we establish a connection to the Internet and we have had to learn the techniques of cultivating our share. Like I said, we immigrants need analogies to understand some of these concepts. The natives on the other hand have been playing in the digital dirt since the beginning, as though there never was a duplicitous approach to the real self and the digital self.

But it got me thinking, what is the future of the Internet, populated by natives. What will the Internet look like when everyone gets their 40 acres and a mule in a world where the zero-sum game is irrelevant? How will the presence of English shift or change as more and more people contribute to this thing? I started thinking about numbers; in 2009, 4.6 billion people, world-wide, had a cell phone. That's about two thirds the global population. In ten years, as smart phones come down in price and global buying power increases, what is stopping every one of the 4.6 billion or more digital natives from connecting to the Internet with pocket-sized computers, carving out their own plot, in their own language, on their own terms?
The Internet is going to look very different in the next ten years, bandwidth and media aside. And who is to say who can and who cannot connect and contribute? The Internet belongs to everyone, duh!