How Digital Are You?

I started chewing on this when a keynote speaker at a conference polled the audience for their reactions to a text message interrupting a conversation at a restaurant. His choices were a)irritation, b)indifference, or c) enthusiasm.

His analysis was that, generally, the grey hairs (or no hairs in my case) would be offended, viewing the device and its communication stream as some how inferior to the immediacy of the interactions around the table. I believe the word “rude” was used in his description. On the flip side, he suggested that another, younger, demographic would not skip a beat and might actually join the text stream on their own phones.

The audience response, given before his analysis, seemed to confirm at least the first half of his conjecture. Bunch of gray hairs and we pretty uniformly raised our hands for the first option. After talking us through the options again, he asked how many of us would have invited a friend who actually walked up to the table to sit down and join the party. The speaker suggested that there’s a part of the population out there that views that hypothetical text in exactly the same way as someone walking up to the table.

I’ve had the opportunity to try this out on several audiences since then and, damn, he’s right! Just a few weeks later I was talking with a group of about 60 college students and poised the same question and got exactly the response he predicted. Most would have been at least indifferent, and likely enthusiastic for inviting the texter to the virtual table.

May I see Your Papers, Please?
Since then, I’ve been noticing a lot of chatter about Digital Natives versus Digital Immigrants. The natives are those folks young enough to have grown up in a digitally saturated environment. The immigrants are those of us who came to that environment latter in life, who, no matter how fluent, don’t have Digital as our native tongue. We retain some of those quaint habits and odd perspectives from the old country.

So back to the original question. How Digital are you? Suddenly that seems like a much more personal question. Perhaps our, ah, misguided friends in Arizona can figure out how to check our papers for that. Or perhaps a Facebook quiz is in order. Or maybe there’s an app for that. The last two approaches would favor the natives and the first, ironically enough, would probably favor the immigrants as it smacks of old world sensibilities.

Is it even important to ask the question? Do we really need the officer of our conscious to pull us over to the virtual curb of our brain, lights flashing, and demand to see some verification that we have a right to be in this Digital age? Well maybe that much useless drama isn’t necessary, but asking the question does open some interesting lines of discussion.

A Bit of Profiling
If language shapes how we view the world, how we present ourselves, what’s the impact of having Digital as your native tongue? As with any native/immigrant discussion, one has to tread carefully to avoid blurring reality with stereotypes. In addition, good will between the parties is a better starting point than enmity.

One of those observations that pops up a little too frequently to be entirely true is that natives are better multi-taskers than immigrants. If I hear one more parent shake their head with wonder at their teenager doing homework, listening to music, chatting in four different windows, while the television’s on, I’m going to…. well… start listening with one ear, while reading a book, driving though the wastelands of the western Florida interstate highway system, eating my way through a bucket of fried chicken. It only seems like dark magic from the outside. Trust me.

Another bit of rapidly emerging, if not particularly robust, piece of conventional wisdom is that the natives aren’t very good in a face to face conversation. Apparently all that intermediated connection, the chats, the texts, even the old-school e-mail have dulled their ability to react in real time verbally. Yeah right. I hate to remind my fellow oldsters, but communications skills have always been a sore point between technologists and regular humans and between adolescents and the next tick up the age ladder (though in my experience, the kids are getting better at bridging their gap) Does the intermediated thing aggravate the problem? Perhaps. Did it create the problem? No way.

I’ve also heard tell that us immigrants are less collaborative, more hierarchical than the natives, that our desire for position and power overwhelms our sense of connection and community approbation. Hmmmm… Wall street? Every randy elected official? Deepwater horizon? There would seem to be a few data points there. And yet. And yet. It was my mom and her brothers, all reaching into their 70’s at the time, who formed up the family e-mail list. They brought me back together with some of my sweet cousins that I hadn’t spoken to for years. Now we’re following each other on Facebook, on blogs, through twitter and the e-mail list.

The Melting Pot
Bottom line? As always with the Analog Underground, the call is not to roll back the clock to some better, old world times. The call is to pay attention to how the strange ways of this new land may change us, for better or worse. To examine what gets amplified, what gets attenuated. And to make those choices consciously with as much awareness of the consequences, intended and unintended, as is possible. Sorry, Arizona, but that kind of judgment probably isn’t very susceptible to documentation and legislation. Still requires an engaged brain and open heart.

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