Born Digital – get the critical questioning upgrade

In Digital First Diana Kimball at Harvard University recently discussed the extent of tech-savvyness which teenagers born in the digital era actually possess. It related straight to the conversation I have had with jayprich on adult internet sceptics.

Diana argued that “most Digital Natives don’t treat cruising the Internet as an activity in itself. It’s a tool you use when you want to do something else. What sets Digital Natives apart is their willingness to go to the Internet first—when they have a question, when they want to do something cool, when they want to find someone to hang out with”. As much as I can agree with that in the specific North-American context, I see a different picture elsewhere: for instance by looking at African countries. In September 2008 the number of internet users in Ghana was still below 3 percent of the nation’s population which counts more than 20 million individuals.

Digital Natives are first of all a generation marked by their parents’ economic [as well as social and cultural] capital which has translated into a number of smart choices, resulting in what Max Weber coined life chances. Access to knowledge, being involved in knowledge production and being able to identify relevant information in order to make informed choices is what produces and reproduces better life chances.

A great illustration of cultural capital is Brian Donovan’s excerpt of Woody Allen’s Manhattan:

Acquiring an iPhone, for instance, requires economic capital which translates into symbolic capital as it currently holds a certain status, that in turn may well pay off in social capital as it could help to connect with people online as well as offline (Pierre Bourdieu’s famous work ‘Distinctions’ spring to mind, though). Now having an iPhone does not necessarily mean you know how to smartly harness and exploit the online worlds: you may browse the internet, filter, and come up with hundreds of thousands of results on Google. Even middle-aged professionals manage to do that these days – it’s all so user-friendly and intuitive, isn’t it… Yet, I argue it is the critical thinking, the questioning mind which is actually what sets people apart.

Personally, I am intrigued by the widespread lack of critical questioning when it comes to authorship, production of knowledge and distribution of allegedly authoritative knowledge. There is quite a number of people whom I call Wikipedia-fetishists who are a) unaware of the cultural contexts which inform Wikipedia sites (one of the most striking examples is the material available around November 11 in German Wikipedia versus the English sites) b) take for granted what has been published there because it sounds all pretty convincing – and is in line with other sources of authoritative knowledge c) use search engines mainly in their native language and don’t know that there is google.it, google.fi, google.de, google.co.uk to name only a few.

Now, going first to the internet may also be a step done out of convenience. As the internet is a universe on a massive scale providing information by ‘official’ experts as well as various shades of self-declared experts researching any topic in depth is getting ever more difficult. Which is probably a good thing: it’s challenging and it requires skills. These research skills combined with a critically questioning mind is exactly what will set apart the Generation Digital User from the Generation Born Digital. It may also may make us think about the chronology-based and hierarchy-informed meaning of the word ‘generation’.

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About Britta Bohlinger, CFE

Founder and Director of RisikoKlár in Iceland. Native German, global perspective - previously in London and Berlin.

2 responses to “Born Digital – get the critical questioning upgrade”

  1. troy says :

    I wonder if there are any early school programs currently in place that prepare students for internet based research? If it’s going to be a ‘learn as you go’ approach, I only see the gap between Generation Digital User and Generation Born Digital widening.

  2. britbohlinger says :

    It seems it is still very early days with regards to re-thinking our approaches to teaching and learning these technologies. Howard Rheingold discussed this in December 2008 with the BBC in their Digital Planet series, here is the audio podcast. What I miss in the debate, though, is a broader focus on public education, including all those who are not trained in schools and universities.

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