Made to Broken/Broken to be MAde

Classrooms in the Matrix

Labeling students "digital natives," is misleading. Having an inherent mastery over all things digital is an impossible feat, and students cannot be labeled so monolithically. The sponsors of code, of software, and of digital interaction have positioned users so that they cannot see behind the curtain. Software just works, and the more invisible the mechanisms driving software, the better. As a result, students are able to use newer technologies without the skills necessary to understand how these technologies function below the surface. In other words, they can't fix their iPhones because their iPhones aren't made to be fixed. The mantra "have you tried turning it off and on again" is no longer a joke—it's all we have to rely upon.

The "generation of Digital Natives" metaphor, however, does have some merits as it pertains to content navigation. They may not be able to fix their own iPhones, but they can use their smartphones and tablets effectively and efficiently. Our students are masters of "google-fu," searching with intensity and vigor. The challenge, however, may rest with instructing them on how to access areas of the Internet that are murkier than the clean lines of Google, as noted by Palfrey and Gasser (2010): "Many of the mechanisms that Digital Natives might use to deal with the quality challenge are technologies invented or marketed by companies. Filtering software, kid-friendly browsers and services from ISPs, search engines for kids, and syndication and aggregation services are only a few cases in point" (pp. 175-176). Palfrey and Gasser continue:

Search engines, the wildly powerful gatekeepers of the digital world, play the greatest role today in sorting what most Digital Natives and others see online from what they don't see. Search engines increasingly influence what information we will "consume." The advancement in search technology has already vastly improved the quality of the Internet experience for most users. In particular, the latest generation of search engines helps us to deal with one of the core characteristics of information quality: its contextual nature. These cutting-edge search engines learn from our search behavior and that of like-minded peers. (p. 177)

Palfrey and Gasser argue, essentially, that while our students may be search-engine experts, they do not control the search engines themselves. As such, the search engine, as guiding mechanism, controls the flow of information (ostensibly based on logical algorithms that are, to an extent, able to be manipulated). In turn, the search engine controls what is to be consumed, related, and left out. Palfrey and Gasser are careful to point out that these engines may "influence" rather than dictate. The extent of this influence has not been fully tested; with tools like Google auto-complete, it's not at all difficult to see the level of influence growing. This influence may develop into software far more insidiously. The recent controversies over Google+ should keep educators and students alike vigilant as their searches are logged, categorized, and repurposed in the name of efficiency. As Knoblauch (2007) points out, "The concept of literacy is embedded, then, in the ideological dispositions of those who use the concept, those who profit from it, and those who have the standing and motivation to enforce it as a social requirement " (p. 74). If we grant Google the status of a literacy sponsor—defined by Deborah Brandt (2001) as "agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, and model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold, literacy—and gain advantage by it in some way" (p. 19)—then we must also recognize that as our students use it, the machine learns from them. In other words, as students use the machine, the machine has the ability to direct their attention and, thus, their perceptions.