In 2001 Marc Pensky proposed the intriguing notion that our culture is now composed of digital natives and digital immigrants. He’s now expanded the concept to include digital wisdom (Pensky, 2009). Let’s explore the updated concept and its increasing cultural significance.

Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants
We’re a social species with a long juvenile development, so it’s essential for humans to master how the world works, and especially the body and verbal languages that drive social interaction.

During most of human history, we lived within a natural time/space environment. We innately knew how to explore it, and we were typically curious enough to do it. We didn’t have to learn how to walk, grasp, talk, etc. We benefited from mirror neurons, a class of neurons that activate when we execute basic movements (such as grasping and throwing) and also when we merely observe others making such movements. Thus mirror neurons simplify adult non-verbal instruction on how to do things, and so also our ability to learn to speak. Mirror neurons are therefore central to the development of basic movements and to other imitative behaviors (such as our tendency to yawn when we observe another person yawning). Children simply observe what others are doing and automatically join in, principally through socially interactive play and games.

What’s emerged during the last quarter of a century is that we now also live in a cyber time/space parallel environment that differs substantially from our natural time/space environment-and especially in our information-gathering and communicative capabilities and systems.

Pensky suggests that our culture is now made up of digital natives and digital immigrants. Digital natives are those who were born or went through their juvenile years during this relatively recent period. They easily master the new electronic technologies through play and games, just as the older generation mastered natural time/space through play and games. Digital natives comfortably multitask on a computer screen, just as they easily learned to observe and respond to a variety of foreground and background activity in soccer and other games they play. Cell phones and computers increasingly mediate their social interaction.

Digital immigrants are those of us who came into this new environment later in life. Our brain had been tuned to the rhythms and complexities of natural time/space, and so we tend to respond to challenges one by one and step by step. Our social life focuses on direct interaction with friends and business contacts. We study the printed manuals of all new technologies we acquire, much like we read descriptive materials about places we intend to visit.

It took me a long time to move from thinking of my first computer as a really expensive typewriter to the ease I now have with it as a transformative device. And then I had to start all over again with cell phones. So older folks are like immigrants to a new country and its culture. We begin with the elements we can easily master and avoid or seek help for those we can’t. For example, my wife and I prefer the feel and format of a daily newspaper, but our grandchildren tend to get their news via the Internet.

The reality is that all of us now live in both environments. It’s a potentially wonderful win/win situation. Digital natives and immigrants can both benefit from the knowledge and skills we honed in our respective juvenile years if we both can meld them into our current, more complex parallel environments.

Think of how much richer our culture is because of all the traditions, foods, crafts, music, and other elements that immigrants have transported from foreign cultures into our culture. Digital natives and immigrants bring different but important knowledge and skills to the melding task. What digital immigrants can do best is to help digital natives develop and use interpersonal skills in face-to-face situations-skills that are at risk when communication becomes increasingly electronic. What digital natives can do is to help digital immigrants master the new technologies. I suspect that much of this already occurs as children and grandchildren solve the technological glitches that mystify their elders, and their elders help them solve the kinds of real life problems that aren’t incorporated into video games or Internet sources.

Eight years after proposing the dichotomy, Pensky suggests that the number of digital natives is increasing and the number of digital immigrants is decreasing as computerized technologies expand into more areas of human life. This is what led him to suggest that a new form of wisdom is emerging.

Digital Wisdom
Elkhonon Goldberg suggests that wisdom emerges within the context of several interrelated concepts. Talent represents our potential ability to create genuinely novel content or performance, and genius represents its supreme manifestation. Similarly, competence represents our ability to relate new challenges to existing knowledge or skills, and wisdom represents its supreme manifestation.

Talent thus suggests promise, competence its realization. Talent and genius are commonly associated with youth, and competence and wisdom with maturity. Albert Einstein exhibited genius at age 26 when he proposed his theories of relativity-but wisdom in his sixties when he advised the US government on issues related to nuclear energy and war.

Pensky suggests that digital wisdom emerges from the additional knowledge we gain from the appropriate use of the increasingly sophisticated technologies that enhance our capabilities. He defines wisdom as the ability to find practical, creative, contextually appropriate, and emotionally satisfying solutions to complicated human problems. Let me suggest a personal example.

Several hours ago a friend emailed a request for information on the uncommon mental illness diagnosed in a member of her extended family. I’m not a clinician, and didn’t know much about the illness that would be helpful. What I did know, however, was how to quickly get that information. So I logged on to websites that I knew would provide useful non-technical information, and then responded with a couple good links, and with additional explanations of several things I thought she might not know. It took me less than 30 minutes to help my distraught friend. Let’s go back 10 years and think about what I would have had to do then. It would probably involve spending several hours in a trip to the university library, copying or duplicating relevant information, and typing it into an email reply or faxing it to my correspondent. My immediate knowledge base has thus exponentially advanced because of information processing advances.

Pensky places these kinds of experiences into the context of his expanded theory. Read his thought-provoking article to get the full flavor.

Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan’s iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind (2008, Collins) is a very useful tour guide for folks in their 50’s and beyond who want to master the new electronic technologies that are so changing our cultural landscape, but who find themselves mystified by the electronic complexities. It provides a lot of useful practical information on such things as definitions of terms in the expanding technology and a glossary of all the abbreviations that digital natives use.

Perhaps more important, the book provides very useful advice on a variety of issues for digital immigrants about how to adjust to the new electronic environment, and for digital natives to help them realize that they also live in a natural environment that has its own challenges and responsibilities.

For example, a major current problem is that both groups are at risk for becoming so addicted to the appeal of the new electronic environment that they lose a sense of balance between the two. The authors thus propose criteria for what they call Internet Addiction Disorder that will help both groups to assess their sense of balance. I suspect that most of us can identify with at least some of these indicators, although the authors suggest that an addictive level involves at least 40 hours of online activity a week (in addition to work-related activity):

All of The Following Five Specific Criteria Are Present in Internet Addictive Disorder:

Preoccupation: Constantly thinks about the previous online activity or anticipates the next online session.

Tolerance: Needs longer periods of Internet time to feel satisfied.

Lack of Control: Can’t cut back or stop online activities

Withdrawal: Attempts to decrease or stop Internet use leads to restlessness, irritability, and mood changes.

Staying Online: Repeatedly remains online longer than originally intended.

In Addition, At Least One of The Following Three Criteria Is Present:

Risk of Functional Impairment: Jeopardizes the loss of a job, educational or career opportunity, or important relationships through excessive Internet use.

Concealment: Lies to others in order to hide Internet activities.

Escape: Goes online to relieve uncomfortable feelings, escape problems, and/or avoid personal relationships.

If you’re interested in technology issues, you may also want to read issues related to electronic media that I discussed in an earlier two-part Brain Connection column: The Effects of Electronic Media on Cognition and Behavior.

Goldberg, E. (2005) The Paradox of Wisdom: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger as Your Brain Grows Older . New York: Gotham.

Pensky, M. (February 2009. Vol. 5, issue 3) Innovate: Journal of Online Education. “H. Sapiens Digital: From Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom”.

Small, G. and Vorgan, G. (2008) iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. New York: Harper Collins.