Monday, March 22, 2010

Digital naïfs

Another self-interview?

Looks like it. It’s fun.

For whom, exactly?

All. Fun for all, and all for fun.

Whatever you say.



You’re supposed to start.

Oh. Sorry. So — I heard you saying something about “digital naïfs.” What did you mean by that?

I thought you’d never ask. Simply this: that so-called digital natives are often in the dark, or at least in dimly-lit rooms, when it comes to digital technology. Many so-called digital natives are in truth digital naïfs. The natives’ naïveté is considerable.

Are you registering a complaint about “the kids today” and all that?

Not at all. My claim — not complaint — involves skepticism about the engines of cultural supposition (also known as “the media”). Young adults are presented to us as ultra-savvy users of digital technology, living on their computers, able to run clichéd circles around those older than themselves. My observations suggest to me that reports of young adults’ digital expertise are often greatly exaggerated.


Take word-processing. I find that significant numbers of college-age computer users do not know how to change the margins of a Microsoft Word document from 1.25″ (the Word default) to 1″ (the standard for academic writing). Significant numbers of students do not know how to change a document’s font from Calibri (the Word 2007 default) to Times New Roman (more or less the default for academic writing). Many students have no idea that Control+F (or Command+F) makes it easy to find one’s way through a piece of writing. And typographic details — em dashes, smart quotation marks, special characters — are often a mystery.

A friend tells me of students who have even blamed Windows 7 for their inability to change fonts and margins, which suggests some very odd beliefs about the powers of an operating system. I don’t think such explanations are disingenuous efforts to excuse plain carelessness. I’ve had students ask me how to change margins and fonts, and how I could be so sure that a font was, say, Arial and not Times New Roman.

File-types too seem to be beyond many students’ understanding. Many students don’t know how to save a document in something other than Microsoft’s proprietary .docx format. And why one might want to save in another format: there too, many students seem to be in the dark.

Well, that’s word-processing. Certainly things are different with the Internet.

I’m not so sure. Young adults are often adept in the workings of social media, but in other ways, many digital natives are at home in the dark. An inability to change margins in a Word document suggests a general lack of reliance upon a search engine — change margins word 2007 — as a source of answers to many of life’s small problems, don’t you think? I’ve observed too a general unfamiliarity with such Internet resources as Arts & Letters Daily, Boing Boing, Google Books, Google Maps, and Project Gutenberg, to name a few. That one can manage a university e-mail account with Gmail (or another online service) or keep up on items of interest via Google Alerts: these possibilities seem largely unknown. Most students of my acquaintance have been told that Firefox is a better choice than Internet Explorer, but very few are familiar with Firefox extensions. Thus the Internet for them has always been an ad-cluttered, Flash-filled mess. Digital naïfs are also in the dark about the ease with which the bits of one’s online life may be collected.

You mean embarrassing Facebook photos?

Awkward long-lived moments happen in all sorts of ways. Witness two students who gave an interview to a college newspaper about their leadership in a so-called War on Sobriety (a student group dedicated to drinking away the days of homecoming week). Three years later, that interview is the first or second item one finds with a Google search for either of their names. (Which makes me wonder what these students have gone on to do in their lives.) More recently, a student about to graduate has been quoted in the same newspaper as saying that he has no idea why he went to college or what he’s going to do after graduation. Not great stuff for a prospective employer to find via Google.

Sheesh — kinda dumb.

Well, yes. And there are more immediate dangers that come with indiscretion and over-sharing, as the Please Rob Me project has just made clear.

To my mind though, the saddest thing about digital naïfs online is that they seem not to understand that the Internet offers an endlessly renewable occasion for learning and wonder. How strange to have a world at your fingertips and only keep track of yourself and your friends.

So what do you suggest?

I think it’s helpful for anyone who teaches young adults to model the intelligent use of technology. When I distribute a syllabus in class, with three columns running down the page, I mention that I use columns to make the content more readable and more searchable and to save paper. (A syllabus, to my mind, should fit on the two sides of a single page.) When I send a file to students, I explain why I’ve sent it as a PDF. When I bring in online materials (images of Dickens cigarette cards, for instance), I explain how I found them. And I often mention useful and relevant stuff to be had online, with directions for finding it (“Search for x, y, &c.”).

Those seem like reasonable things to do.

I think so. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going into the Lincoln Tunnel. Can’t talk.

Say what?

Google Maps! Street View!

A related post
On “On the New Literacy”

comments: 5

Elaine Fine said...

Were you just talking on a cell phone to yourself for this imaginary interview while driving?

Michael Leddy said...

Hold on — I’m getting another call.

Daughter Number Three said...

At work, I'm surrounded by youngish people (mid-20s to mid-30s) who may not know every bit of history or geography I have in my 50-year-old brain, but they also don't suffer from the glaring gaps you're seeing in your (I assume) younger students.

On the issue of changing the margins in Word or understanding that you can save a file in something other than .docx... that afflicts almost every nontechnical person I know, regardless of age. Another pet peeve: As a designer, I've received a lot of Word files over the years and I've never found a person who reset the tabs to make them fit the content. Everyone just tabs multiple times until things line up the way they want them.

A lot of people are just not curious about figuring out how to make things work better. (A sweeping generalization, clearly exhibiting the third person effect.)

Elaine said...

I am SO old that my first word-processing program was VolksWriter. I took a class in WordPerfect--that would be 1.0, by the way. I still MUCH prefer WordPerfect--more powerful, easier to adjust (Reveal Codes, I love you!)--but honestly, I doubt most 'kids' have ever had an actual class or tutorial on the programs they use. No one bothers. I don't believe it's the fault of the students. Schools teach a bit of keyboarding (vainly trying to undo bad habits ingrained years ago) but seldom in-depth word-processing. Maybe 'secretarial school' does this--but not high school college prep programs. Sorry!

Michael Leddy said...

Daughter No. 3, I don’t think older people are more skilled, only that the expertise of those younger can be overrated.

I’d say that the tab problem you describe is another example of why it’s good to send PDFs.

Elaine, I remember VolksWriter, at least sort of. My first word-processing program was MultiMate, on an allegedly portable Panasonic, 1984. The program and printer would not work together, and we ended up returning everything and getting an electronic typewriter. And after that, AppleWorks.

Do you know about this site for WordPerfect fans? It’s run by an Auden scholar.