The digital natives are not who you think it is

This post got (un)popular on Hacker News. Let me just clarify that this post was meant to be humoristic and a bit tongue-in-cheek, but that seems to have been lost in translation between brain and keyboard.

I have heard the term “digital natives” applied to todays youth because they have grown up with the Internet, iPads, and whatnot. But I beg to differ. When it comes down to the meat and potatoes, they do not know jack shit.

My digital upbringing

In comparison, I grew up with the 286, 386, 486 and all the other x86’es. I learned not only about the meat and potatoes of computing; I learned the full haggis.

During my teenage years, I had computers upon computers in my room, some spilling their guts.

A harddisk located outside the computer chassis. Have the digital natives seen such a setup?

Later I had my own little server setup in the basement of my parents’ house. This was after ISDN dial-up, in the heyday of DSL technology. Look at this beauty: now this is a server rack.

Today, all of this have been reduced to a laptop in the corner running VMware’s free hypervisor, ESXi. I have one virtual machine on it, running Linux, and when the disk fail (it has happened before), I will do like any grown man without a backup would: cry. But you better take my word for it, because when it happens, this blog post will be gone with it.

Rocking that floppy

I have installed Windows 95 from floppy disks, or “the save icon” as the young kids would recognize it. Not only that, I have installed Linux on an IBM PS/2 server – again from floppies – and I got the thing online. But it is only that much you can do with a 486 on a rather obscure hardware.

This weird knowledge has helped me in career. Installing weird stuff on weird stuff. Making DOS talk to Novell NetWare. Write small custom programs to deal with big proprietary hardware.

Digital natives my ass, all they do is stream videos on YouTube and Twitch. Let me share my digital upbringing in full by showing you this image:

A desk filled with computers, monitors and various other computer related items. Early 2000.

On the far left you can spot an IBM PS/2 server with a 100 Mbit hub on top with a custom power supply, the original failed during a thunderstorm. Then there is a Linux “server”, the one with the guts hanging out on the first image. Finally, on the desk, my main computer at the time, a 230 MHz(?) machine with Windows 98 running.

If anybody is a digital native, it is me. I did not just grow up with computers, I grew up alongside them.

14 thoughts on “The digital natives are not who you think it is

  1. Congratulations on comparing the stereotype of “today’s youth” to….you. This article feels utterly self-serving and reeks of narcissism.

    The term “digital natives” comes from the exponential growth in interest in the tech sector. More kids than ever before aspire to become programmers or an IT worker. I’m glad you managed to plug some cables in and follow simple instructions, but based off this blog alone I would deduce you are as technologically incoherent as the people you are making fun of. (and with only an expired CCNA to your name – it certainly seems this way!)

  2. Agreed. My first computer was a TRS-80 that greeted me with nothing more than a blinking cursor. It was up to my 11 year old self to program it and make it do something cool. The TRS-80 has morphed over the years but I’m still at it.

  3. My initial exposure to computers was with a Commodore 80, and Commodore PET, and Apple IIE … I was the proud owner of a Tandy Color Computer with a cassette tape drive for saving programs. I had to do all my own programming in BASIC to make the computer do anything–no operating system. I could save programs to the tape drive.

    I remember 9 inch floppy disks and the first optical drives were these gold discs about a foot in diameter.

    I graduated to having a free Dell Power Edge server donated to me … I hosted my website and an email server on it with an unmetered cable internet connection, back when cable internet was young and few people had even heard of cable internet. Bandwidth hovered around 48 MB per second, and boy did I think that was fast back in the day …

    Those old generation computers were built solid like a brick outhouse … over-engineered the American way! The Power Edge server was an all-metal beast, and it was heavy-gauge metal. I had a UPS for power failures and the UPS weighed about as much as a car battery.

    You are correct, in that some of us grew up in tandem as computers grew up. Ingenuity has come a long way and reached its peak, with Moore’s law petering out. Now most innovation is a bunch of hype, marketing speak, grifting, and ponzi schemes in digital assets, blockchain hype, instead of real advancement in technical manufacturing and programming paradigms. It seems the 3d printer was the culmination, and now innovation is stagnant. It’s almost as if real computer advancement will fade with the generations that started it as the current delusional generation is concerned purely with semantics and feelings rather than an improved physical product.

    Another sign of the stagnation of computational innovation is the often hyped “quantum computer” which doesn’t exist and is an ill-conceived marketing gimmick. Countless nerds actually believe in this non-existent technology because, “science fiction.” Countless “scientific” papers are now devoted to pure fantasy, and expected to be considered seriously. At this rate innovation is doomed.

    Digital nostalgia won’t exist when my generation is gone.

  4. You’re confusing “native” with “founder”. You’re certainly not the first, it’s pretty common actually, but you’re still wrong. Anybody who remembers building a town cannot be a native of that town. Natives are the people for whom the town feels like it’s always been there because for their whole lives it has been.

    Note that being a native of something be it a place or time or culture does not make you an expert on it. In fact it is almost a given that natives take things for granted because they didn’t see how much work it was. I have lived in my home city my entire life but I honestly don’t know much about it’s history and how it came to be the way it is. The same thing goes for digital natives. They don’t know how computers work because in their life experience that’s just what computers do.

    Also get off your high horse. You were a nerd in the pre web days. So what?

  5. Hi, author here.

    First; I must say I was surprised that my little rant made it to HN, but obviously some found it interesting, and it did spark a discussion.

    Secondly: Yes, I do come of as a jerk. English is not my native language, and my Norwegian dry humour may not have translated as well as I had hoped (which is not an excuse). Also, at an age of 38, I do not really have that much experience with what todays youth does, with exception of kids between 5 to 10. And that is not a fair comparison anyways.

    I have not yet read all the comments here (on HN), because I fear some of them might be a bit personal, while my “attack” was mostly a generational one. As I said earlier, this is the first time I gotten a real audience on my blog, and I was not prepared at all for this kind of reaction.

    Next time I will try to look a bit past the “rough” language and see topics from different angles. Because the world I grew up in is gone, and we are still making progress, so obviously things are going the right way.

  6. Yeah ngl this article is pretty cringe. Sure, the newer generations don’t know much about the guts of computers, but that’s not what the term “digital native” applies to. They exist within the technology realm, whether they understand the foundations of it or not.

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