Are You a Digital Native or a Digital Pilgrim? Or … Both?

by Jimmy Shang- October 23, 2014 • 1:02 pm

I love hearing stories about things that happened before I was born. A favorite is when my father tells me about how his mother worked on computers in China in the 1950s. I like to picture my grandmother tinkering with a calculator the size of a house and inventing punch-cards. Then I remember that punch-cards are more or less Scantrons. And then I remember that I haven’t filled out a Scantron since college. And then I remember that my last standardized test was on a computer that had adaptive questions that became harder or easier depending on my answers. Then I remember that I took that test to get into my MBA program, which I graduated from several years ago.

So clearly I wasn’t born with a smartphone in my hand. Which is why I glared over the top of my screen at my 40-year-old colleague who just casually called me a Digital Native. As if I’m obviously one because of my age (28, by the way).

Fine. She has a point. I’ve never known a life without computers. My dad, who followed in my grandmother’s footsteps, got a PhD in computer science, so my childhood was filled with various iterations of the machines. We had the whopping 1 MB, DOS based, green-screened PC attached to a dot matrix printer. I used to beg my dad to take me to his computer lab so I could play on the Sun Microsystems computer because it had a 3D Billiards game on it—with a mouse, even!

Yeah, yeah, I got a Super Nintendo when I was 7, an mp3 Discman in middle school and a cell phone before high school graduation. I’m also old enough to occasionally crack a Laserdisc or minidisk joke. I openly mock peers who had beepers or Tamagotchis. I know the difference between a 3-inch and a 5-inch floppy disc. (Oh, and for those of you thinking, “What about 8-inch?” you can wipe the smug little smile off your face. Now.)

So does that mean I’m part of the “digital spoiled brat” generation? And is that even a fair way to characterize anyone?

What my colleague said definitely drew a line. But now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I’m not sure it’s by definition generational. Because what she said next got me thinking about what we might really mean when we talk about “digital natives” and “digital pilgrims.” She matter-of-factly said, “I’ll always have some sort of resistance to technology.” Which blew me away. If I hadn’t been sitting already, I might have had to fall into my chair, astonished. Resistance? To technology? It’s never occurred to me.

Now, I suppose it is fair to say that my generation generally embraces digital advances without hesitation. Apart from the thought of global AI robot apocalypse, very little about technology scares me. Sure, I’m not thrilled that Google knows every single search term I’ve ever typed in. And yes I recognize that using credit cards online exposes me to hackers. But technology does not strike fear into my heart. I don’t think of it as a signal that the human race is losing something. For me, it’s fascinating. And it’s progress that is, on the whole, positive.

And that, I realized, is where the difference lies. Do you assume technology is a positive, or do you tend to hesitate before diving in? Do you have mixed feelings about where the Internet of Things might take us? Or are you waiting with bated breath for a completely connected life? I’ve also realized there are plenty of people older than I am—many of whom work here—who are more like me than they are like my colleague. And she’s told me she knows people younger than I am who aren’t entirely comfortable with where online life is taking us culturally and as a society, and choose to live as much off the grid as possible.

What about you? No matter when you were born, does technological advance feel unequivocally “right” and exciting for you? Or will you have to be gradually coaxed, skeptical of progress? And if you’re a parent, does that make a difference? As a digital hybrid, I’d love to know.

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