Aisha Walker

Thinking onscreen

Digital Dichotomies


It seems that there is an irresistible urge to categorise people as ‘techies’ or ‘non-techies’.  The best-known of these dichotomies is Prensky’s ‘Digital Natives’ vs ‘Digital Immigrants’ (Prensky 2001a, 2001b).  Prensky’s argument was that today’s children and young people are native to technology as they are to their mother tongue and therefore have an intuitive understanding of digital tools.  Adults, on the other hand, who grew up in the pre-digital age, approach technology in the way that migrants learn a new language.  These ‘digital immigrants’, according to Prensky, retain the technological equivalent of a foreign accent, for example, preferring to use a road atlas rather than Google maps (this example post-dates Prensky’s 2001 articles). Prensky argued that ‘digital natives’ think differently from ‘digital immigrants’ because their brains have been shaped by their interactions with technology.  The natives/immigrants dichotomy has been critiqued (for example, White and Le Cornu 2011) because it is too simplistic and too strongly correlated with age.  It cannot be assumed that all young people are naturally competent with technology and that all mature adults are not naturally proficient. Prensky himself revisited this in 2009, proposing instead the concept of ‘digital wisdom’ which can be acquired at any age (Prensky 2009).  Prensky still argues that the ‘digitally wise’ brain has been shaped by technology.  There is no doubt that the brain is plastic so it is possible that use of digital tools may shape the brain allow the evidence so far does not show whether this leads to ‘digital wisdom’ or digital stupidity. Carr (2010) takes the opposite view to Prensky and argues that our interactions with technology lead to shallow thinking and lack of engagement with difficult texts or ideas.

Despite the lack of evidence for the existence of ‘digital natives’ the concept is extremely persistent. In an earlier post (Picky Learners) I wrote about how ‘digital natives’ has intuitive resonance but as others have argued (Bayne and Ross 2007,  Bennett et al 2008, Bennett and Maton 2010, Helsper and Eynon 2010), taking the idea at face value can lead to harmful assumptions about whether and how people use technology.  White and Le Cornu (2011) attempt to address this by proposing an alternative metaphor: ‘residents’ and ‘visitors’.  White and Le Cornu decouple technological competence from age and instead consider the roles that technology plays in the lives of ‘residents’ and ‘visitors’ and the different ways that people view technology.  ‘Residents/visitors’ is proposed as a continuum rather than a dichotomy with some people completely at the ‘resident’ end of the spectrum, with persistent online personal presence and digital interactions playing a significant part in every aspect of life.  Other people are completely at the ‘visitor’ end, engaging little in digital interactions and being extremely focussed when they do make use of digital tools. Strengths of the ‘residents/visitors’ model are that it recognises that people change with regard to views and uses of digital technologies and that digital affinity is not directly related to age.  The model also recognises that people use digital tools in different ways and may be ‘resident’ in with some tools but ‘visitor’ in others.

A question that neither Prensky nor White and Le Cornu consider is the purpose of a ‘digital x’ / ‘digital y’ typology of any kind.  In any area of life there are people who are experts, people who are good, people who can and people who can’t/don’t.  For example, there are excellent musicians, people who play well, people who can play an instrument (albeit not well) and people who have either never tried to learn or who have tried without success.  However, this does not lead to a discourse about musical residents and musical visitors although such a typology would be highly relevant to music.  Even so, a musical native/immigrant or resident /visitor model would not be an accurate predictor of how musical residents/visitors would cope with a new musical context.  Someone who is an expert in one musical genre may struggle in another: for example, classical musicians who are trained to follow written music with precision often find it difficult to learn by ear, a skill that comes easily to people who play folk music genres (for example, Woody and Lehmann, 2010).  The way that people tend to interpret a ‘digital x / digital y’ framework, on the other hand, assumes that the model has some use in predicting expectations or capability with regard to digital technologies.

To be fair, White,  Le Cornu and colleagues have developed their model since 2011 and more recent work speaks of ‘resident’ and ‘visitor’ modes of use rather than dividing people into ‘residents’ and ‘visitors’ (White et al 2012, Connaway et al 2013).  This is a far more useful model as it recognises that people use tools in different ways according to context.  For example, someone may have two facebook accounts: one for professional and one for personal use.  The professional account may be used with caution, in ‘visitor’ mode whilst the personal account is used for daily communication with friends and family.

The problem with digital dichotomies is that there is a difference between understanding what people do and categorising what people are.  When it comes to technology, people use digital tools in various ways and change their use according to circumstances and need.  People are not hard-wired (pardon the pun) to love or loathe technology.  Even people who have found little use for digital tools can change when they can talk to their grandbaby on Facetime or watch a favourite TV show on iPlayer. It is useful, when mapping people’s lives, relationships and interactions to understand the roles of different tools and this is where a model of modes of use is particularly appropriate.  Such a model need not be restricted to only two categories.  It is less useful to say that an unexamined group of people is of the ‘digital x’ type and therefore need to be treated or taught in a particular fashion.

Bayne, S. and Ross, J. (2007) The ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’: a dangerous opposition. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) December 2007.
Bennett, S., Maton, K. & Kervin, L. (2008) The ‘digital natives’ debate: a critical review of the evidence, British Journal of Educational Technology., 39(5), 775–786.
Bennett, S. and  Maton, K.  (2010). Beyond the ‘digital natives’ debate: Towards a more nuanced understanding of students’ technology experiences.  Journal of computer assisted learning. Volume 26, Issue 5, pages 321–331, October 2010
Carr, N. (2010). The Shallows: how the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember. London: Atlantic Books.
Connaway, L.S., White, D. , Lanclos, D.,  & Le Cornu, A. (2013). “Visitors and Residents: What Motivates Engagement with the Digital Information Environment?” Information Research, 18,1 (paper 556).
Helsper, E. & Eynon, R. (2010). Digital natives: where is the evidence? .  British educational research journal. 36 (3), 503-520.
Prensky, M. (2001a) “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” On the horizon. Vol. 9 No. 5,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf
Prensky, M. (2001b) Do They Really Think Differently? On the horizon. Vol. 9 No. 6,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part2.pdf
Prensky, M. (2009) H. sapiens digital: From digital immigrants and digital natives to digital wisdom. Innovate 5 (3).
Walker, A. (2013) Picky Learners
White, D.S. and and Le Cornu, A. (2011) Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement. First Monday, Volume 16, Number 9 – 5 September 2011
White,D.L., Connaway, L.S., Lanclos, D., Le, Cornu, A. and Hood, E. (2012) Digital Visitors and Residents: Progress report.  JISC.
Woody, R.H. and Lehmann, A.C. (2010) Student musicians’ ear-playing ability as a function of vernacular music experiences. Journal of Research in Music Education, 58(2), pp. 101-115.


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