"Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That's their natural and first weapon." ~ Gloria Steinem

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Talking about the iGeneration?

According to wikipedia, I belong to both the MTV Generation and Generation Y (alternately known as Millennials). However, I'm going to eschew the Gen Y possibility (although my birth year [1984, in case you were wondering] falls more squarely into that particular imaginary category), simply because the article on the MTV Generation touches on exactly what I'd like to discuss: the technology cusp.

My generation is unique in that we remember life before the technologies that now saturate our daily existence; before the Internet, email, texting, Facebook, and Twitter determined our reality. I'm not claiming to have been born before the creation of the Internet, of course; I merely refer to its constant presence in the life of every single citizen of the United States.

I remember when we first got email--Juno, actually. Our phone lines were out the day the software arrived, and my sister had to explain to me why we couldn't set up Juno until they were fixed (I, obviously, did not understand how email worked). Once everything was working, I chose my first email address (jiggsy@juno.com, named after my dog) and marvelled at the excitement of watching the loading bar. I used to cover the screen with my hand so I would be surprised with the contents of my inbox (recall that Juno had some sort of "0/8 emails downloaded!" box).

I signed up for Facebook as soon as it became available to college students outside of Harvard, but didn't go back to my profile for months (my best friend made me join). I texted some in the fall of 2006--while studying in Italy--but didn't really become a texter until about a year later. I joined Twitter two weeks ago. I started this blog on Sunday.

Everyone has heard this sort of story before: "Ah, yes, I recall life before the Internet! Those were the good old days!" But that's the sort of thing you hear from older generations, not mine. I am not claiming that life was better before the Internet; I am merely proving my point, which I will get to in a moment.

Wikipedia discusses at length the idea that my generation is the one in which the use of wireless and digital technology exploded. I would like to add to that the suggestion that my generation is unique in that we are technologically savvy, and depend on it, but still have the capacity to marvel at it. This technology showed up in our lives at a very precise moment--a moment in which we were young enough to "acquire" the skills (acquire vs. learn is a distinction from which I will never back down) yet old enough to remember that it wasn't always this way.

Prior generations, while of course taking up the torch necessary in our present society, are not, as a rule, as adept at it; it is not second nature to them, as they have learned it and not acquired it. They do not, as a rule, consider it as necessary as nutrition, and can marvel at it. My grandmother was the only resident of her nursing home with a computer; but you can bet your life that she never lost her awe of the digital age.

To younger generations, technology is as inherent as language; they cannot truly imagine life without it. My 11-year-old brother would rather go without dinner than have our parents take away his Internet privileges; I hear kids are getting cellphones in elementary school now; my 5-year-old nephew can't wait until his parents allow him an email address (seriously).

My generation, however, is both irrevocably endowed with the skills of the digital age and able to appreciate how incredible it all is. I remember my first IM (on AOL; I believe my username was ABandGeek2) and how amazed I was that I could type a message to someone across the world and they would get it in a second. I am now Twittering from my cellphone and still in awe; I type something into my phone, hit send, and a moment later it displays on a website where anyone in the world can read it.

How is that not incredible?!?

I am good at my job because I am good with computers. I am a master of multiple internal and external systems; some are web-based, others are visual MS-DOS (hands up, who wasted hours of childhood playing games in DOS? ... just me?). My ability to learn new systems is a direct result of my familiarity with computers in general, and that familiarity is, in turn, a direct result of having spent my formative years in front of a computer.

Think about the concept of acquired vs. learned sometime, and apply it to the computer skills of people you know. Let me stress that I have not intended to be ageist about technology (go back and read the bit about my grandmother if you think I was); I'm merely pointing out that age is a handy category when you're looking at technological adeptness.

The core of the issue: your ability in this area is heavily dependent on whether you learned it or acquired it. Seriously. Think about it. I bet you can pick out acquired vs. learned everywhere you look. Just last week my 40-something co-worker was surprised when I suggested that a not-uncommon method of navigation back to the homepage of a website is clicking the banner at the top of any page. Seemed pretty obvious to me.

I'm good at my job because I belong to my generation. And yet, my acquired knowledge has done nothing to dull my amazement at our technology. In a moment I'm going to click the "Publish" button, and you all get to read this. It never ceases to amaze me.

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