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Digital primitives

March 19, 2011

I have railed in the past about the habit we have developed of putting people into primative categories and assuming that we get a causal or predictive model as a result. The target of my attack is everything from Myers-Briggs tests so beloved of HR departments (who enjoy the power it gives them to engage with types rather than people) to the Generation X/Y nonsense. In each generation there seems to be a group of self-deceiving over-optimistic displacement-sychophants who want to laud whatever is new at the expense of what is valuable and abrogate their responsibility of the now by handing a torch to the next generation. The problem is that in general their approach is to hand over the matches and gasoline without any thoughts as to the consequences.

We now have this rather silly idea that the next generation will be digital natives, comfortable with technology in a way that their parents were not. We also have the idea that this is necessarily a good thing. There are several reasons to challenge this but there are two main themes to the arguments. Firstly its simply not true that you can classify a whole generation and secondly the assumption that the new skills can displace older capabilities without loss. Lets take a look at some of this

  • My own experience is that those of us the baby boomer generation make as much if not more use of the new social technologies than our children. Check out the research age profiles of wikipedia editors or have a look at facebook and twitter adoption in older age groups. I know from personal experience that my social computing environment is far richer than either of my children, or their friends. OK they suffer a serious facebook addiction, but its no worse than mine for wikiwars (far more challenging that listserv conflicts to keep the brain active). Not only that I can type faster without looking at the keyboard in contrast with the two thumbs moving quickly while I stare at the screen generation. Go for a walk with Euan Semple and you will see a techno-fetishist a full panoply of gadgets that puts the average X/Y person to shame.
  • Adoption of technology is less important than the knowledge of when and how to use it. Technology should be a tool not a fetishistic device. I love my iPhone with its ability to find the next train home from wherever I am in the country and more importantly the nearest pub with good beer and food. I know that my iPad2 (I’ve been waiting) will open up new opportunities, and with it new dangers! At the same time in a meeting I keep notes with a fountain pen in a moleskin notebook. I will use the iPad for pdf files of the many articles I read, but the ones I find interesting will be printed and read again with the benefit of highlighters and a fine pen. My science fiction may move to digital, but my academic books will remain physical, not just to take notes wherever and whenever in the margins, but for the ability to find things quickly by skimming the book a decade later.
  • All generations are different when they are young, then they become bankers (if they fall into grievous sin) or lawyers or doctors and they adopt the practice and disciplines necessary for their profession or task. Professions have more in common across the generations that the generations do across professions. Of course that will not apply to social interaction and there lies the key. Most of the work on so called digital natives relates to social interaction, rather than a work environment. When you move from one to the other things change. The new technology will be useful, even transformative but it is a part of the picture, it should not define the canvass.
  • Just because someone says that their generation requires the world to be a certain way does not mean it is right to allow that to happen. As science discovers more and more ways in which physical interaction is key to human intelligence, and we understand distributed consciousness it would be rather ironic if we lost the capability to use that intelligence by moving social interaction to the digital. Learning by doing is as important as learning by scanning. While its true that attention spans are reduced why on earth do we celebrate this or accept it? Where do we think the science and social thinking will come from as the world becomes more crowded and suffers more catastrophic failures if the intelligentsia are loosing their capacity to concentrate or assimilate non-digital data.

There are more than enough science fiction takes that posit a future generation of brutes, proficient in and manipulated by technology without any wider understanding or vision. We have some great new tools, but lets learn when to put them in the tool rack and talk. More importantly let’s teach our children to understand the value of constraints and differences. In that context its good to learn of some recent research that shows the young may be more pragmatic than the failed romantics of an older generation dolling out the matches. Some other good reading on this here.

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