Who’s invited to the party?

Siva Vaidhyanathan recently wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Generational Myth.” In it, Vaidhyanathan makes the blunt statement, “There is no such thing as a ‘digital generation.’” He goes on to debunk the idea of a generation of “born digital” or “digital natives” who are fundamentally skilled at operating digital technology. Meanwhile, Dan Cohen, Mills Kelly, and Tom Scheinfeldt offered up their slightly differing perspectives on the issue on Digital Campus #32.

I found Vaidhyanathan’s article fascinating, and made me think quite a bit about the issue. I agree with his premise, that it is preposterous to think that your age somehow makes you either inherently competent or incompetent at using technology. I hate the term digital “native” or “immigrant,” as they carry a phenomenal amount of baggage, and there are far too many exceptions to the rule to make it worthwhile. It’s a simple generalization that people latch onto because it is such an attractive analogy at first glance. But unfortunately, a closer examination causes the analogy to break down.

Having said this, it is useless to simply dismiss any talk of a generational divide. While there are plenty of 60 year-olds out there who know more about computers than I do, and plenty of college students who can barely send an email, there is oftentimes an overarching difference between the two. Someone who has grown up with regular access to the internet, cell phones, and portable music players, generally has an attitude or perspective on technology that reflects this experience. For one, they might have fewer reservations about personal privacy, and be more willing to post information or pictures about themselves online. Some may not be able to remember the time they opened up a phone book or an encyclopedia. Many expect songs, movies, and TV shows to be freely (or at least readily) accessible over the internet. Does every person under the age of 20 share these views? No. Do a greater percentage of young people share these views than their parents? Probably.

Much of the discussion of a generational divide views the issue entirely through the lens of a privileged socioeconomic class. As many people have pointed out, there are a lot of 18 year-olds who don’t have regular access to a computer or the internet. Henry Jenkins has written about this extensively, and also presented a talk at UC Berkley titled “Combating the Participation Gap.” To assume that every young person is tech-savvy is a mistake. To assume that every young person even has the resources or ability to be tech-savvy is an even graver mistake. The churning wave of technological trends and forces are not only seen as intimidatingly complex, but is more importantly seen as irrelevant and inaccessible to a significant portion of the American (much less the world) population. The teenager whose family is struggling to put food on the table is probably just hoping to someday get a computer with high-speed internet, much less understand what the “long tail” is.

Examining the field of digital history requires a strong understanding of these issues of participation. Who’s currently at the party? Who’s been invited to the party? Who doesn’t even know the party is going on? Of course, digital history is compounded even further by the demographics of its umbrella discipline: by sheer numbers, the majority of history PhD’s are white and/or male. And that, in and of itself, deserves a separate, more thorough discussion…