There’s no such thing as a digital native

Call it the Abe Simpson principle. The cartoon patriarch, upon being told by his son Homer that he wasn’t “with it”, responded: “I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me.” Then he warned his son: “It’ll happen to you.” 

Grampa Abe was right. When the term “digital native” was coined, I used to be one of them. I am part of the cohort that grew up in the information age. I have a distant memory of my mother’s computer — a white, bulky thing which played Solitaire, Minesweeper and a handful of MS-DOS games — briefly seeming like an interloper in our home, but I don’t really remember a time before it arrived.

I do remember the installation of our broadband, which made me one of the few people in my social circle who didn’t have to hear the dreaded words, “Get off MSN Messenger, I have to make a phone call.” 

Nonetheless, the Abe Simpson principle has come for me. I recently attended a closed-door conversation with experts and policymakers about artificial intelligence and the challenges it poses for regulators. One of the attendees remarked that while the challenge was “too big” for the current cohort of regulators, it would be resolved by the rising generation of digital natives.

I listened, expecting to discover something about myself and why I was well placed to resolve this issue. Instead, I realised that I am no longer a digital native. Moreover, what a digital native is now seems weird and scary to me. For me, it meant growing up in the era after the advent of the personal computer and when mobile phones were widespread. Now it seems to mean having grown up in an era where you have 24-hour access to the internet whether you want it or not, and everything from farfetched conspiracy to violent pornography is piped into your social media feed.

In some ways, that is wholly unsurprising. Although I have had a mobile device since my early teens and a smartphone from shortly after, I grew up at a point in time when my internet access was easily monitored — something my peers and I took as a fact of life. We had a better intuitive grasp of the technology than our parents, but they still held the controls, and in most cases control of the only computer.

What it means to be a digital native has changed drastically because the definition of “digital” has changed too. And it will continue to do so: a child entering school for the first time now will have only a half-formed memory of the world without AI.

As a result, the idea of digital nativeness is becoming less, rather than more, valuable. There was a point at which the division between a digital native and someone who wasn’t one was clean enough to be useful. But even the gap between me — someone who has used a computer for as long as they can remember — and someone who, by dint of being just five years younger, had a smartphone from their early teens, is already quite large. The gap between both of us and someone who grew up with a tablet from birth is larger still.

In addition, it’s not just hardware that is changing. Software is too. Modern technology is both easier and harder to use. As a child, I was able to set up my PlayStation unaided — today that would end up with a crying kid and a broken games console. But other developments, not least in AI, mean a whole range of once complex coding tasks are now within reach for people who don’t know their Ascii from their Cobol.

So the idea that a coming wave of digital natives will be able to regulate better, to solve tricky policy issues or to avoid the dangers we struggle with is alarming wishful thinking. The first generation of digitally native parents is also the first generation to give its children smartphones from a young age, a decision now frequently criticised by teachers and experts. (And, I think, one that is unlikely to be repeated.)

Digital natives may have fared more successfully in navigating the world of ecommerce. But there is little evidence that we have proved better at regulating these industries, perhaps because, just like those before us, our success is in building a new world we ourselves don’t fully understand.

The confusion that comes from periods of very rapid technological change outstripping generational knowhow is not over. If you are looking for new product ideas or better ways to exploit existing technologies, the next wave of digital natives may help you. But if you are looking to them as the solution to looming regulatory or policy issues, remember that the Abe Simpson rule comes for us all sooner rather than later.

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