First published June 25, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
This week we had a Webinar on Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives. We featured brain scanning images, survey results and the work of Marc Prensky, Gary Small and other researchers, showing how technology has created a generational divide between our kids and us. For me, though, it all came into sharper focus when I walked past our computer at home and saw my youngest daughter, Lauren, sitting there with crochet hooks in hand.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Learning to crochet.”
“On the computer?”
“Yes, there’s a video showing how on YouTube.”
“Yes, Dad, YouTube has now replaced Grandma.” (Smart mouth on that kid — not sure where she gets it from.)
Adapting With Our Plastic Brains
Prensky and Small have written extensively on how exposure to technology can literally change the way our brains are wired. Our brains are remarkably malleable in nature, continually changing to adapt to our environment. The impressive label for it is “neuroplasticity” — but we know it better simply as “learning.” We now know that our brains continually adapt throughout our lives. But there are two phases where the brain literally reforms itself in a massive restructuring: right around two years of age and again as teenagers. During these two periods, billions of new synaptic connections are formed, and billions are also “pruned” out of the way. All this happens as a direct response to our environments, helping us develop the capabilities to deal with the world.
These two spurts of neuroplasticity are essential development stages, but what happens when there are rapid and dramatic shifts in our environment from one generation to the next? What happens when our children’s brains develop to handle something we never had to deal with as children? Quite literally, their brains function differently than ours. This becomes particularly significant when the rate of adoption is very rapid, making a technology ubiquitous in a generation or less. The other factor is how much the technology becomes part of our daily lives. The more important it is, the more significant the generational divide.
Our Lives: As Seen on TV
The last adoption that met both conditions was the advent of television. There, 1960 to 1965 marked the divide where the first generation to be raised on television started to come of age. And the result was a massive social shift. In his book “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam shows example after example of how our society took a U-turn in the ’60s, reversing a trend in building social capital. We became more aware and ideologically tolerant, but we also spent less time with each other. This trend played out in everything from volunteering and voting to having dinner parties and joining bowling leagues. The single biggest cause identified by Putnam? Television. We are only now beginning to assess the impact of this technology on our society, a half-century after its introduction. It took that long for the ripples to be felt through the generations.
You Ain’t Seen Nuthin Yet.
That’s a sobering thought when we consider what’s happening today. The adoption rate of the Internet has been similar to that of television, but the impact on our daily lives is even more significant. Everything we touch now is different than it was when we were growing up. If TV caused a seismic shift of such proportions that it took us 50 years to catalog the fall-out, what will happen 50 years from now?
Who will be teaching my great grandchildren how to crochet?