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digital natives (complete-ish)

while i was in Berlin i spoke at Deutsche Telekom's Innovation Day. in the exhibitions hall there was a display for an initiative called Palomar5. Palomar5 is group of young people (and it gives me the shivers that I am no longer included in this category) that are interested in innovation and large-scale problem solving using social technology. With the help of DT, Palomar5 put together a "Technology Innovation Camp." The camp brought 30 young-ens under 30 from around the world and placed them into a former beer factory in the heart of industrial Berlin for six weeks. I visited the facility on the recommendation of the folks that had brought me in to speak.

The space was immense. An architect had been hired to loosely partition some of the more cavernous rooms, creating play spaces and work areas. The sleeping quarters consisted of a series of small, free-standing one-bedroom houses that were scattered around the factory floor. it looked like a miniature village. I was told that these cocoons were especially helpful because the participants kept odd hours and would sometimes hibernate in the middle of the day.

An extremely precocious 19 year-old named Max walked me through the labyrinth. The work areas were chaotic - writing on the walls was encouraged, and in one room a series of bean bags faced a home made projection screen where participants had pitched ideas to professionals in a "real" simulation of the reality show "Dragon's Den." Another room was filled with computers and divided up by large white cut-outs in the shape of sails. Max showed me a fort that the participants had built out of bedsheets and chairs. The night before they had been up until 3AM blowing things up in the parking lot. It was all the best things you could wish for in a techno-geek camp.

Max was interested in entrepreneurship. He was building a platform that he hoped would provide a network of resources to first time entrepreneurs - his subgroup of palomar5 participants has set up a site that will be launching soon if you care to follow their progress. As we wandered around Max spoke in a way that complimented the chaos of the space. His ideas were vast, confused, irreverent and terribly exciting. At one point I asked him whether he planned on going to college next year and he said that he wasn't sure. he said he had sat in on a graduate class and felt that he already knew everything that they were saying. He thought that he might just skip college altogether and become an entrepreneur.

My host at Deutsche Telekom had referred to the participants of Palomar5 as "digital natives." It is a terms that is frequently used to describe people that have had access to the fruits of the digital revolution since early childhood. I am not a digital native, I was born on the cusp - and have experienced the bizarre forces of nature that allow teenagers to assemble on a Friday night without the use of a cell phone. "digital natives" is meant to signify that these people are different in some fundamental way. the idea is that access to technology during formative years has messed with the internal wiring, creating metaphors for information and social experiences that someone like me could never understand. My guess is that this is partially true.

But "digital natives" are not always revered in the way that they are at Palomar5. Companies complain that "natives" expect things to be handed to them, that they don't respect authority. Helicopter mothers supposedly show up at interviews with their native children. Words like "spoiled", "entitled" and "arrogant" are thrown around. Even the word "native" has some unintended negative connotations. Groups that are labeled "native" tend to get a raw deal in this world.

And that is how i reacted to Max's attitude toward universities: as a sign of the Spoiled Generation. He said he would rather start a company than go to an university that threw his ideas in wastebasket after a quick review and a grade. I responded that at his age most of his ideas deserved to be thrown in the garbage, and the product of an education is not a specific idea, but rather the whole of the person being educated. it felt harsh when i said it and since then i've been trying to understand what happened during that exchange.

my guess is that Max and I were shouting across some sort of chasm. It is a similar chasm that separates republicans from democrats - where differences in an underlying world view makes it impossible to use our shared language to convey an idea . i think that the chasm i experienced at palomar5 involved two very different ideas about power.

digital natives have grown up in a landscape where access to information and influence has been flattened. they have watched media distribution bottlenecks in the form of networks and studios lose influence to youtube and independent production houses. They have watched companies bow down to viral video critiques, and watched political systems get hacked by social networks. this is a generation that doesn't understand restrictions on access to media if those restrictions are inefficient or obviously detrimental to the system as a whole. this is a generation that has been at war with DRM and copyright right from the start. it is a generation awash with free tutorials and download-able source code.

I can understand why the thought of spending four years at a university could raise a native eyebrow. universities are emblematic of a different, much older understanding of power. they are meant to be an oasis of access to knowledge and influence in contrast to a world where access is withheld. they provide libraries full of information, and allow students to rub elbows with professors who don't return emails. but as access to knowledge and influence flattens, universities seem less like oases and more like training camps.

University students are trained to navigate the power dynamics of the outside world. students are expected to conform to the will of idiosyncratic professors as a sign of their flexibility in the face of power. Students are expected to perform redundant tasks in exams with artificial restrictions on access to information - learning to live with inefficiency rather than to challenge it. and in the most elite universities students are reminded that the bonds that they create with other students will be the basis of an influence grid that will someday replace the current one - something that could be done in any run-of-the-mill social network for quite a bit less money.

as i write this i feel as though it comes across as if i have contempt for these attributes of a college education. maybe i do, but i also consider them to be valid and valuable. i feel like it is a place where we learn that the world is an uneven place and we should hedge our bet by learning to be self reliant. learn to spell just in case the spell-check stops working. learn to use the stacks just in case google goes down for a day or two. learn to appreciate the classics just in case your boss happens to mention one at a cocktail party. learn basic math just in case your accountant is a cheat. learn basic economics in case you want to go into affiliate advertising.

but show me a society that is obsessed with self reliance and i will show you a society in which communities have failed.

forgive this next interlude, it might get mushy and it will be based on the kind of conjecture that you can only get from an internet personality (yes, mom... that is all that i am.) However, i feel like i have to wrestle with some thoughts about where these older ideas of self reliance and power came from.

There has been a lot of talk about the "power law" in the past few years, particularly about the "long tail" and now the "fat belly". But the tail and the belly are just distraction from it's vicious head. The most famous example of a power law distribution is the way that wealth is distributed globally - roughly 20% of the population has 80% of the wealth, leaving 80% of the population with 20% of the wealth. In recent times we have seen this distribution pop up all over the place - in the distribution of natural phenomena like earthquake magnitude or wave height and in all facets of the networked world - traffic distribution by IP, # of friends on facebook: if you start to look it is hard not to find this distribution. Clay Shirky once told me that networks that have scarcity built into them tend toward power law distributions unless work is added to the system. I don't understand the math, but it seems like a force of nature.

If societies tend toward this kind of uneven distribution, monarchies start making sense: they are a rationalization of a naturally occurring phenomena. Someone always ends up with all of the power and we call them kings and queens and rationalize that God must have given them a divine right to that power. The court becomes a birthright and the peasantry becomes a birth curse, but either way monarchies settle into a power distribution that is somewhat stable. Of course there are upheavals, but after a quick shock the system rebounds to a power law distribution. This distribution is seen at all levels of society in a fractal-like pattern. States have governors, towns have mayors and families have elders. Everyone knows their place.

And it was a remarkably successful form of society. It lasted for thousands of years. But as we became enlightened - tasting of the fruit of knowledge, so to speak - we were cast out of the bliss of thinking things were just so. Modern democracies challenged the justification but not the underlying power distribution. First we questioned birth right but kept a class system that more or less justified the status of most of the population, but over time even that started to erode. What we were left with was the uneven landscape without an explanation of why it was just so.

To fill the void we came up with the myth of ultimate ascension - the idea that anyone can become king, and i don't mean president, i mean someone who has amassed enough wealth to act like a king (i call it a myth because that sort of ascension is statistically unlikely). Here is the idea that each man is a universe of possibility, and the basis of self reliance. Without having a specific place in the world dictated to us we try and possess the skills that will allow us to operate anywhere on the curve. And the people in the top 20% justify their position as a better execution of those skills.

Even when the distribution is called unfair it is treated like an inevitability. the criticism is often that the wrong people occupy the wrong slots, rather than a criticism of the slots themselves. maybe it is an inevitability, a force of nature. maybe that is why communism in its pure form has never been able to scale - it requires too much work to push against that spring - and communist governments seem to collapse back into the the same pattern of oligarchy or monarchy after any initial success.

Growing up in this sort of self reliant society I accept that there are certain things that need to be learned, and I buy into the sort of power structure training that happens in universities. I appreciate respect for elders even if it is irrational, it is a small justification of my beliefs about the system as a whole.

But i can also start to see how the digital native generation might collide with some of these beliefs. All of this self reliance must seem a bit redundant and inefficient. i said above that self reliance points to the failure of community. I believe that to a certain degree: it means that we don't trust the network to provide for us so we feel like we have to prepare for being alone. But digital natives trust the network and might not understand why we all need to have the same survival skills. On a societal level it is like asking why we need to learn how to spell when we have spell check. why wouldn't you bring your mother to your first interview? she is more persuasive than you are. she understands meetings. she is like the anagram finder for online scrabble: she is a hack for the game called interview. sure, they may seem entitled when they don't understand the value of investing years in apprentice-like jobs. those jobs are meant to solidify them within a power structure that they don't think is stable. if you look at the skill sets required for upper management without considering power brokerage as one of them - it might seem like anyone could do the job... and maybe that is true.

personally i still believe in the inevitability of an uneven distribution of resources. I look at the events of recent years not as a flattening, but as a shuffling of places on the curve. certain things transition from luxuries to commodities, but new luxuries take their place. to me digital natives are held tightly within the bosom of the old world order - so tightly that they don't see it. They experience the flattening of access and influence in a few domains to be a reflection of the possibilities of a larger shift. I can't see it that way, but perhaps I am wrong.

as i left palomar i was escorted out by another young participant from Mexico. he asked me for some advice. he said that everyone in those cavernous rooms was committed to changing the world. and by the look on his face i believed him. so how does one go about something like this? my first reaction was to play inside the system - find out what the sponsors were after and to deliver exactly that, secure more money for the long term, create a hidden agenda, wash, rinse, repeat. but i could tell that was disappointing to hear.

so as i turned toward the gate I said - maybe you are all revolutionaries without any teeth. maybe the answer is to grow some teeth. i don't know what i meant exactly, but it was an attempt to shout across the chasm.


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Comments (22)

This is really interesting for me to read because... I don't really understand your point of view. But I do think you've got a grasp on the digital point of view.

I don't understand why the people with the skills don't get the job instead the people with the right amount of time served. How can you not be arrogant if, in terms of skill set, you are better than most of the older people you work with? I don't understand rules that seem arbitrary and pointless. The grown-up world seems so inefficient and poorly organized from where I'm sitting. It's incredibly disappointing to go from a digital world where age, sex, and looks don't matter to a real life interface where all of those things count against you.

And I think university is great for some people, but I don't think it's necessary for most. Technical schools are much better. Just jumping right in and figuring it out as you go seems pretty reasonable. How many useless classes did I waste time on when I could have been focusing on learning things I actually care about and might apply? I'm pro-learning, but college is a waste of time for people who already know what they teach. I didn't learn anything in undergrad that I couldn't look up online if someone asked me about it.

There is an answer to most of life's problems at the end of a well-crafted google search.

I'm similarly placed on this cusp of digital nativism and whatever we call the kids that grew up playing non-networked game consoles from Atari. I struggle over desiring the validation which comes from a university education versus the sense that what everyone should really be doing is running with their ideas.

Obviously there is a balance that can be struck somewhere; and new forms of curriculum at various levels are starting to get there. But there is mounting tension as competition increases for both graduate school slots and for attention from the folks that support startup projects.

Its like the very tension you discuss between self-reliance and relying on one's network. Being from that cusp places you between the new and old understandings of validation.

I'm curious to see how society as a whole shifts under this tension, and where I find myself in relation to it.


Thank you for putting words to this feeling that I can't quite put my finger on.

"maybe you are all revolutionaries without any teeth"

My partner and I were discussing something similar last night. I live in a city full of young creative types who want to change the world. I should feel empowered by that. I am, myself, a young creative person (cusp though, not quite "native") who wants to help improve the world.

But there's something about the young revolutionary culture that makes me want to distance myself from it. Something that feels empty or naive. Like there isn't a whole lot of reality or grounding to base their actions on. And it's hard to put my finger on, but my best guess is that it has something to do with a lack of DEEP knowledge or sustained attention put toward any one thing. It's like they have a lot of shallow knowledge about a lot of stuff, and yet consider themselves experts in it all. They seem to be stuck in the perpetual attitude that most of us had as teenagers: "I know all about the world. Here I wrote it in this poem that's going to change everything."

I don't want to be cynical or mean about it, or create a "me vs. them" attitude. (We all go through our know-it-all phases, after all.) But I find myself more and more wanting to hang out with older people - people who have truly honed a trade, or have a deep background in a particular topic and want to engage in deep discussions.

I work in online communications, but I've begun to shift my career track toward teaching yoga and helping people cultivate sustained awareness and stillness within a chaotic world. I hope it helps in some small way.


Interesting read; it crystallized some thoughts I have been having but have not fully explored. As someone who was born non-native but has developed skills that have enabled quick catch-up, I look for the merit it digital natives' point of view.

Using one of your examples...if Google does go down, then what? I'm not sure that non-natives won't be as completely lost as the natives would be (doesn't everyone rely upon Google?), and they might be worse off when it comes to being resourceful in the middle of the 'crisis' if their social network is not as robust as that of the natives.

Your "learn to appreciate the classics just in case your boss happens to mention one at a cocktail party..." starts to lose relevance when the "bosses" start being natives. Then, the boss would be more impressed with the quality of your connections and your answer to a question such as, "Let's say Google goes down, what do you do?"

I'm going to say that any downsides to being a native are going to disappear in a generation or so, when the bosses become natives. If we non-natives don't start to see the merit in the natives' arguments, we risk becoming living dinosaurs. I have my master's from and Ivy League school and may still get a Ph.D., but I'm not throwing anything the natives are saying out the window. I'm paying attention.

Ashley, I think what you're interested in, although perhaps Pierre Bourdieu(a name worth typing into Wikipedia re: this discussion) never defined it,is technical capital. Capital in the sense that on some level, you're gathering up this technical know-how because it has some kind of value. And you're right, technical schools are great for building up your technical capital, as is taking stuff apart and figuring things out.

Universities don't actually care about the specific facts they impart to you in the same way technical schools(or you) do. The real principles behind a liberal arts education is to increase what Bourdieu called social and cultural capital in their students. This is what they mean when they want to teach you to be "well-rounded."

Your social capital is your real-world social network, including the authority and influence of the people with whom you have relationships. Ze mentions briefly that this is emphasized in elite universities. He would know about that better than I do, but I do know that many officials in the Obama administration are friends he met at Harvard.

Your cultural capital is the body of cultural knowledge that allows you to gain acceptance in a particular social strata. A friend of mine, a very successful salesman, recalls a social gathering he had with some of the VPs of his company. The discussion at some point turned to cigars and single-malt scotch. My friend falls firmly in the Bud Light camp, and at this point in the conversation, all his options are bad - leave the table? shut up and hope they don't notice? lie? The social strata that make up the 20% in the head of the distribution curve have cultural barriers to distinguish themselves and not all of it is the obvious, conspicuous-consumption type stuff. It's what you know as well, even if it doesn't apply at all to your job.

A degree in and of itself is cultural capital. But you hear from the career counselors all the time that everyone else that will be applying for your first real job out of college will have the same degree with better grades from better schools and that you need to "distinguish yourself." And the ways they suggest you do that are never technical skill. So you had better spend your time at college accruing as much cultural and social capital as you can.

These systems seem unfair because the social and cultural capital I'm talking about is not distributed evenly. It's distributed along the power law distribution curve, just like economic capital is. But unlike with economic capital, we do not have myths that tell us that social and cultural capital is available to anyone is willing and capable of hard work and good morals. In the Horatio Alger stories, the hero basically has a fortune in social capital fall into his lap, every time, by helping out a rich stranger somehow and having that rich stranger form a relationship with them. The fact is that the ways to accrue cultural and social capital are just not taught to most people. Like people that go to public schools. Especially poor, underfunded public schools.

I think it's from this reality that Ze's point of view comes from.


I don't disagree with your fundamental principle that relationships are a very important part of life. But I will go ahead and disagree with the premise that that is what people get out of a university education. I know I certainly didn't get "Cultural and Social Capital" out of my education, and I went to an elite private college. So I don't think it's a very good argument for college education as it stands now.

Most of that cultural and social capital comes from how you were raised. And I was certainly fortunate enough to be raised in an upper middle class home. But, I've also made excellent personal contacts through the internet. Is it not a new medium of social capital? Internet connections have been much more of a boon to me personally and professionally than my liberal arts education.

PS The answer to your friends dilemma is to say he doesn't drink. The upper class has real respect for reformed alcoholics and eccentricities.

i'd probably consider myself to be on the cusp too - i've shunned seemingly pointless age old traditions like using capital letters, respecting authority for the sake of it, or obtaining deep knowledge of absolutely anything at all. at the same time i have memories of a time when information wasn't omnipresent, communication wasn't instant and humans were still the grumpy gatekeepers of success.

when i was deciding whether or not to go to university, i remember thinking how educationally redundant it would be - but then going anyway. even back then it was obvious that i'd need to have a university degree if i wanted to be taken seriously in this world, largely because all the influential people at that time were pre-natives. sometimes i wonder what will happen when natives dominate all the influential roles. i'm guessing society will need to have a pretty thorough rethink of our education system, and the emphasis it places upon the various options people may choose.

anyway, so when do us 'cusp' people get rich selling our services as translators between generations? the window of opportunity is surely closing fast as more and more bosses become natives... ;)

bruce jackson:

In my experience - at 59 I am for the first time reading Thomas Hardy - Tess of the d'urbervilles based on a networked friend's suggestion. the story and context of the time is where my great - grandfather lived, worked and died as a tenant farm manager for "the Lords". What makes it more interesting is I have copies of his diary of 22 years from 1882 - 1904. The Diary of a Wessex Farmer - Josiah Jackson. My own history is as much as an ancient wandering Aramean, trying to live out a purpose in life as our human story in trying to change the world. With or without technology change will not really happen without relationship and is often learned through trial and temptation. The future may be the past as is the circle of life.

Just because your advice to "grow some teeth" is disappointing doesn't mean it's wrong...

I hope the university experience will grow and change some as a result of the awesome change in access to technology, but I don't think it's a waste of time. Part of what is gained is capital, but university experiences also instills broader perspective and life experience - including finding out that your ideas aren't entirely new or even fully baked. Inevitably, that's true for all of us, and it was certainly true of me then (and now). To believe otherwise is simply overconfidence.

Participating in the system allows you to learn how it works and how to get things done. To think you know how it works without participating (to some degree, at a minimum) is naive.

"Incompetence is the disease of idiots, but overconfidence is the disease of experts," - Malcolm Gladwell One speech by Gladwell on expert failure.

We live in a time of significant change, but without a grounding in historical perspective or the understanding of our own limitations borne through experience, the likeihood of failure rising dramatically.

I'm a pre-cusp relic, a second generation geek, I went to University, knowing that it would not test me in any fundamental way, I would pass easily, and come out the end with a bit of paper that would allow me to get a better job, and earn more money, but then all I wanted to do was play with computers for a living.

I think the natives who think they have nothing to learn, underestimate what a University education is about. To me, it was a time to re-engage with life, much like Mitchell Feigenbaum, (an early Chaos researcher) chronicled in James Gleick's book "Chaos" re-learning about people through sitting in the cafeteria for weeks on end.

I was doing computing, but I read library books about nuclear fusion, probability, and whatever else took my fancy. I went to the movies, played games, (computer, tabletop & live action) & sports, went to parties, met girls, went on road trips, etc. I was in a place filled with like minded individuals, and had access to modern technology and interesting adults who had experienced the past and were thus more knowledgeable about the likely shape of the future. You could meet them in the lecture halls, or in the bar. It's these encounters, and many more like them, that will cement in you ideas and attitudes, that along with curiosity, will make you into who you will become.

I appreciate that in America where education isn't free, that spending four to six years of your life doing what pleases you may be an expensive proposition, but that's not the case in the UK or Germany. Germany is especially lax in this regard as the onus is on the student to put in the work, without much chasing from the lecturers or professors.

I think Ze is right, not about teeth, but about subverting from within. Because if you have teeth then you're going to face a struggle trying to overthrow the old older. It will become a life's work, and the next generation will be the one's that achieve. You may well gain in the process, but it will not be because you were better, or because you knew more, but because you were determined. The old order isn't going to roll over and play dead any more than Microsoft will lay down for Google.

Information is at our fingertips. Knowledge however comes from both education and experience.

In a future of only digital natives will reason and wisdom still be valued, or will we be able to create these synthetically?

Social intelligence and socratic thought have been, and I believe will continue to be, highly prized skills best executed with a patina of experience.

Let's watch the monkey dance.

I love your thinking Ze. Looking forward to reading more.

Ze --

I'm going to respond to a few of the issues you raised -- but you've tackled several monumental problems (as in "to be solved") in one post.

For those who don't know me, I'm 62, my daughter is 25, and for the past 5 years I've taught students at both Berkeley and Stanford. So I have experience with being an old guy, experience with young people, and experience dealing with students and universities.

I really just started teaching to substitute for my friend Fred Turner, who was taking time to write a book. When I first faced a room full of students at Stanford and told them that they were expected to blog and wiki, I got my first shock -- why the blank expressions? These were digital natives. They all had their laptops and cellphones. It was Stanford. I had assumed that they were like my daughter (also a Stanford student at that time) and all her friends, and about the web-savvy digital natives I had heard so much about. Of course, as in every class I teach, there were several students who taught me a thing or two about contemporary media practices. But truly, I was shocked to discover that although the all Facebooked and texted, a majority of these students needed more introduction than I had assumed they would need to practices like collaborative document editing via wiki, reflective blogging, social bookmarking.

What was going on here? Inquiring into anomalies is how I tend to learn things, so I asked around. I recall asking a person in charge of center for learning innovation why so few teachers and students were using participatory media effectively in their classes. His reply: "That's an easy one to answer. This is a knowledge factory. You are hired because you invent genetic engineering techniques or a new search engine or contribute your bit of knowledge to your peer-reviewed journal of philosophy or economics. If your contract requires you to teach and you never show up in class, that could be a problem -- but there are very few positive incentives for innovating in pedagogy."

I've pondered that and probed his contention, and I believe it to be true -- perhaps I was naive to think otherwise. I have no problem with knowledge factories. If there is going to be a cure for cancer, it will come from such an institution.

When I started experimenting and then talking to others about my experiments in using what are now called "social media" in my teaching, I learned that many capable educators at the big name institutions required what teachers call "scaffolding" when I described my practices -- but when I addressed groups of teachers at community colleges, they were right there on the bleeding edge. The value proposition at the elite universities is, in my opinion, that for excessive amounts of money and a punishing entrance ordeal, students are expected to get an education, yes, but primarily they get a brand association and a social network. Community colleges promise their students that they will be prepared for the kind of jobs they will be seeking upon graduation. Most of my mentors in the kind of pedagogy that involves use of online media don't come from the big name institutions.

Then there are the students. I have been thoroughly disabused of they myth of digital natives. You met a skewed sample of young people, Ze -- the ones who get it, who are enthusiastic about new media, and who are eager to change the world. But elite universities are filled with young people who are, yes, very bright, but they are also, for the most part, grade-making machines. They are attuned to what the professor is saying that might be on the test, they are adept at remember the key information long enough to regurgitate it for the final exam, and they do triage on all their requirements because they are taking a heavy load of units and can't possibly do all their reading.

I teach, at my own insistence, in a room where the chairs and tables are stacked, not bolted down. On the first day of class, students invariably set up their chairs in rows and columns. If I don't intervene, they will do the same thing again at the second class meeting and will sit in the same places they happened to sit the first time. They are institutionalized in ways that they aren't aware of. They aren't stupid. They aren't unthinking sheep. But in order to get into Stanford or Berkeley, they have learned to behave in a certain way.

I realized that a certain amount of deprogramming would have to be involved in what I wanted to do -- which was to stimulate the students to be active participants in learning, to reflect, to challenge, and to analyze. So I picked up Postman and Weingarten's ancient book, "Teaching as a Subversive Activity." That led me to Freire, Dewey, and others who have promoted a more self-aware, student-centric, inquiry-based, "constructivist" form of education. This educational philosophy is not new, but it has been at the margins. I believe that circumstances are bringing these ways of thinking to center stage. Mike Wesch's work is a great example -- and an exemplar for me and others.

The major disruptive factor that led me to radically change the way I teach is the presence of WiFi in the classroom. I learned from Postman that the lecture format goes back a thousand years to the days when books were rare, hand-written, and chained to podiums. Students have always daydreamed, doodled, and passed notes in lectures. But until very recently, they weren't able to use search to check on whether the professor knows what he or she is talking about, to chat with each other in a backchannel, or, if the lecture is boring enough, to engage in every seductive distraction from Facebook to World of Warcraft. Many professors are in denial, and drone on with their decades-old lectures -- sometimes reading aloud their text-laden PowerPoints. Some professors tell their students to shut their laptops -- and this is often a valid response. But I teach about social media, so I have to deal with it. And the way I deal with it is to enlist the students as active participants.

I don't know that universities are capable of changing rapidly enough to meet the changing requirements of living and studying and working in the 21st century. I'm not promoting magical thinking about technology transforming education, but I am promoting the idea that students will be immersed in and manipulated by online media throughout their lives -- much of it yet to be invented -- and they better learn how to make their own assessments of how and why to use these media.

I decided that I am too old and not of the temperament to try to change these institutions, but that I would join the ranks of those who are teaching in ways that take advantage of the new media and the older pedagogical philosophies that try to move past the model of teacher as deliverer of packaged knowledge and on to the model of teacher as facilitation of self-motivated and collaborative inquiry.

Instead of going on and on about this, I'll simply link to a few of my efforts.

Here is a tool and resources that I've developed, along with others:

Here is a current syllabus of mine:

In particular, this is what I ask students to read and agree to before admission to the class:

Here is a video by Mike Wesch that I find inspirational:


Here's my question: if you see no need to master any knowledge because it's all in the cloud, why should I hire you or invest in your ideas over anyone else's? Based on this way of seeing the utility a university education, we all have access to the same information, right? So what distinguishes you from anyone else? If you're just going to look something up on Wikipedia, I can do the same and skip sending you a paycheck.

I think this whole conception of an education is false. Universities aren't supposed to be about stuffing memorizable facts into your head, if that's all they do then they're clearly a waste of time. An education is about teaching you how to think, how to reason, and how to communicate effectively. Part of that is understanding the heritage of thought and culture of those who have come before you, so that you know whether an idea you have is original or not. Otherwise we're all constantly deluded into thinking we're reinventing the wheel. Having an understanding of this context can also teach you how to break the rules that exist, when you are being truly innovative, and also communicate to other people how what you're doing is a break from that (shared) past. Have you seen Picasso's early paintings? That's the classic example of having to understand the rules first in order to break them in a way that can change the way people see the world.

On a practical level, here's how the native attitude you describe played out at my former company, which was in my opinion genuinely meritocratic and where advancement was based on proven worth and not just on time put in. Entitled young person comes in and finds they are only qualified to be hired into an entry level position. He or she is severely undermotivated to do work that does not live up to his/her expectations for how his/her brilliance will be unleashed upon the world. Therefore he/she does not learn the basic work ethic and beginner industry knowledge that comes from entry level tasks, shows no understanding of how to provide value to the company, shows no initiative in finding work that is valuable yet might prove more interesting, and annoys co-workers who find that person undependable when it comes to getting things done. Having never proved he/she can get things done, superiors are wary about entrusting him/her with more responsibility or potentially more interesting tasks. Young native decides company sucks and world is out to get him/her, quits or is encouraged to leave.

My other question is why are we so bedazzled by youth again? Why do we think today's 20-year-olds have any greater insight into the world than we did at that age? Didn't the 60s cure us of that fallacy?

And lest you think I'm old and crotchety, I was born in 1978, not so long ago in the grand scheme of things, and young enough that technology is fully integrated into my work and life. But no, not a native.


What if what is taken for entitlement or arrogance is really acting out? I do not feel qualified to speak to the digital divide in the kind of depth that would be meaningful in this circumstance. However, I do understand a little of how some of the resistance to traditional matriculation is born.

When a student must teach himself and endure what is called an education at the expense of that very ideal, he gets frustrated and even a little angry (and some times a lot angry). The absurdity of it is in itself adversity. In overcoming that adversity, it is usually a fight to take pride. Aggressiveness is common. And so is being blindsided because if he can't tell who knows what is relevant, he can't tell who will be the best teacher/resource for his purposes.

That may translate to digital natives' demeanors? It is what I observe in other circumstances where there are chasms.

I sat in a school board meeting tonight where adults said there was no hope for the financial future on the horizon. No ideas about how to make money appear. In the same room were the new chairs and desks where the adults all envisioned students will sit and learn. Forget warehouse, they have not even explored the idea of going virtual some to conserve resources, or the idea creating their own for profit virtual charter. Shoot, I'm on the immigrant side and I was frustrated because I know that even my simple two ideas are already in existence elsewhere and what a native might conceive could be so much better and more relevant to the students, but nothing save fear and hopelessness was apparent. It was like watching a person having a tantrum at losing his glasses while they are sitting on top of his head, but without the humor.

I may not understand the metaphors or the native experience at all, but I may understand a little of the frustration and excitement to change things.

That white paper, I have to read it completely yet, but the idea of creating relationships through participation chains, seems like it will be a challenge for natives if they do not have a desire themselves to cross the chasm (unless they only want to deal with peers). Perhaps in that the need for college or experience will come to the fore for them and for their own unique reasons. And there are mothers too, and what mothers think. That's pretty universal and it could also provide impetus to gain experience and sharpen teeth. I guess I think/hope that they will want to find a way to reach back for us, to include us.

Tim B:

This post rings so many bells, but I thought I could add something with a small university anecdote.

I studied computer science and maths because I liked them both. In the third year we had a course on denotational semantics, the modeling of programs. For the exam we were allowed to take whatever we wanted into the exam hall: notes, books, whatever. This was 1988, so I was one year away from sending my first netnews post, things were somewhat different.

But essentially the same as now, as all the information we needed was at our fingertips.

I studied as usual, did exercises, summarised my notes, etc, and took those summaries and textbooks and all sorts of other stuff into the exam with me.

The results of the exam were interesting. The marks, in a raw state, were pretty dreadful. But hey, it was a decently hard subject, so that is okay, one simply scales the results so that the curve fits appropriately. Only problem was that one student had a high mark, apparently around 90 compared to the next student around 60. This student had actually bothered studying properly, had an idea of what was in the course, and could deal with the issues involved in the exam questions without having to look up every definition in the notes and textbooks again.

Which brings me to today. Right now I am involved in a research project and enjoy that I can look up all sorts of definitions online, read source code for implementations of algorithms to see how things are computed, etc. However looking up the proof of a result does not help me be able to prove a new result unless I actually understand that old proof. Which cannot be picked up simply by googling, although I can find three different proofs to take away, print out and scribble on as I try to understand the forms of argument that are being used.

Regardless of whether one has books or the arXiv or some other massive collection to fall back upon, the process of comprehension and understanding is more than simply having these sources at your fingertips. And that is perhaps what one hopes to learn at university.

It struck me that this piece reads very similar to the first eighty or so pages that I've read of "Makers" by Cory Doctorow.

There's a story -- probably apocryphal -- that William Gibson, in the midst of writing Neuromancer, stalked out of BLADE RUNNER and said "They filmed the inside of my head." You've done that to me, Ze.

As an English professor, I'm obsessed with both sides of this issue. In reading Mark Bauerlien's infuriating and convincing THE DUMBEST GENERATION, I find myself oscillating in the ways you seem to in this post. Thanks for writing it.



I think your assessment may be skewed by the fact that this encounter took place at a Technology Innovation Camp. What you experienced isn't so much indicitive of the digital natives as the bold, raw, unbridled optimism of youth, doubly apparent at this specific event, that has existed and will always exist. The young always believe in their superiority over the old order, and they eventually replace the old order. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, numerous other Technology Innovators also discounted the idea of college for them; for them it was the correct path.

Each generation has reduced the power law to some extent. Lost Generation, Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers - each has leveled the playing field a bit more than the last. There will always be the hockey stick curve at the high end, however, but until that super-rich point, the curve will be flatter and flatter. Technology just helps. Look at the disruptive power of the pamphleteers in colonial America.

College to some extent is not the memorization of knowledge, but instruction in how to think and thinking your way through a basic set of axioms in your field. Some people will excel even without this, and you ran into a group of self-selected people who believe they can do so.


If these change the world conversations are happening without teeth, it is going to be pretty amazing to see what these guys do when they do grow some and start truly putting those concepts into reality. Look out world!

Yes, on the money I say... redundant systems trying to create anew.. ha ha.

Ze, I must admit this to be my first reading of your writings, and I am completely blown away. You've broached a number of topics in this post alone that I could rant on for days (and that's precisely all it would be).

I'm not precisely sure where the line is drawn for your so-called "natives" and those that aren't. A previous commenter made mention of the fact that he/she was born in 1978, and was not a native, but in fact condemning the interaction you had with one. I, however, was also born in 1978, but I do consider myself a native, though not in the strictest sense.

I grew up on technology. My grandfather worked for IBM when I was young, which gained my brother and I access to things that the average household at the time hadn't conceived yet. We had PC's before they were PC's! I've had countless personal web pages, BBS accounts, AOL accounts, email accounts at various levels, MySpace profiles and Facebook pages. Twitter is in there somewhere, but I digress. All of my interactions with technology have given me something I doubt I would have received any other way: access to and communication with people in other countries. Some of the people I've communicated with world-wide are great friends of mine, and because of the various technologies, we continue to have the opportunity to converse, to share ideas. I strongly believe that my network is in excellent condition because of these interactions. Some have tried to tell me that it's not healthy to rely on computer friends. Why not? I have the same conversations with them as I do with someone face to face.

I thank my friend Powen for introducing me to your site. You've earned another follower!

Alright, I'm seventeen, so I was born definitively within this "Technology/Digital Native" era that's been waved about. I've lived my whole life using the technology that the generations before me have invented. And looking at the previous comments and Mr. Ze's article, I wonder if any of you have considered that we feel frustrated that our elders are trying to teach us values that no longer have the same meaning they once did.

I would like to use my father as an example, he was born and raised in Idaho, one of the most rural parts of the United States at the time. And it's his firm opinion that my generation is lazy, undisciplined, and for lack of a better description, irresponsible. He feels we expect things to be handed to us on a silver platter and that the work ethic he was instilled with is becoming lost. He tells me it's not just me he uses to base this conjecture off of, but also of the new employees he receives at work in the Navy.

Now, if you knew me, you'd have to agree I'm not a sterling example of today's youth. I have average to below average grades, I've not once participated in a sport or extra-curricular activity, nor have I made an effort to distinguish myself from the rest of my peers in any sense of the term. I'm a lazy procrastinator with a penchant for not handing in work because I only did half of it. All in all, only proof of my father's claims.

But I'm not working towards the same goals, and I don't need the same skills he's acquired. I don't really need an shiny resume with "Advanced Placement" classes and "Honors" courses adorning it. I'd much rather be an author or tinker with offshoot ideas I can turn into novelty inventions adapted from everyday utilities. But despite my wants for the future, I'm told I need to master subjects that don't pertain to what I'm trying to mold my future into. My father being a prime example of the obstacles I'm stuck facing... And let me tell you, it's daunting trying to tell your own father that his ideals are different from your own.

But the things his generation felt was important yesterday isn't what my generation feels is important today. I hear all the time that there's no hope for us because we don't talk to each other face to face anymore, which isn't true, but it's very prevalent, and convenient in today's society to use technology to communicate. And I ask, how is that worse, or inferior to the previous method? It's fast, (Faster in some cases, slower in others.) geologically more ideal, editable, and still satisfies the social need inherent in our psyche. So why all the bad connotations? Surely moving vocal chords isn't more of a physical workout than typing is. And text can be every bit as emotionally conductive as speech if used properly. I believe that most of my generation feels oppressed by the belief that the old values still operate in the same way they did before.

As for college and higher education, I'm aware that I'm not a valid source of information, but does college even function with the same efficiency that everyone keeps telling me it does? Because I've heard and seen cases where college is no longer a guarantee to getting the occupation you desire. I assume that's why previous generations went to college, to get those higher paying jobs that fulfilled their dreams of lifestyle luxury and such. But now you're only 6% better off than a high school graduate in the employment game, according to ITT Tech. I know plenty of friends and peers who could take jobs right now that they could do for the rest of their lives, and would have less stress and be better financially situated in the right now, than if they quit and went to college for two or four years, (Which now is becoming three or five years, because the credits needed to graduate have been raised.) only to become slightly more financially secure in the future.

My trouble is that it's hard for me and several of my peers to appreciate any benefits of going to college and getting degrees if they're not worth as much as they used to be and we have to work harder to earn them.

Anyways, thank you for reading my post. If it's complete rubbish please ignore it, I'm only seventeen, and naive. Thanks again, Tony.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 17, 2009 7:17 PM.

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