Virtual experiences reflect real-world social constructs
As a member of Generation Y – often referred as the “Millennials,” born roughly between 1980 and 1995 – I have grown rather immune to being typecast.
Part pioneer, part by-product of the Information Age, the Millennial demographic is likely one of the most extensively researched in American history, and if the media reports are any gauge of accuracy, today’s teens and 20-somethings are at best tech savvy and at worst pegged as narcissistic, entitled, and a bunch of insincere hipsters.
It should come as no surprise, then, that society and mass media toss headline-ready buzz phrases such as “digital natives” into the already bubbling pot of sweeping generalizations.
Take, for instance, the November 19 issue of the Daily Collegian that includes a column titled, “The Virtualization of Experience”. Author Jan Dichter, in an earnest attempt to explore how networked existence has reconfigured our structures of ‘being,’ begins by revealing that he only recently heard the term “digital native” mentioned in an NPR report.
“Digital natives” is a term most often used to describe youth who, as a result of growing up in a technology-immersed world, are believed to be inherently more digitally literate than the older generation of so-called “digital immigrants.”
But phrases like “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” are not only woefully ambiguous, but factually bankrupt.
Contrary to NPR’s generational trend pieces on the matter (there are several), extensive research shows that “digital natives” don’t exist. There is no such thing as “digital natives” because there is no singular, distinct population of people with equal access to and skills with digital media, and to think otherwise would be nothing short of misguided and classist.
What about the myriad of youth who simply lack access to laptops, cell phones and tablets? What about the youth who may desire to become more fluent with technology, but are illiterate or attend schools with little to no technology budget?
Dichter, like so many others, speculates on the implications of a fundamental generational shift, but ends up accepting these pervasive discourses on the basis that they sound plausible. And on the surface, they do.
However, the discussion of technology has grown far more complex since 2001 when the distinction between a digital “native” and “immigrant” was first coined by author Michael Prensky.
The reality is that the term only accurately describes a fraction of our nation’s youth – predominantly those who are upper middle class, white and educated. The rhetoric surrounding “digital natives” not only ignores the nuanced realities of privilege and an incredibly diverse culture of youth, but automatically renders older generations technologically incompetent.
Similarly, people often talk about the Internet as being a true democracy where everyone is granted equal footing. But in the same way that not all millennials are born tech geeks, public digital spheres are not free of division and inequality.
History tells us that advances or innovations in technology are often met with severe apprehension and anxiety. There seems to be a certain fear that the rise of cyber technology and social media is somehow eroding the integrity of social interaction, and that anything outside of face-to-face interaction is dismissed as inconsequential or artificial.
Social media’s “unfettered torrent of trivial gossip, uninformed rants and embarrassing confessions,” which Dichter deems meaningless, is actually crucial in understanding the current social stratifications of the Internet.
When any one of us logs onto Facebook (or any other public social network), we are exposed to a digital reality that reflects and amplifies pre-existing dynamics.
The present virtual environment we take part in on the Internet does not replace human social interaction, but rather replicates and reinforces everyday life it in all its complexities.
The 2006-07 movement from MySpace to Facebook showed us what “white flight” looks like on a digital frontier: Wealthier white teens began to abandon what they viewed as a “ghetto” Myspace for the “elite” and “highbrow” feel of Facebook.
The real life racial dynamics that segregates youth in the classroom so too creates social divisions in digital spheres.
For these reasons, it’s important to recognize that not everyone who engages in networked publics comes equipped with the same skill set and knowledge to use social media in conventionally effective ways.
The people who Dichter says are “gossiping”, “ranting” and “confessing” in social networks are embracing and adapting to the digital technology in the way they know best.
So when discussing engagement with technology, before making grandiose generalizations or getting trapped in dystopian trains of thought, we must first address the powerful underlying class politics that shape our experiences.
The Internet, like all technology, is not content neutral. Kranzberg’s First Law stated it best by saying, “Technology is neither good nor bad – nor is it neutral.” In working towards eradicating inequalities, we should avoid speaking about technology in polarized terms – technology is neither the problem nor the solution, but merely a tool.
At the crux of this tool exists a complex, ever-evolving force of gender, race, class and education dynamics that serve as both a critical distinction and united struggle for our world.
If we can understand this, the serious issues of access and inequality will become all the easier to combat.
Anna Soldner is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.