we: DIGITAL_NATIVES

by Jonathan Imme

There used to be a time when we would be called ’nerds‘ or ’techies‘. Strange people with a near-obsessive compulsion to embrace new technology, and who’d rather communicate with their friends online than offline. People for whom the Internet itself was the ultimate source of information for solving any kind of problem whatsoever.
However, society is now slowly coming to terms with the fact that a whole generation is growing up that has only ever known the ’digital age‘, and has therefore entirely accepted the digital way of doing things. We call ourselves the Digital Native generation.
I was given my first PC aged 4. Tim Berners-Lee, credited with inventing the WWW, had his moment of inspiration just at the right time for me, meaning that even during my school years I was able to access and return my homework via the Internet. I got my first cell phone in 1997, when I was 13. This earned me strange looks from pretty much everyone to start with: ”Aren’t they just for managers?“
I received my second wave of strange looks when I started going from party to party with my PC, with the aim of establishing the digital MP3 DJ as a successor to the vinyl spinners. As one of the oldest of my Digital Native generation, I can probably be called an ’early adopter‘ as regards technological innovations. Nowadays, however, school-children keep cell phones in their jean pockets and MP3 DJs are part of the night clubs’ standard setup.

Then again, we Digital Natives are not only characterized by our self-sufficient attitude to new technologies. We also have a different concept of the culture of information, communication and entertainment. We listen to music and watch films online. The fact that we also use file-swapping sites comes from the simple fact that we’re not about to pay for content on principle – no matter how exciting it may be.

Give us an entertainment flatrate with no strings attached, free of device dependencies and with all of our favorite artists, and the cash is certain to start pouring in.
Looking to the long-term, and in the light of our contemporary grasp of copyright law and our extensive recommendation and exchange activities among our friends, industry moguls would be better off sending us not to prison but to the business development units of the entertainment companies.

After all, sooner or later we’re all going to end up on the openjob market. (Even though our Google AdSense and Amazon Affiliate subscriptions give us a nice little earner from our blogs, we’re not going to be able to provide for our future families with this kind of money.) And so we start competing for those exciting jobs and projects as early as possible.

To jump-start our careers, we spend a lot of time mapping and managing the individual elements of our personal characters and interests onto the various social networks, choosing them according to market segment. Luckily, in comparison with older generations, we view the setup and maintenance of these diverse and career-oriented networks not as a burden, but as something that’s enjoyable.

And unlike the data protection activists, we view it as more advantageous to be open in the communication of our personal data and activities.

In fact, let’s take a closer look at how we use the network.

We are used to acquiring information independently and we therefore view the provision of permanent access to knowledge as self-evident. We don’t read any newspapers, since they are neither sufficiently up-to-date nor personalized to our tastes. We generally only visit libraries because our professors truly want us to – and because they view Wikipedia and other sources that depend on the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ as frivolous and unreliable. And we sometimes have to laugh when we see companies introducing buzzwords like Web 2.0 and crowdsourcing in their marketing campaigns just to pander (very obviously) to our interests. It’s often the case that they are not only ignorant of the concepts but would also be unable to actually implement them within their businesses anyway.

The last point is an important one, since the future will see many companies facing up to the challenge of adapting their corporate culture to suit the different ways of thinking embodied by the digital natives in terms of their attitude to communication and the mutual transfer of information. My generation is used to communicating both rapidly and highly dynamically, via the permanent and continual use of social communities, SMS, MMS and instant messaging tools. Even in our business projects, we also communicate largely independently of any considerations as to time or place. On the other hand, this naturally leads us to expect rapid reaction times from our partners in communication and at work. And there are many other areas where sizeable gaps between the generations are opening up. Wikipedia, Google Books, document portals, iTunes and many other online sources have taught us Digital Natives that knowledge and data are generally available free, on-demand and without any limitations as to their use. However, in the major companies in which I have worked so far, the hoarding of knowledge and information is still one of the most decisive factors for success, securing both your workplace in the business and your place in the company hierarchy.

Managers and project managers will need to come to terms with the fact that – to stay motivated and work in the ways that suit us best – we Digital Natives expect to receive information and know-how at near-Google speeds in the workplace, both from our co-workers and from the company’s own information systems. While we don’t operate entirely as an anarchy and without hierarchies, even online (even Wikipedia has developed its own system of administrators and moderators), we are used to people both accepting and acknowledging our feedback, our ideas and our constructive criticism – via comments, rating mechanisms and other interactive tools as produced by the Web 2.0 movement.

This set of basic expectations forms part of our every-day lives: beginning at school or university, it persists as a value system whether we act as citizens, as members of our local church group or a political party, or, ultimately, as employees. It is of course true that people did have their own opinions and produce their own user-generated content before 2004 – the point in time at which Tim O’Reilly popularized the term Web 2.0, making the participative and interactive online culture that the term describes into a newsworthy subject. However, the development of new technologies, web services and platforms has now given us a well-designed set of tools for formulating and communicating our opinions, our ideas and our content.

We Digital Natives thus expect to be given the opportunity and a platform to express our opinions and recommendations, not just by our teachers and professors, but also by our city councilors, by our religious communities, by our politicians, by our bosses and our team leaders. And, at the same time, we need to be assured that this dialog is being taken seriously. Then again, if these platforms and feedback channels are not granted us by the respective persons or institutions themselves, then we will make use of third-party platforms – or, where necessary, we will set up our own.

In our private lives, our general behavior and ways of interacting with other people also seem at odds with the conduct of older generations. Those ”Will you go out with me? _Yes | _No | _Maybe“ letters where you ticked a box – remembered fondly by our parents during communal evenings by the fireplace – cause our digitally-driven brains to conjure up an analog frown of amused puzzlement. Yet the wedding bands on our parents’ fingers – which we notice in the same instant – do cause us to experience a twinge of the conscience as regards our own attitude to relationships. All those people that we ”poke“ on facebook every day, so many offers of friendship made and received on MySpace every 24 hours, so many modifications to make to our Top Friends lists in the course of a lifetime: how on earth are we supposed to confine ourselves lifelong to just one partner in a world that exhibits such a high degree of flux? And what criteria we will use to choose such a partner? Will our generation manage to create a wiki profile for everyone on the planet? Will ex-partners rate the relationship skills of the person we select in their wiki profile? Will all of their hobbies, virtues and bad habits be tagged there as well, and filed into neat semantic categories? In fact, how long will it be before online services track all of the contacts we make and our entire consumer behavior across each and every network and then send us their recommendations for our future partner in life?

Experience certainly tells us that if something is technically possible, then it’s highly likely to be implemented. And, while I’m truly very happy to have grown up in the digital age with its wealth of technical innovations that make communication faster and more dynamic, even we Digital Natives do occasionally have ”analog“ pauses for thought from time totime that enable us to critically (and necessarily) reflect on our own lives and help us make the right choices for life’s truly important decisions.

In fact, I had a moving revelation of this kind only a matter of weeks ago. I was on the train, just coming back from a conference as it happened. As we stopped in a small town, I got off, intending to catch a connecting train, which didn’t turn up. And so there was I, stranded in utter solitude at the station. For 6 hours. No supermarket, no McDonalds and not a soul to keep me company. Just me – and the railway. I quickly pulled out my MacBook – battery empty. My iPhone switched itself off just as soon as I started using it to find an alternative connection. ”What on earth am I supposed to do until the next train comes?“ I wondered aloud. No Twitter, no emails, no SMS, no RSS feeds, no phone calls and no music. I was simply and effectively cut off from the outside world – and without even wanting to be. An asteroid could have annihilated the USA – and I wouldn’t have heard the news for hours. Perhaps the greatest shame of all was that I couldn’t even tell anybody else about my desperate situation by sending them a message via Twitter. While the first half an hour seemed to drag on for an eternity, I then, slowly but surely, started to enjoy my little enforced analog time out. I considered myself and my situation in life. I tried to imagine how someone would have acted if they had been in my situation, but 50 years earlier. I thought about my family, and about my late grandma, who – thanks to the lack of a facebook profile – had not been in my thoughts quite as much as she should have been recently. I thought about my plans for my life and about the next 10 years. At the end, I had even got as far as considering whether I should forbid my children to use Twitter, so that they could get to concentrate on what are probably the more important things in life. However, just as I had realized that in 10 years my son would probably counter that tactic with: ”Dad, Twitter is for grandpas!“… the train pulled into the station.



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