The online society as a language group?

I was recently asked a very interesting question via formspring. An anonymous person asked me:

I think the ability to “filter” — to absorb information from many sources and produce a useful result, quickly — is what really defines the “digital native.” Your thoughts?

Below is my response. I’d be interested in what you think.


Ok, so this idea is pretty loaded: it’s full of meaning. “digital native” is a phrase which is semantically rich, and possibly not very precise. It sounds like the kind of topic which could have an entire book’s worth of words written to describe the meanings.

I’ll take one crack at it, though, by using a subject I better understand: linguistics.

In linguistics, we talk about different kinds of language users. Generally, there are native users and non-native, with many exceptions and all sorts of complications when you start looking into the ethnography of the topic. But, essentially, native language users absorb a language through their childhood (the ability to “acquire” language in this way seems to disappear around puberty), and they develop a fluency in it. Many linguists believe that this also shapes their thought patterns—i.e.: a native of English thinks in English in some way. Most at least agree that there is also cultural acquisition of some nature too. It’s all context.

Now, if I don’t speak a language and I want to learn, I can learn through what many linguists call “competencies”. The idea is, very basically, that people think and learn in different ways, so develop different tactics. So, some might have a natural tendency to learn words, grammatical forms and therefore develop strategies which allow them to learn vocabulary. Others use a communicative competency, and learn by trying to communicate rather than learn a form and learn basically through trial and error. (It’s closely tied with personality: some people are happy to make mistakes verbally, others are more happy to learn on their own etc…).

I’m going this circuitous route, because I think the way someone learns a non-native language might be a helpful metaphor for the way people work with trends with which they’re unfamiliar. So, in this metaphor, a “digital native” will have the natural acquisition and competencies which come from existing in an online (I assume that’s at least part of what you mean by “digital, by the way) world. They’re used to many sources, ubiquitous connection, visual information on any topic instantly, multi-media content and hardware that’s actually quite complex to use. The thing is, to a native, it’s not a very conscious thing. Someone born into an interconnected world would be more frustrated with NOT being able to find out about anything, about not having some form of connection to information and by being unable to understand their hardware. Filtering information is less of a conscious act and more of a subconscious process. They live in a very full world, so they have already developed ways to work with all this information.

You might see more clearly the idea of native and non-native through different competencies, and perhaps whether the way someone thinks and frames their conscious efforts are affected by the presence of connection. Does a “digital native” think to try terribly hard to remember someone’s phone number, working out some sort of pneumonic or rhythm to memorise it? Or would they only have to if their connection were severed?

So, this is a long road to one context in which filtering might be a part of the competency of a “digital native”. I don’t, however, think it’s definitive; any more than saying someone who can pronounce the “th” sound is therefore defined as a “Native of English”. There are myriad concepts which are begged to be explored in the idea of being a native anything: context, competencies, aspirations, metaphorical constructs etc etc etc. But, I think the idea that someone born into a community which has lots of information will develop a certain fluency in dealing with it. They might think differently, or simply have had the tools in their “hands” for longer—moving from conscious cerebral thought about information to more subconscious, automatic use of digital tools. Filtering, in this construct, is a competency—a skillset and general tendency of a digital world. Natives would be better, non-natives would have to learn by comparing with their own skills and adapting.

But, I think the phrase “digital native” could be too full of loosely-encoded meaning to be very precise, or even useful without a wider, shared understanding of what you mean by it.

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