Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Gone (Digital) Native

Liz, my smart, funny and well-read friend, was doing some intellectual name-dropping the other day and brought up the concept of the "digital native," a person for whom the internet is a given. Always has been. The digital native, who I imagine wears a banana skirt made of yellow cell phones, has never known life without personal computers, has had an email address since they could read, and uses Facebook, MySpace, and all the other online mansions to house their digital lives.

This is opposed by the digital immigrant, who remembers when telephones were attached to the wall, whose first response to a witticism isn't "Dude! Facebook status!" and who probably wears a babushka fashioned out of the last phone book ever printed.

Liz and I, being in our mid-twenties, fall right on the cusp. I've had an email address since I was 13, but I remember being totally fascinated by SimCity (especially when I purposefully made a disaster happen, like blowing up the 13 nuclear plants I built in downtown Little Sisterville) as a novelty. Now, a dozen years later, SimCity has been transformed into The Sims, a game where you literally play at being a human being. Nothing will ever be the same.

Most defenders of digital culture tell each other that the internet brings people together, and that it allows access to previously unattainable information. This is true: thanks to Google Earth, I now know what the roof of the West Edmonton Mall looks like. I can also use a borrowed cellphone to drunkenly call my sister from Michigan at three in the morning after having "a bad feeling," something impossible to do before she had listed her phone number on Facebook.

So, a mixed bag. I don't hate the internet. That would be like hating chairs, and I'm sitting in a chair right now. But Liz also brought up an interesting point: those Twitter and Facebook prompts? The ones that are all curious what you're doing? The only true answer to those is, "I'm updating my status." When I'm writing a new Facebook status, I'm not "going to Guelph" or "making green curry." I'm writing a new Facebook status. Pedantic? You bet. I am a pedant, and the internet is full of us.

But the world is full of people like me: we willfully avoid some of the technologies that seem faddish or garish. Granted, the same demographic that doesn't own cellphones (me) also can't drive (me) and don't have the internet hooked up at home (also me). I realize that, despite crunchiness in the Big Three these days, cars have gone past "flash-in-the-pan." The internet is the same way.

It's just wild to contemplate how much things have changed in the last 20 years. When I was in kindergarden, we all looked like we were from 1967: wholesome, and a little bit dazed. Cell phones were the size of a mattress, and personal computers were for sultans. In 2009 - and god, doesn't that sound like the future? - it's possible to jam a cellphone in your ear, carry a computer in your pocket, and call anyone, in the world, always. It's possible to call Bell Canada and yell at a robot ("Emily," who will pause, as if wounded, if you sigh "fuck off" into the phone). You can take photographs you will never actually hold. You can fall in love through email. If fax machines weren't some horrible outdated punchline, someone could probably fax you a sandwich.

None of this is bad, per se. It's just weird. It's a major cultural shift: a thousand webpages begat a million Facebook users begat a billion Twitter posts. It's biblical in its epic scale, and makes me wonder if our epoch's grand contribution to society - our Great Pyramids, our 1492 - is going to be LOLcats and Facebook stalking.

Oh, I know there's more to it than that (and I'm fully aware that I'm sounding very "you kids get off my lawn" despite being 25 and writing this on a computer), but I sometimes think that when you add too many blocks to the Jenga tower too quickly, the whole damn thing comes a-tumblin' down. The last couple decades have a distinct tinge of OHMYFUCKINGGOD colouring the edges, and I wonder: is it the computers, or is it us?

1 comment:

  1. "The last couple decades have a distinct tinge of OHMYFUCKINGGOD colouring the edges, and I wonder: is it the computers, or is it us?"

    I think you've touched something essential here. On the one hand, we're doing it - but on the other, it (the digital age) seems to draw a certain aspect of us out. I tend towards thinking it's got to do with time, how we spend time, curiosity, the speed of time.

    Have you ever ridden a skateboard and jumped off it faster than you can actually run, but not so fast that your legs can't keep up, you trip, and fall? I have. It's this strange sensation of being drawn along faster than you can push, than you can keep up - always on the brink of tumbling, but, somehow, not.

    This is how I feel, even when I'm sitting alone, doing nothing.