We exist in a epoch of great technological change. Within the space of just a few generations we have gone from horse drawn carriages to exploring the outer reaches of our solar system, from building with wood, stone and metals to nanoscale construction with individual atoms, and from manual printing presses and physical libraries, to desktop publishing and the World Wide Web. The increasing pace of technological evolution brings with it many gifts, but also poses challenges never-before-faced by humanity. One of these challenges is the digital generation gap.
The digital generation gap is the result of the extremely rapid rise of personal computing, the Internet, mobile applications, and coming next, biotechnology. Never before in the history of our species have we been faced with a situation where each living generation is focused around a different technology platform.
The tools and practices that the elders of our civilization use are still based on the pre-digital analog era. Their children — the Baby Boomers — use entirely different tools and practices based around the PC. And the youth of today — the Boomers’ children, exist in yet another domain: the world of mobile devices.
The digital generation gap presents a major challenge to our civilization. In particular because of the effect this has on education — both informal education that takes place at home and in communities, and formal education that takes place in school settings. The tools that teachers grew up with and now teach with (PC’s) are not the same tools that the students of today are using today to learn and communicate with (mobile devices).
Baby Boomers grew up before the advent of any of these technologies — they lived in an analog world in which daily life took place primarily on the physical, face-to-face human scale, with physical materials and physical information media like printed books and newspapers. This world was similar to the world of their parents and grandparents — even though it was increasingly automated and industrialized during their lives. As children and during their young adult years the Boomers grew up amidst the fruition of the industrial revolution: mass-produced physical and synthetic goods of all kinds. Among the defining shifts of this period was the transition from a world of manual labor to one of increasing automation. The pinnacle of this transition was the adoption of the first generations of computers.
The Boomer’s children — people in their 30’s and 40’s today — arrived to usher in the transition from an automated analog world, to the new digital world. They were born into a civilization where monolithic computers had already taking hold in government and industry, and they witnessed the birth of waves of increasingly powerful, inexpensive and portable personal computers, the Internet, and the Web. This generation built the bridges from the industrial world of the Boomers to the digital world we live in today. They integrated systems, connected devices, and brought the whole world together as one global social and economic network.
Now their children – the children and youth of today — are growing up in a world that is primarily focused around mobile devices and mobile applications. They have always lived with ubiquitous mobile access and social media. No longer concerned with building bridges to the legacy industrial world of their parents and grandparents, they are plunging headlong into an increasingly digital culture. One in which dating, shopping, business, education — almost everything we do as humans — is taking place online, and via mobile devices.
Each generation is out of touch with the means of production and consumption of the other generations. The result is an increasing communications gap between the generations: They use different platforms. And not surprisingly the inter-generational transmission of knowledge, traditions, cultural norms and standards is not operating like it used to. In fact it may be breaking down entirely.
Many of the cultural and social stresses making headline news are related to the digital generation gap. For example, the increasing growth of cyberbullying is the result of parents and teachers being totally out of touch with the mobile world that kids live in today.
Parents and teachers are so out of the loop technologically, compared to kids today, that they are literally unable to see what is going on between them, let alone do anything about it.
It’s no wonder that kids are running wild online, “sexting,” cyberbullying, and cheating in school. There are few adults, and little to no adult-supervision, where they spend their time online keeping order.
There is no period in recent history when this has ever been the case. It used to be that schoolkids took recess breaks in the schoolyard under the watchful eyes their teachers. There was a certain level of adult supervision in school, and also at home. Not today. Teachers and parents can’t see what their kids are up to online and have no control over what they do with their mobile devices. We have a generation of kids who are growing up with less adult oversight and supervision than ever before.
And the newest generation — the babies of today — what will their experience be? Will the pace of technological progress finally start to plateau for them? Will their world be more like the world of their parents?
Instead of a sudden shift to yet a smaller level of scale or a more powerful technology platform, will they and many generations to come, live on a more stable and shared technology platform? If the pace does slow down for a while, we may see inter-generational gaps decrease. Perhaps this will serve to standardize and solidify our emerging global digital culture. A new set of digital norms and traditions will have time to form and be handed down across generations.
Alternatively, what if in fact the pace of change continues to quicken instead? What if the babies of today grow up in a world of augmented reality and industrial-scale genetic engineering? And what if their children (the grandchildren of people in their 40’s today) grow up in a world of direct brain-machine interfaces and personal genetic engineering? Those of us today who think of ourselves as being on the cutting edge will be the elders of tomorrow, and we will be hopelessly out of touch.