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Multi-digital citizenship

By Pamela Weatherill - posted Thursday, 2 February 2012

Whether you’re a Digital Native or a Digital Immigrant, the label is probably working more against you than for you. Like most labels, the resulting pigeon holing impacts on us all in both positive and negative ways – and stops us from seeing the value in diversity at a time when creativity is seen to be critical to our collective futures. Creativity never came from the smooth experience of same-ness, but is rather the product of working with rough edges and jagged difference.

It’s over ten years now since Marc Prensky (2001) introduced us to the labels Digital Immigrant and Digital Native to describe the differences between generations and their exposure to digital technology and communication. Digital Natives, being the younger set, have been brought up with the ubiquitous computer in the classroom, surrounded by people using mobile phones and looking up Wikipedia for their homework. Digital Immigrants then being the older generations who, instead of learning digital communication by osmosis, can remember the first time they held a floppy disc, or wax lyrical about how heavy their first mobile phone was – and all it could do was make telephone calls.

Prensky created the terms to help older educators better understand how their younger students learned, and encouraged new ways of approaching education to ensure that the culture and language gap between the generations didn’t get in the way of effective education. Those of us working between generations in the education field at the time found the discussion really useful to inform our pedagogy.


And then the inevitable happened. Prensky’s definitions were taken by opinion leaders, marketing executives and researchers, and inspired a new digital-generational divide – one where assumptions are made about the generations and how they approach working with technology. It became a fuel for a new prejudice. Like the many ‘isms’ before, the ensuing discussions and research have worked to pigeon hole, discriminate and hold back creativity, growth and education. 

Young people have found themselves in workplaces that assume they know everything there is to know about any technology they are placed in front of – without relevant training and support. Older generations are lumped together with the assumption they have a resistance to technological change or inability to learn new things. Like the ‘ism’ stalwarts of racism, sexism and feminism, ageism had a new battlefront. And it landed us all smack bang in the middle of cyberspace with a new digital divide. As exciting as the new digital frontier was, it carried with it the old human propensity to label, categorise and create divides of ‘other’, rather than see the similarities of human experience and valuing the creativity that difference brings. It has led to even more prejudicially premised research and musing about generation and ability.

There are high school graduates who have avoided computing subjects, never learned to effectively discern information from the web or use more than a basic word processing program on a computer that someone else has kept virus free and maintained. They are thrown into workplaces and tertiary education and expected to critically appraise the digital world around them, to understand the implications of ‘friending’ a lecturer or boss and sexting with a friend. They study and work alongside older generations who have grown their skills with excitement and anticipation at the new digital world they have helped to evolve – or perhaps even been an early adopter or gamer in. For as with any generalisation regarding a generation, gender, sexual orientation, class or culture – there are exceptions that don’t fit the bell curve of even the best-designed research. 

This generational digital divide has not only influenced education (sometimes to the exclusion of older learners, or younger technophobic learners), but it has also influenced the design and development of new technologies. Its impacts are positive and negative on both sides of the great divide. We are victims of our short memories. Anyone alive today has already witnessed, and learned mechanisms for dealing with, exponential technological change. The lessons that come with learning to live with technological change have impacted on us all – all in varying ways due to our experiences of generation, nationality, class and gender.

Our collective experience with technological change has made it possible for today’s continuation of this exponential growth. It is the very reason that as consumers we not only adopt new technologies but, get excited about what might be next. It is also the basis for our backlash and love for old cars, handwritten letters, vinyl records and growing kitchen gardens. We collectively remember the joys that ‘old’ technology in our lives has brought – and we look forward to how our lives can be improved by technology in the future: Whatever that means for us as individuals.

Let’s face it, digital technology wasn’t invented by or solely for generation X, Y, Z or baby boomers, it is simply the stage of development of human propensity for inventing things to make life easier. A predilection which started somewhere about the time we first moved into caves and lit fires. There will always be research diluting an entire generation to particular personality traits and skills and there will also be an immense diversity. The history of technological development reminds us that no technology is invented without the mistakes and discoveries of the generations that came before. No technology belongs solely to one generation, but rather intergenerational collections of innovative and bright people standing on each other’s shoulders – often having first argued through their differences.


Like multiculturalism was coined to combat racism, there is room to create a ‘multi-digital undivide’. A unique digital landscape where, like our forebears vision in widely releasing the Internet, there is a sense of freedom to share experience and information across the ‘isms’.  A digital landscape where difference is celebrated for its innate function in creativity, and personal and public history are valued for their contributions to future development. A future where, just perhaps, the creation of the Internet is seen by tomorrow’s historians as the beginning of an undivided world: a ‘tomorrow land’ where theories regarding humans ‘innate tendencies’ to create divisions of ‘others’ is laughed at as old fashioned and unproductive. That’s where this multi-digital citizen is headed. 

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About the Author

Pamela Weatherill is a technology social scientist, currently undertaking a PhD on computer mediated communication and teaching online at Edith Cowan University Perth, and residing in Queensland. She has a number of journal and magazine (and e-zine) publications and a Blog (on computer mediated communications) at

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