Sunday, 11 March 2018

Among the Digital Natives

There is an idea that the more things change, the more they really stay the same. That even in the context of innovation, there is only so far one can go in a futurist direction. Nowhere is this more true, the the surprise and consternation of many, than with technology. Despite the wails and forelock pulling that regularly occurs around the poor little ones and what technology is doing to their impressionable little minds. The solution to this query being very much the same as it has always been. More or less what happened to the minds of previous generations as a result of what they were doing. It is truly startling how quickly and thoroughly the elders of a society can forget what it is to be young. A particular irony in the present context, the “gap” between children and parents being smaller than at any other point in human history. Much of this is due to a basic shift in culture that occurred near the end of the 20th century. 

The late 1980s essentially saw the end of the classic linear narrative, seen in everything from children’s picture books to televised news reports. That this shift coincide with the dawn of the ‘Computer Age” is in no way a coincidence. Not only did the newly formed, non-linear, some would say fractured, mode of communication persist into the 21st century, many of the technologies now used are based on those developed at the very beginnings of mass digital communication. ‘Twitter’, from a programming perspective, is really little more than extremely terse, publicly viewable version of instant messaging with elements of email. Both of which have existed in the public domain since the mid-1990s. In the most charitable terms this could be considered an ‘improvement’ over what already existed, though even this is somewhat debatable. Others do not even make the effort to change anything, so-called ‘forums’ being ‘chat-rooms’, formerly known as ‘community rooms’ by another name. A mode of mass communications which has existed, essentially 
unchanged since the early-1980s. 

There has also been a good deal of consternation surrounding the amount of time younger people spend with digital technology. While  there certainly can be a degree of addiction present in such behaviour, the answer is usually much more innocuous. It is the norm. Douglas Rushkoff was in no way exaggerating when he made reference to ‘Digital Natives.’ There is an entire generation of children who have known nothing else but the digital media paradigm to which the generations before them had to adjust. Just as those born in the 1980s were in no way phased by the existence of television, it being a technology developed a good two decades before them. Though let us not forget the response of concerned parents and ‘experts’ at this time, epitomized by Neil Postman’s amusingly alarmist 1985 screed Amusing Ourselves to Death. Whilst it has yet to get to this point in terms of digital technology, though Mari Swingle’s iMinds comes close, one would do well to remember the lessons of the past and realize that those around for the beginning of the current digital media paradigm have an important part to play in the present. Particularly as it applies to helping the younger generations navigate their way through the tangled but exciting 21st century cultural landscape.  

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