The digital divide

I’m old enough to remember a time before the internet. I remember having to do papers at the library with an encyclopedia. I remember a time before cell phones, when you still had to call someone’s house and ask their parents if they were home (I even remember the time when you didn’t have to dial the area code to make a local call!). In those days, people did things like read. Kids played outside–together, in person!

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“What is this ‘outside’ you speak of?”

Sure, I grew up playing video games. My family had an original Nintendo when it came out, then the super Nintendo, etc. But there was a subtle difference from today’s video games: you couldn’t play them online. You couldn’t sit in front of a television for 12 hours and play multiplayer with people halfway across the world. The average game had maybe a handful of levels to play, not downloadable content to expand an already huge gaming world. So yes, I may have sat down to play video games as a child. But without the ability to go online and without the massive gaming environments they got boring pretty quickly. Mario could only die so many times before I turned the game off in frustration and went outside to ride my bike (without the internet, you couldn’t just Google “How to beat that one level in Mario…”).

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Fuck you, turtles.

Growing up, my parents didn’t have to regulate my “screen time” because there were only one or two screens to look at–the television or the computer (which without the internet was basically a big typewriter and thus held zero interest to a child)–and neither of them were portable by any means. We didn’t have cell phones and iPads and whatever that would stream visual content to us whenever we wanted it. Even television was more boring–there were fewer channels and there was no “on demand” feature that gave you instant access to episodes of any show you wanted. You basically just had to watch whatever was on at the time, and if nothing interesting was on you picked up a book or went outside and climbed a tree or dug a hole in the ground or whatever.

So where am I going with this? Well, my generation was the last to really grow up that way. The generations that came after me have always known the world with cell phones and the internet. And the teenagers now that were born in 2000 or later have never known a world where the internet sounded like a fax machine, was too slow to stream crap, and would crash whenever someone in your house tried to make a phone call on a LAND LINE. Do kids today even have a clue as to what a land line is? I doubt it. They’ll never know a time where cell phones didn’t have games and couldn’t access the internet.

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Admit it, you miss this.

Anyway, because I grew up before the digital age came to full force, I’m markedly different from the generations that came after mine. When the internet or the cable goes down, I don’t freak out. In fact, sometimes I fantasize about what life would be like if some solar flare knocked out the internet and cable television indefinitely and people had to start faxing things again and sending letters through the mail. In other words, technology has not influenced my biological development.

What do I mean by that? I mean that, quite simply, my brain grew and developed without the internet. I’ve heard that video games and the internet make children better multi-taskers and improve hand-eye coordination. That’s all swell and fine. But what else are we doing to the brains of children? What are we doing to the neural connections in a 2 year old’s brain when we give him or her an iPad? Are we changing the way children perceive time or how much patience they have by letting them grow up in a world where gratification is constant and instantaneous?

I also worry about the problem-solving abilities of children who were born into the internet age. What will the internet do to their ability to think if they never have to actually do it? Why bother learning anything if Google can provide the answer to any question at any time? What happens to original thinking when you spend all of your time consuming, constantly? Do kids today seem whiny and entitled? Well maybe that’s because they’ve never known a world where everything wasn’t at their fingertips, literally. Does the nature of reality or how you experience or perceive it change when you spend more time interacting with an artificial world than you do interacting with the real one?

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“I Google, therefore I am.”

It’s still too early to see what the long term ramifications of the internet are on the brains of the latest generations. As with most other things, the ways in which we use and interact with technology aren’t written in stone. It will be interesting to see what the future holds and in which direction we proceed.

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7 thoughts on “The digital divide

  1. This is definitely one of the sort of philosophical issues of the day. The divide between generations seems large, but I wonder if every older generation didn’t feel that way even if the circumstances are different. I agree completely in regards to learning though. I think that just because you can look everything up, doesn’t mean you understand it, nor do you necessarily have the ability to distinguish bad information from good, and the internet has just as much misinformation (perhaps more) than actual information. This is definitely something we need to make sure we don’t lose from our education system. Although the education system needs a lot of reform.

    I still fully believe that we will figure out how to use all this technology in a better way yet. Already we are seeing the advantages: Facebook being used to organize a revolution against a despotic government in Egypt. Twitter being used to raise awareness internationally about the kidnapped Nigerian girls. I think this age of global communication has great advantages and I believe it is through our ability to interact and obtain information from around the world that is raising the consciousness of all that we live in a global community and that we face many of the same problems and challenges and that we all want similar things for our families, friends, and loved one. On the timescale of human change, I think it’s a bit too early to see what all of it will turn into but I am still hopeful. I’m not convinced that smart phones are destroying our children, when schools have such disparate amounts of funding, resources, teachers, and continually teach to a test to compete for funding and resources. If we had a good education system we might complain about kids with smart phones, but we would at least know they were pretty bright and wouldn’t be worried about them so much in the future. Because kids who go to good schools that use technology frequently in the classroom excel.

    1. You and I are definitely on the same page when it comes to education. When it comes to technology, I’m a little more cautious. Not that I don’t have any optimism on the subject.

      I’m just wondering what the potential risks are. Technology has obvious and massive benefits. But we seem to just be blindly embracing it all without any hesitation. There’s no doubt in my mind that technology has the power to transform us and our lives for the better–but is it possible for it to transform us and our lives for the worse also? I’m not so sure.

      And perhaps in the end the benefits that you mentioned outweigh the potential costs. If the price of toppling tyrannical governments is whiny first world children, I guess that’s a small price to pay. I’ve read that while social media can wield a lot of political power, it tends to actually increase social isolation on an interpersonal level (more on that to come with later posts). If that’s true, I don’t know whether sacrificing social connections for political power is a trade we should make.

      I guess the long and the short of it is that while I find technology helpful and interesting, I would just caution us as a species to find out what the full effects are and what the wisest ways to use it are.

      1. You are definitely correct in that we need to discover the best way to use the technology wisely, but I’m simply saying that this was possibly true for any new technology. I think Asimov’s robot series that I blogged about a few months ago reminds of us some serious consequences on relying on technology rather than using it simply as a tool to become better humans. Everything on moderation and variety is the spice of life. These two sayings are probably the truest ones I know. 🙂

  2. I remember these things too. Heck my great grandma still had a party line back in the day. I remember being jealous my neighbors had an Atari with the game Pong. I remember riding bicycles, trampling through the woods, hanging out with my friends, every bit of our growing up had no need of a cell phone, or an I pod, or a battery stuck up your ass to keep everything running.

    I have this (old fogey-ish) conception that we we had it better. We interacted with reality on realities terms. We did not live inside a digital electronic device. We had to interact with people and develop social skills. If we had problems we had to deal with them instead of calling for help with your cell phone. We were I think a more self sufficient, capable species before the digital age.

    …or it is time to perhaps consider, I have finally reached old fogey nirvana. Hey! You kids, get off of my lawn!!

  3. You make some good points. I remember those “good ol’ days” as well. The Atari and Pong were awesome, and my brother and I would sit there for hours playing games, or we’d sit and watch tv every night to see all the cool shows, like the Six Million Dollar Man, Buck Rogers, or Battle Star Galactica. But we’d also go out with our friends in the backyard and play baseball, football or tag, make forts in the woods, or snowball battles and sledding down hills in the winter. It doesn’t compare directly to the digital age, but there were some similarities and criticisms.

    But I also know that kids today do go outside to play, and I’m still out there playing football, basketball, ultimate Frisbee and such with them. I’ve lost a step, but I can still beat them!

    Who knows what impact the digital age will have? I’m more concerned about how kids are being educated and what kind of values they’re being instilled with. It seems there’s more indoctrination going on rather than teaching kids how to think for themselves and make good, wise decisions. Kids aren’t learning discipline as much and aren’t being held accountable for their actions, or being taught that there are consequences for their actions. They have a sense of entitlement, as if they deserve to have life handed to them rather than earn their way through life.

    There will always be some good, well-adjusted people in the future, but I fear that there won’t be enough of them.

    1. I fear that, too. The more complicated technology makes life, the more apt things are to go wrong in my opinion. Not that technology doesn’t have it’s benefits…I just don’t think we’ve learned to use technology wisely or appropriately yet. I definitely feel like kids today feel more entitled to things, but I see that as just an extension of the instant gratification that technology brings. I don’t know what the solution here is, honestly. I’d say that everyone should have a technology-free period in their youth, but it’s addictive just like any other vice.

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