(Abstract: This post discusses the three different types of digital residents and how the way we orient ourselves to the digital world has a dramatic impact on how we interact with each other and how we live our lives.)
I was at a military ball last weekend and MG Robert Bailey was the guest speaker. His discussion centered on the different types of digital residents and how we must focus on recruiting, retaining, and employing the newest generation of Americans. I’ll discuss the themes he brought out and flesh out the ideas and implications a bit more.
First, imagine two separate land masses separated by a river. On the one side of the river, we have the analog continent. The people who live on this side of the divide are predominantly older and grew up before many of the technological developments that are now part of the fabric of our society, such as calculators, televisions, computers, microwaves, etc (Yes, there are some still alive, and they likely aren’t reading this blog, anyway). Personal interactions between the residents on this side of the divide are primarily physical and fixed in simultaneous space time; when people from this side of the divide visit, they do so in (physical) person in the same (physical) room. Their way of life is defined by physical mediums–i.e. writing checks, spending cash, writing letters, standing in line, etc.
On the opposite side of the divide is the digital continent. The people who live on this side of the divide are predominantly younger (than, say, twenty-five) and grew up after the invention of the modern digital way of life; they are so young, in fact, that many of them cannot remember cassette tapes, VCRs, TVs that have antennas, and landline phones. Personal interactions between the residents on this side of the divide are primarily non-physical and often are not contemporaneous; they “meet” people in chat rooms, converse through text messaging, identify themselves by avatars, and may never (physically) meet their closest friends. Their way of life is defined by digital mediums; they don’t write checks and spend cash (they have debit cards, credit cards, and Bill Pay), they reserve their place in line by searching for the restaurant on their cell phones and calling ahead, they send emails discussing their feelings with their friends, and they may even blog about some of the most intimate details of their personal lives online.
The river that divides the continents is the digital divide. It is the axis of analysis and explanation that we use to manipulate and understand the world. It’s critical to understand that the American way of life is always moving towards the digital continent away from the analog continent.
The people who live on the analog continent are digital transients (sidebar: MG Bailey calls them digital illegal immigrants, but I’m not fond of that metaphor). They come over to the digital continent if they have to, and when their tasks are done, they leave and go back to the comfort of the physical. To them, “friends” are those you know and spend time with in person, and the idea of calling someone who you’ve never seen or met a friend is just a mis-application of the word. These are the people who call up their children to find something on the “World Wide Web” (hint: if someone refers to the Internet as the World Wide Web, it’s a good bet that s/he is a digital transient) and spend more time trying to explain what they’re looking for than it takes their children to find it. They mistrust online shopping and have one credit card that they keep for emergencies. Knowledge, to a digital transient, is collected and retained; their information intake is far more limited, but what they do learn they encode and remember inside their heads.
In between the digital transients and the last category of digital residents are the “digital immigrants.” These are the people who grew up along with modern technology and have to sit down and learn how to use the new devices as part of their lives. They are in many ways similar to the last category of digital residents, but what separates them is that the digital immigrants have to process and think about new devices and, like the digital transients, are much more likely to resist learning and changing with the technological wave they find themselves on. They must see a manifest problem that a technological device solves before they will adopt it and spend the time it takes to learn to use it.
The “digital natives” are those that know no other world than the digital continent. They learn, adapt, and change not because they have to but because it’s just part of them; they embrace change and new technology not out of principle but rather because changing and learning is almost a reflex. These are the people who can code webpages without knowing how or where they learned to do it, pick up camera phones and iPods and use them without ever looking at a manual or help page, and can master complicated video games in hours rather than days. They often times are eluded by the simplest habits and hacks from the analog side (such as swinging a hammer or airing up the tires on their car) but can find and have the nearest mechanic come look at their car in seconds. Knowledge, to a digital native, is not collected and retained but rather shared and disseminated; they also are prone to think of knowledge as something that is searchable rather than rememberable.
Human perception is largely scripted by metaphors; we orient ourselves to our world not by what’s actually around us but by how we think about those things around us. Understanding that other people may orient themselves to the digital world differently can help smooth over tensions and help build meaningful relationships for both parties. Expecting digital transients to understand the importance of “virtual” friends from within the perspective of a digital native is a lost cause; someone has to be able to translate the worldview from the one side to the other (digital immigrants are often very good at this). Likewise, explaining to digital natives why digital transients do not have a need for email accounts from within the natives’ worldview is also destined for failure.
What we have to realize is that one side of the divide is not innately better than the other; they are just different ways of orienting oneself to the world. One size does not fit all when it comes to worldviews; to help each other flourish, we must think about the setting in which we flourish. We must, however, remember the Aristotelian insight: humans are social, spirited, physical, and rational animals. Our environments and settings change; our natures do not.
Most of our conflicts come not from malice but rather from miscommunication. The problem of the digital divide exacerbates our failures to communicate by making it not only an issue of what we say but also how we say it, i.e. what medium we communicate through. Think about those around you and what type of digital resident they are and how that affects your interactions.