Finding the Jamaican Digital Native

Millennials are widely regarded to be universal digital natives, but are they?

4months. That’s the age difference between 22 year old Nicholas Kee and 22 year old Alicia Barrett. They are contemporaries, yet technologically, Alicia struggles to perform basic tasks on a computer like formatting a document, finds it challenging to do effective online research and sticks to the basic settings on every social media platform or application she uses; whereas Nicholas is a programmer, has founded a tech startup, repairs computer hardware as a side-business, and he lists artificial intelligence, robotics, organic electronics and 3D and 4D printing as his interests. Although both Alicia and Nicholas are Jamaican millennials, their lives have been very different. ​

Nicholas grew up in Kingston and first started experimenting with computer games around age 6 on his family’s desktop computer. He got his first mobile phone at age 9, back in 2004, started coding on the family desktop at 12 and by 16 he was coding professionally.

Alicia on the other hand, had very little exposure to technology as a child. She received her first mobile phone at 11 and only interacted with desktop computers at the library or at school as her family didn’t own a computer and she didn’t receive a laptop until she was 17 years old.

Other than the coincidence of their birth, these two young people have very little in common, especially technologically. Their technological differences also seem to matter as Nicholas has earned millions from his coding ability and boasts that dozens of career options are open to him even though he chose entrepreneurship over tertiary education, while Alicia, at 22 is still figuring out how to improve her tech savviness to prepare her for work in media and communications.

Nicholas and Alicia are just two millennials, in a country of nearly a million millennials and they represent two ends of the digital native spectrum. Between them, Jamaican millennials exist with varying levels of tech savviness. It’s not a grade one can attain, and it doesn’t seem to be a quality attained at birth. It’s a matter of comfort with and knowledge of technology and like most other things which are about comfort and knowledge — it’s attained over time and runs the gamut from discomfort to ease to instinct.

When Marc Prensky coined the term “digital native” in 2001, he was speaking about a specific type of young person. For him, a digital native was a person who had grown up surrounded by digital technology and this made them “native speakers of the digital language of video games, computers and the internet”; conversely, a ‘digital immigrant’ was a person who grew up before digital technology became ubiquitous and had to adapt to the technology, never becoming quite as intuitive as the digital native. He specified that ‘digital immigrants’ have an “accent” — for example, they would print a document to edit it instead of simply editing it online.

Although Prensky wrote specifically about the United States and focused on the education system to highlight the differences in learning styles and modes of teaching between digital native students and digital immigrant teachers, the term has been applied to the entire millennial generation, which is generally accepted as the people born between 1980 and 2000, especially in the West. The term “Digital Native” has grown to encompass a number of assumptions and stereotypes about millennials around the world.

Lately, researchers have become increasingly critical of the term ‘digital native’ especially when it is used as a universal distinguishing feature of the generation. They’ve also become more critical of the assumptions and stereotypes associated with the term and the generation. Naturally, universally applicable labels are very rare; even Prensky noted that having a “ubiquitous environment” of digital technology and “volume of interaction” with this technology are important elements in making a digital native, native. Other researchers like Eszter Hargittai pointed out that even beyond the environment and the volume of interaction, social factors like wealth and other factors like the amount of time one spends online autonomously, greatly impact how one uses digital technology.

The point is although digital natives are possible, and the millennial generation — being the first generation to grow up with digital technology — is certainly the first generation capable of producing digital natives, but en masse, millennials are not a generation of “digital natives”.

Yet, the description continues to be used in a range of fields including marketing, design, security and education, as a defining characteristic of the generation.

And the stereotypes persist, shaping the perception people have of millennials, and the perceptions millennials have of themselves. This phenomena may be of little consequence in the developed world where accurate data about the digital technology interaction levels, usage patterns and consumer habits of millennials are well documented, but in developing countries like Jamaica, data of this kind that provides an accurate view of the nearly one million Jamaican millennials is not readily available.

This is data that could be useful in deciding how products and programs targeting this age group are designed and marketed or help to address the actual technological problems being faced by millennials, who have been interacting with systems that expect a higher level of “tech savvy” of them than they actually are. Without this data, Jamaica is failing to tap into the strengths of millennials like Nicholas and remedy the weaknesses of this demographic, something that could help millennials like Alicia.

Generational analysis, although controversial, has proven useful in highlighting trends amongst groups of people. These trends have informed the creation of many products and programs and have helped bring previously unknown phenomena, affecting many people in the same group, to the light. Therefore, it’s important that there exists accurate, up-to-date information about every generation but particularly for the generation capable of “digital natives”; the generation living in a digital age. In order to better understand each other, more research and better research is necessary. Jamaica has a lot to catch up on to better understand it’s own millennial population.

So who is the Jamaican digital native? Perhaps it’s the young people like Nicholas who want all vendors to use mobile money and for bitcoins to become “a thing” in Jamaica, or the ones who want to see the health sector integrating AI and Robotics to reduce human error. Perhaps it’s the millennials who dream of a Jamaica that has a public transportation system that one can get GPS tracking updates about from an app — available information would include exactly where every bus is at any point in time so they can decide based on projected arrival times if they should call a taxi or wait for a bus to arrive. It could also be all the young people who just want high speed WiFi everywhere.

The only way to know for sure is to do the research, but once you have the data, all the wildest ideas and visions for a technological future become one step closer to reality.