Ian Ross, Critical Digital Humanities
While organizing the discussion sections for a lower division class in semiotics, I organized a project which required student to engage with coding on a very stripped down level. Working with the software program Frotz, which allows users to design and play text based interactive games (very much a highly specialized form of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure), I asked each student to design a short game and share it with the class via online discussion boards. The purpose of the project was to force students to engage with the lack of inherent meaning in language in order to more clearly understand simulacra, and Frotz, which utilizes an English language based coding system functioned very successfully in this way.
However, what surprisingly didn’t work was the project in its entirety. At least seventy five percent of my students had an extremely hard time understanding basic logic functions of coding, such as the on/off binary logic that of course makes up the building blocks of computer language- students had difficulty understanding the concept that the system must be told what something is and what something isn’t.
On a surface level, this informs my response here in the sense that the digital native is perhaps not as pervasive as we have been lead to believe, even among young people with access to computer labs and a much higher proximity to social technologies. However, more importantly this difficulty with coding, combined with the students’ presence on class message boards, lead to the creation in each of my three discussion sections of a class expert and a digital hierarchy. In each section, this class expert acted not only as a site of congregation around which students focused the majority of their digital presence, but as a source of information dissemination: each of these “experts” shared their knowledge freely and because of this boasted a much higher concentration of posts.
This illustrates an interesting aspect that is often ignored in regards to the digital native: any form of digital public will by its very nature create a form of hierarchical structure and, depending of course on the nature of the site of congregation, a figurehead source of pedagogical information. This site of congregation simultaneously allows for digital presence by a majority without any impactful degree of technical ability and for a figurehead who becomes, because of a highly noticeable digital presence, understood by outside observers as the norm. This perhaps suggests that the digital native is not only far less prevalent than we have previously understood, but that digital presence, even among sites that suggest technical literacy, is far more likely to be embodied by a consumer than a producer.
Image on front page from Marjan Krebelj and available on Flickr