Government Technology
By Ulf Wolf: Citizen engagement and responsibility in the digital age.

Digital Natives

July 17, 2012 By

Ira Wolfe (no relation, mind you) penned an interesting article in today’s Huffington Post, which I’d like to weigh in on.

An August 2011 Pew Internet Survey showed that 75% of baby boomers now between 50 and 64 years old (yours truly included) use the Internet. The survey goes on to report that for the first time in history, 53% (more than half, in other words) of Americans 65 and up are now going online. If that isn’t telling us that the geezers are hipping up, I don’t know what it.

But then there’s the 47% whose feelings about the Internet remain “Thanks, but no thanks.” Another survey, this one done by the Pew Internet Project, reports that the main reason the Internet will-not-usenik does not come running to this digital wonder is that they don’t think the Internet is relevant to them.

They also believe that they don’t need the Internet to harvest the information they want to communicate about.

To a lesser but still significant degree, Ira Wolfe hears the same excuses from his neighbors, peers, customers, and just in general conversation. When he pulls out his smartphone, he can feel the “I just don't get it” look. “What's so important that it can't wait?”

Well, I must admit I get the same feeling, that “why on Earth here, and why now?” when during my evening walk I’m suddenly subjected to one very loud end of a two-way conversation: some jogger, or walker, directing his obviously crucial and timeless observations and views into his Bluetooth earpiece for the benefit of whomever sits (or walks, jogs) at the other end. It’s eerie. Especially if you don’t realize (at first) that he or she is on the phone. Just this seemingly disembodied voice disturbing the evening stillness with business that has no business there.

And this prompts the same question in me: “What’s so important that it can’t wait?”

The other Wolf (Wolfe) goes on to reference a Mark Prensky article, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” which outlines the growing digital fault line between Digital Natives (such as today’s students” and Digital Immigrants (such as teachers, or such this Wolf).

He then goes on to say, “Comfort with and proficiency using technology is not natural to boomers. They are, by the mere fact of their age, digital immigrants. They live in a foreign environment, forced to learn new languages for communication, new tools to keep informed and in touch. Try as they might to act young, digital communication is not their native language.

“Owning a cell phone and checking emails used to be enough to stay chic and connected and feel you were keeping up with change. Heck, at one time the ability to use email was an advanced skill, a competitive edge for working adults. And cell phones were luxury items.

“Today many boomers and the majority of the Silent and GI Generation still use their cell phone to make phones calls and leave voice messages. But the ‘flip’ phone today is the equivalent of the wall rotary phone. And to young adults, phone calls, voice mail and even email are anachronisms from another century.

“For all intents and purposes, smartphones and other mobile devices are the new normal for tele- and digital communication. For many boomers, that technology is just too much to handle. Digital natives text, chat, video, search, listen to music, and play games on their ‘phone.’ They do everything but use the phone to talk. They make calls as the last resort and rarely pick up voice mail. Even for those boomers who own smartphones, it's still a just phone.”

Case in point: I went to an at&t store a while back to buy a new cell phone. I asked the clerk which was the best cell phone? He looked at me, strangely. So I restated my request: best phone. Which cell phone was the best device for talking and listening?

That produced a brief summary of the browsing capabilities of the newest smartphones, and I had to stop him right there. No, I said. Phone. Talking. Listening. Best?

Ah, a sympathetic light finally came on. He understood now. But, sorry to say, he didn’t know. It was not one of those things that the smartphone vendors ever briefed the store clerks on these days. Phones are not for talking, they are small computers. Get with it.

In some ways I feel I’m straddling this Digital Natives/Immigrants divide. I’m obviously writing a blog, and I’m posting this by logging on to the blog host’s site. I am connected to the Internet most of the day, most days, though not via a smartphone or even a tablet. I draw the digital line at a laptop (Dell Latitude E4310 these days).


I value silence.

In my view, one of the most profound things ever said was said by Shirdi Sai Baba (who, oddly enough, was considered a saint by both Hindus and Muslims). “Before you speak,” he said. “Ask yourself: Is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve upon the silence?”

I view with a bemused eye the incessant gibbering of the Digital Natives. Apparently silence is something to be shunned and fought with every available weapon: computer, tablet, smartphone, game, what-next. Silence is a disease not only dangerous but fatal.

Still, without it, how can you hear the wind in the leaves, or the bickering of birds? Both of which I find much more interesting than what some celebrity had for breakfast, and where, precisely, he or she ate it.

Can a Naturalized Digital Citizen carry two passports? I wonder.


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RealOscar    |    Commented July 26, 2012

I am 47. I treasure the internet. Instant finding of whatever subject material that I am looking for. What used to take weeks (catalogues, correspondence and research) now comes in a quarter of a second. I am one of the few that use keywords. Cellphones, however, I don't carry. We have a non-internet one for important calls. Nobody has our number. I don't want to be reached. Maps, points of interest, it is amazing.

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