Computer? What computer?

During a recent visit to some friends, their teenage son excused himself by saying that he needed to talk to some of his classmates about homework. He stood up, walked into the next room, and turned on the family computer.

"You said you needed to talk to your friends," his mother said. "Why did you turn on the computer?"

The son looked at her in a way that only the young can when they look at adults who "don't get it."

"But I am talking to them." Sure enough, within a few minutes, he had three instant-message chats going at once, as he and his friends debated the direction of their school project.

That evening remained in my mind for several weeks, because I sensed I had witnessed something that offered real insight into the differences between the pre- and current-Internet generations. A Canadian tech writer helped me put my finger on it:

"Our attitude toward technology depends largely on whether we grew up with it," Don Tapscott wrote in the January issue of Air Canada's En Route magazine. "Kids don't 'see' technology at all. They see the people, information, games, applications, services, and friends at the other end."

In other words, the technology is invisible to them.

For many of those who grew up before the Internet, the technology that enables us to use it will always be visible. How many times have you heard somebody say that they don't use the Internet because they are afraid of computers.

People who don't mind using the phone to call in a grocery order (my grandmother did it all the time), or using a pen to write a letter (a pen is, after all, just another kind of technology), see using a computer to do these tasks as too difficult. For them, the computer stands like a gargoyle in front of their online experience.

But for our children, it simply is not part of the equation. They never "see" the hardware, only the "software" - the content that enables them to do what they want. Probably the only time they do notice is when it doesn't work.

And we adults need to understand that we have had exactly the same experience with another medium. For those of us raised as TV kids, we never think of the actual TV set. Of course, we watch TV shows. But when we sit in front of the box, what we see is not the TV itself, but the programs on it. The hardware (the actual set) is invisible to us while the software (the program) demands our attention. (By the way, it was understanding this idea that allowed Bill Gates to become the richest man in the world - he knew it was what was in the box, not the box itself, that was important.)

Here's another example. I had a talk recently with a friend who also works with technology. We were discussing the future of news, especially newspapers, and we both agreed that newsprint would be around for a long time.

But he also said that the number of people who would seek digital forms of news would grow enormously.

"In 10 years, these kids grow up, and they want to find news. They won't think of going to a newspaper site as reading a newspaper on a computer," he said. "They will just think of it as reading news. The fact that it's on a computer won't matter in the way that it might to their parents."

This has real implications for our world. While many of the dotcom-boom efforts to create online businesses look ridiculous in hindsight, the truth is that many of them were just ahead of their time. The audience who would not think twice about using a computer (or PDA, or cellphone, or you name it) to perform these tasks were not yet in a place to do it.

But they will be in about 10 years. The joke is, of course, that they won't "see" a thing out of place while they are actually changing the world.

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