The Wilson Quarterly

In the wake of the greatest, the beat, the baby boom, and the millennial generations comes the “digital generation,” another empty formulation describing an amorphous group with a trait of the moment. Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia, says that a generation of “digital natives” doesn’t ­exist.

“I am in the constant company of 18-to-23-year-olds. I have taught at both public and private universities, and I have to report that the levels of comfort with, understanding of, and dexterity with digital technologies vary greatly within every class.” Overall, Vaidhyanathan finds, students’ level of ­computer ­savvy hasn’t budged in a ­decade.

“Every class has a handful of people with amazing skills and a large number who can’t deal with computers at all,” he says. Although studies show that three out of four children had access to a computer at home as long ago as 2003, many used it for playing games rather than connecting to the Internet and taking advantage of its scholastic potential. Even at elite universities, many students are not affluent enough to have had extensive digital experience, Vaidhyanathan writes. Painting an entire generation as innately digital discounts the experience of immigrants and those who don’t speak English. “Mystical talk about a generational shift and all the claims that kids won’t read books are just not true. . . . They all (I mean all) tell me that they prefer the technology of the bound book to the PDF or webpage.”

What is a generation, anyway? The Vietnam War affected most men who were 18 to 25 at the time, but they are hardly a “Vietnam generation” with common experiences. College students are more complicated than any “imaginary generations” can portray. Lack of Web-savviness correlates with “identity traits” among young people, according to new research being con­ducted by Eszter Hargittai, a sociologist at Northwestern University. Who are these less Web–proficient undergraduates? Women, Hispanics, ­African ­Americans, and stu­dents whose parents have lower levels of education. Sounds as if a lot of young people missed out on digital ­DNA.

THE SOURCE: “Generational Myth” by Siva Vaidhyanathan, in The Chronicle Review, Sept. 19, ­2008.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Lucélia Ribeiro

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