Missing the Librarians for the Trees

Missing the Librarians for the TreesThe Myth of Generation N

“For decades, social scientists and technologists have alternatively predicted the emergence of 'computer kids' or a 'net generatio'”—a cohort of children, teenagers, and young adults who have been immersed in digital technology and the digital way of thinking since their conception.

This new generation, the thinking went, would be everything that their parents weren’t when it came to technology: They would know how to type, partake in electronic communications, and be able to rapidly figure out how all this stuff worked. They would be so adept at using computers that calling them 'computer literate' would be an insult. They would see society as something to be mastered and hacked, not something that they need to fit inside.

Certainly, a lot of evidence supports a 'net generation' effect. Although there are no reliable statistics on computer literacy, good figures do exist on Internet usage, thanks to the Pew Internet Project. According to its survey released earlier this year, 74 percent of people in the United States age 18 to 29 have Internet access, compared with 52 percent of those age 50 to 64. Among the over-65 set, Internet access plummets to just 18 percent. And in my own age group, 30 to 49, 52 percent have some kind of Net access. These figures certainly argue for the existence of a 'Generation N.'

But the more time I spend with the kids who should be members of Generation N—today’s high school and college students—the more convinced I am that the notion of universal computer competence among young people is a myth.  And the techno-laggards among us risk being relegated to second-class citizenship in a world that revolves around, and often assumes, access to information technology….

Experts in human-computer interaction say that the real difference between teenagers and their elders is teens’ willingness to experiment with computers, combined with their acceptance of the seemingly arbitrary conventions that are endemic to contemporary computer interfaces. In other words, teens aren’t worried about breaking their computers, and they’re not wise enough or experienced enough to get angry at and reject poorly written programs. The teens just deal with computers, as they are forced to deal with many other aspects of their lives. These strategies, once learned and internalized, are incredibly effective for working with today’s computer technology….

…Unfortunately, with the changes overtaking our society, today’s kids who don’t have tech experience and tech aptitude are going to be left behind much faster than their elders.

And that’s the danger in believing that time will give us a population that’s completely computer literate. Remember, the Pew study found that 26 percent of young adults do not have Internet access. An even bigger determiner than age is education: only 23 percent of people who did not graduate from high school have Internet access, compared with 82 percent of those who have graduated from college.

Certainly, more kids today are growing up wired—but millions of them are not. Meanwhile, we’re rebuilding our society in ways that make things increasingly difficult for people who aren’t online. For example, people who don’t want to (or can’t) buy their airplane tickets on the Web now typically have to wait on hold for 30 minutes with the airline or go through a travel agent and pay an agency fee—sometimes as much as $50. When I needed to renew my passport, the local post office didn’t have the form: they told me to download it from the Internet.

This is a problem that won’t be solved through more education or federal grants. As a society, we need to come to terms with the fact that a substantial number of people, young and old alike, will never go online. We need to figure out how we will avoid making life unbearable for them.” [Technology Review]

First of all, bad title because when you cite statistics such as “74% of Americans ages 18-29 have internet access,” that's pretty much a “generation.” Did every member of the “greatest generation” fight in World War II? No. Did every member of the “baby boomers” smoke pot and protest the war? No. But yet 74% of a generation that has internet access doesn't qualify as a critical mass.

Actually, I don't even think of kids ages 18-29 as netgens. My personal definition would be kids age 15 and younger. If you're generous and figure that the internet has been mainstream for six years, then you really need to look at netgens as kids that have grown up during that six year period and their younger siblings. I know the 18-29 age group came of age with computers, but the internet is a whole new ball of wax. Email, the web, and instant messaging are changing our society even faster than computers did. And these kids that grow up taking this stuff for granted are already ahead of my 35-year old self in how they assume and assimilate an interconnected world.

I know folks like Walt will sigh when they read that, but it's true. The way we take time-shifting technologies like VCRs and walkmans for granted is how these kids take the internet and wireless access for granted. It's just there, as it should always have been there. You mean it wasn't always like that? As I've noted before, my kids think every laptop can connect to the internet, and at high speeds, too. They have no idea that you might ever need a cable to do it, either. They think every camera can instantly display the picture it just took and pretty soon, they'll think that all cell phones can take pictures.

But what about the author's original point that 26% of this generation won't be computer or net-literate? Well, my question is how sad is it that he doesn't note the single most important support net for those people – libraries? Who could teach them information literacy in the digital age, either in school or in general classes at the public library? Who can provide them with free access to purchase that airline ticket or download that form? Who can provide them with the backup print resources that they need? Who can find information for them when they can't do it themselves?

The same folks that are there for every other past or future generation – librarians. And you know why the article's author encounters high school and college kids who aren't information literate? It's because politicians keep cutting library budgets, insisting that they're not important anymore. In some states, like California, they cut school librarian positions until there are almost none left. In some states, like Florida, they decide that critical institutions like the State Library are expendable and no longer need to be funded.

So how come Technology Review doesn't mention that?  [The Shifted Librarian]

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