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BLOG: Digital immigrants and digital natives

Ross O. Storey | May 30, 2011
Why the 21st century generation gap is perhaps the widest in history.

There was some interesting food for thought, about the issue of the generation gap, at a CIO Asia magazine executive roundtable discussion that I moderated in Singapore this week.

For the roundtable, at the marvellous China Club, on the 52nd floor of the Lion City's Capital Tower (a great view), we crafted an intriguing theme 'Enterprise Content Management Strategies to Avoid WikiLeads and Appease Regulators'. The event was sponsored by ECM experts Open Text.

It's always a good measure of a roundtable discussion when the two hours flies by because the conversation is so interesting, and that was what happened this case.

What particularly caused me to ponder was a thread of the discussion started by Open Text's Graham Pullen, who is their general manager and vice president, Asia Pacific and Japan.

Graham differentiated generations into 'digital natives' (those young people who have known the information age all their lives) and 'digital immigrants' (older people, like myself, who have lived through the amazing information revolution after the birth of the World Wide Web).

Natives and immigrants

He made the point that 'natives' and 'immigrants' are simply brought up differently, 'wired differently' and perhaps, 'programmed' differently. Us members of the older generation immigrants, were brought up through school with rote learning; being required (in my case at the threat of being caned if I was wrong) to learn our times table and alphabet. If we needed to answer a knowledge question, we would adjourn to the library.

'Digital natives' of course, are a different breed. Their schooling has been based on knowing they can easily plug into the vast information world via the Internet, and can use search engines on computers, iPads, iPhones, other smart phones, and the like, to quickly find out what they need to know. Hence, it is ingrained in their minds that they don't necessarily have to 'smore' or remember information in their heads, because it is always just a finger tap or mouse click away.

Us grey-haired 'digital immigrants', however, have a foot in both worlds. We still believe in rote learning and give ourselves a hard time if we can't remember some historic fact, while we also know we can verify any doubts using Uncle Google and the like.

Generational mindsets

This discussion made me wonder just how different is the thinking and mental processes of our younger generation. As a proud father of a nearly 19-year-old daughter, now studying law in an Australian university, I wonder how uniquely she has developed her ability to learn in conjunction with portable communication devices.

As my girl is in Australia, and I live in Singapore, we talk frequently, or should I say text/talk frequently, using all the technology available. It hit me in one discussion with her about her lecture schedule when she said: "Don't worry, Dad, if I miss actually attending any lecture, I can always log in on my laptop and watch it on video later."


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