Sunday, November 25, 2012

Generation communication

Younger people—say, early 30s and younger—communicate differently than older people. It’s not language alone, it’s technology, and that difference can lead to misunderstandings beyond any words actually used.

Recently, I was talking with a relative who was unaware of what younger relatives were up to because of Facebook: The younger relatives use it almost exclusively, the older relatives seldom or never. That got me to thinking that the way that people choose to communicate shapes not just the quality of their communication, but also their very connections to other people.

Back in 2001, Marc Prensky coined the term “Digital Natives” to describe young people who had “spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age.” Those of us who are older, who adopted digital technology later, he called “Digital Immigrants”. Prensky wrote:
“The importance of the distinction is this: As Digital Immigrants learn—like all immigrants, some better than others—to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their ‘accent,’ that is, their foot in the past. The ‘digital immigrant accent’ can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program itself will teach us to use it. Today’s older folk were ‘socialized’ differently from their kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.”
We see this same divide in communication choices. Most of the young people I know almost never speak on their phones—they text message each other. They never send birthday cards, they send a message to someone on Facebook. They post photos to Facebook or share it through Instagram or Twitter, and they post things they find interesting to all those, as well as Tumblr or Pinterest. Chances are some older readers of this blog post don’t even know what some of those are.

And therein lies the problem.

Older people can be confused and upset by what they see as younger people’s lack of communication with them—no phone calls, no greeting cards—without even knowing that younger folks are simply communicating in a different language. Younger people are oblivious to all this: If it’s not on Facebook or sent by text, it doesn’t exist. Older Digital Immigrants see the lack of phone calls and greeting cards as evidence that young people are self-centered, selfish, completely lacking in care or concern for them. Young people don’t see what the problem is: The oldies can always join Facebook!

I have many Digital Immigrant relatives and friends who aren’t on Facebook. Some see it as a waste of time or think it’s useless, but others flat out refuse to join because of, frankly, paranoia over privacy. As a result, they have no way to communicate with their Digital Native relatives. Then, these Digital Immigrants sometimes get angry at the younger relatives for not speaking to them in the oldies’ language.

The world I grew up in is fading away. Around the world, postal systems are dying from dramatically declining mail volumes. Print newspapers and magazines are struggling—and many are dying—because of declining circulation. It’s becoming difficult to find a place that sells music on CDs or movies on DVDs, and bookstores are rapidly disappearing. One day, not long from now, most of those will be gone.

Digital Natives will have no trouble with that: They already get their music, books and news electronically, or buy physical items from an online store. They rent movies and TV shows online. And they communicate with each other like crazy—through Facebook, Twitter, text messages, etc.

Obviously, this digital divide will start to disappear as older people die off and Digital Natives become the majority. But how much unnecessary pain, misunderstanding and social friction will we have to endure until then? Younger people need to make allowances for older people, yes, but older people need to meet them part way, starting with accepting that lack of greeting cards and phone calls is not a personal slight, and they shouldn’t assume young people are self-centered just because they don’t communicate in a way that oldies understand.

Most of the Digital Immigrants I know aren’t like that. To varying degrees, we embrace digital technology and the new opportunities they bring for communication and interaction with other people. We have a duty, I think, to try and help our more disconnected fellow Digital Immigrants understand this new language, and how they can better connect with the Digital Natives in their own families.

Communicating between generations is often fraught for a variety of reasons, but technology shouldn’t be one of them. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be.


amerinz's sis said...

Well said.

To the Digital Natives, please don't text while driving.

Regarding the Digital Immigrants, we do enjoy talking and having video "chats" on Skype. It's our way of using technology but keeping the one-on-one face-to-face connection.

I can't help but wonder what the Digital Natives will be like at some point in the future. They'll probably have arthritic hands will be unable to spell.

I guess change is good, but it seems the world is moving too fast. All of a sudden we have to stop buying incandescent lightbulbs, in favor of the mercury filled ones. And as of January 2013, I think, television signals will be sent in HD. That means that we Digital Immigrants have to get rid of our older and perfectly good televisions and buy new HD TV's. And while we're at it, we could even get an HD Smart TV. The latter might be a good idea if only it meant that that TV could take over for our deficiency concerning technology.

I guess I'll just dream about advances in technology. Maybe someone could figure out how to equip cars with drinking water dispensers. It seems like an easy concept, but then...what does this Digital Immigrant know ; > )

Arthur Schenck said...

Haha, yeah a water dispenser is a much better idea than lots of cup holders!

I read an article many years ago that predicted that young people's use of digital technology—especially texting and video game controllers—would lead to more developed thumbs which, in time, could lead to evolutionary change. I kind of doubt that last part—technology will move on from such things within a decade. Spelling, on the other hand, is a problem NOW!

The thing about HD TV signals is that people need HD TVs in order to see the HD picture (and trust me, it's sooooo worth it!), but there will almost certainly be converters available to allow older TVs to convert HD to standard display, in much the same way that there are converters to change digital signals to the analogue signals old TVs need.

The speed of technological change doesn't worry me by itself, but I do worry that we're not adapting to the technology and spend too much time trying to be anonymous (and too many people too often are mean and nasty).

Personally, I love technology, and keeping up with what's new is a passion of mine. But people (especially those in power) felt threatened by Gutenberg's press, though it turned out to be a great thing. Technology itself isn't "good" or "bad", but what it's used for can be. I have absolute faith that technology will enable us all to do great things.

By the way, it's illegal to use a hand-held mobile phone in a car in New Zealand for any purpose (speaking or texting). This includes when a car is stopped at a traffic light. The police are about to launch a major blitz on this, which I think is a great idea.

Roger Owen Green said...

Texting is illegal here in most US states, but it's poorly enforced. I'm on Facebook because I'd have no idewa what my two oldest nieces (34, 21) were up to otherwise.