June 2015

Volume 30 Number 6

Don't Get Me Started - Natives, Immigrants and Symbionts

By David Platt | June 2015

David PlattMarc Prensky coined the term “digital natives” in 2001 to describe people who grew from birth with digital technology in their lives. Those who were older when this technology appeared he called “digital immigrants.” My daughters, now 12 and 14, are digital natives. I am an immigrant, having gotten my first PC at age 26. No matter how hard I try, I will always speak geek with an accent.

Prensky was writing of the digital technology of that time, which meant a PC in the house, usually a desktop that you had to sit down within a particular place to use. That was half a human generation ago, an eternity in geek years. The whole tablet and mobile phone world hadn’t happened yet. Now that it has, I see this native/­immigrant divide cropping up again.

Today’s young adults, digital natives by Prensky’s original definition, love their smartphones. They keep them handy at all times, escape to them at even the slightest moment of boredom, worship them as the new fifth force of nature. (See my February 2012 column at msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/hh781031, especially the photo.)

But native as they are to PCs, these post-millennials are immigrants to this constantly connected mobile world. As their digital immigrant parents did with PCs, today’s mobile immigrants are layering this new technology onto their adult behavior patterns, formed years ago. They lack the native imprinting that will permeate the next generation, such as my 4-year-old niece, who could finger-swipe an iPad before she could walk. A child’s impressionable brain, evolved to acquire language, cannot help but be sculpted by these new forces, into shapes never before seen.

The generation now being born will never experience the world without digital enhancement, not even for a minute. They’ll wear digital baby monitor devices in their first cribs. Their slightest cry in the nursery will trigger an Amazon Echo to soothe them with a melody. They’ll play block-stacking games on their kiddie tablets instead of with actual wooden blocks.

As they become verbal, they’ll start trying to control their world within its parameters: “OK Amazon, read me ‘Winnie-the-Pooh.’” Then they’ll try to modify those parameters to show their power: “OK Amazon, read me ‘Winnie-the-Pooh,’ but this time make Piglet into bacon.”

They’ll wear Google Glasses and Apple Watches and goodness knows what else to nursery school. I’m imagining kindergarten desks with charging ports. They will feel seriously impaired without their devices on, as you and I feel without our eyeglasses. Therefore, I hereby coin the name digital symbionts for this generation.

We will naturally need new digital assistants to raise these digital symbionts. Instead of Cortana and Siri, we’ll have Mary Poppins or Supernanny—sort of a “Google is my co-parent” kind of thing. They’ll be configurable for things like bedtimes, or the TV shows the kid is allowed to watch. Of course, the symbionts, with technical knowledge superior to their parents (some things never change), will adjust the settings to more permissive ones, and plead ignorance when they get caught.

I foresee huge dangers among the opportunities. We worry today about the National Security Agency (NSA) reading our e-mail; we’ll start worrying about the NSA injecting subliminal conditioning messages (“Love your government!”) into the symbionts’ subconscious minds through carrier signal modulation. Or a hacker could use information gleaned from social media: “Bobby, Fido misses you so much in doggie heaven. He’d like you to buy him a treat. Go into Daddy’s wallet, get his Visa card and read me the number ...”

I can imagine parents buying apps that inculcate their chosen value systems into their digital symbiont children. The ultimate example is religion. The 2 year old calls out in the dark night: “Are you there, [insert deity of choice]?” And the Echo app replies, “Of course, Bobby, I’ll always be with you.” After the hit I took when my girls caught me “helping” Santa Claus, I don’t want to be around when the kid catches the parent feeding lines to the godhead.

Finally, consider this, and tremble: what will the digital symbionts’ children be like? Perhaps digital implantees? And what about their children?

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.