Surfing online yesterday, I ended up reading about Generation Y and our relationship to digital technology. We are (said Wikipedia) Digital Natives, having grown up with video games, computers, the internet and mobile phones, compared to Generation X (Digital Adaptives), the Baby Boomers (Digital Immigrants) and the war-era Builders, or Silent Generation (Digital Aliens). Strange and old-timey as the phrase ‘I remember when’ makes me feel, I do remember life before the internet, digital cameras, flatscreen TVs and mobile phones, however barely. There was a dot matrix printer and early Mac in my Year 1 classroom; a favourite passtime was removing the twin perforated strips from the printer paper and twisting them into a concertina-worm. In Year 4, good students were allowed to play Sim City 2000 at recess or lunch, begging coveted knowledge of the godmode password – which unlocked unlimited resources and special building options – from a privileged few. Apart from the pre-installed features on our old family Osborne computer, the first game I ever bought was Return to Zork. Up until that point, I’d thought the graphics on Jill of the Jungle and Cosmo were far out; but this reset the whole scale.
My mother’s first mobile phone was a brick, bigger than the average landline receiver and three times as heavy. Digital cameras didn’t start becoming commonplace until the mid-nineties; previously, you paid for film and took random shots of the family pet to use up the end of a roll before development. When it finally became clear that traditional cameras were being outmoded, there was a rash of media worry about the economic and social consequences – not from a technological perspective, but because Kodak and others were forced to lay off thousands of photo lab staff. I remember when laser printers were new and fax machines a strictly corporate affair. But ancient as all that reminiscing makes me feel, it’s nothing to the realisation that my own children won’t know a time before Tivo, Facebook, 3-D graphics, game consoles with internet access and iTunes. Hell – they won’t even know about VHS, walkmans, discmans and cassette tapes, unless someone tells them. Generation Z is already partway there.
All of which shouldn’t surprise me, if I’d ever stopped to think about it. But most people tend to assume, however unconsciously, that certain types of knowledge remain static: that no matter what social, political or technological developments occur in their lifetimes, everyone will always know what came first, because they do: it’s just paying attention, isn’t it? But when technology becomes outdated or old customs are cast aside, they don’t stick around and explain themselves. Outside of history lessons or personal curiosity, the next generation just won’t realise – and to a certain extent, it’s wrong to expect they will. Not everyone cares about history, although perhaps they should; but even then, not all of it is relevant. Does Gen Z actually need to know about non-digital cameras in order to function? Are we really taking consoles for granted if we’ve never seen 8-bit graphics? More relevant than such minutiae, surely, is an awareness of social privilege, and the fact that we have no innate entitlement to the status quo.
But people will get bogged down in details. Often, older generations interpret this non-knowledge of younger people as deliberate impudence, and subsequently refuse to become complicit in the new technology. Others find it intimidating, or assume that the only obvious applications must be personally irrelevant or childish, pertinent only to younger people. There’s some truth to the saw about old dogs and new tricks, particularly given the vast removal of digital technology from anything in my father’s Builder generation, and individuals shouldn’t be forced beyond their comfort zones. But in many cases, it’s simply hard to perceive how a new tool can help when the use for which it’s intended is similarly foreign. When my parents first started to talk about getting the internet, I remember thinking, with typically childish conservatism, ‘What use could it possibly be?’ Because until you’d seen the concept up and running, it was almost impossible to comprehend. (After all, the creator of television intended it for educational purposes, and envisaged no scope as an entertainment outlet.)
There’s always going to be new developments, and it’s silly to expect that everyone keep up with the technocrati. Ultimately, we need to keep our own knowledge in perspective, because not all information is timeless. There’s something wonderful in the ability to witness change, and at the current rate of technological advancement, those of us in Gen Y are ideally placed to realise exactly how far we’ve come in how short a time. But until another half-century has come and gone, we might do well to impose a moratorium on tech-history anecdotes.
After all, ‘I remember when’ doesn’t sound nearly so authoritative without bifocals and false teeth.