This week Chris Gabriel gives his view on the idea that the future of technology and innovation lies in the hands of “Digital Natives”. He draws on his own formative technology experiences to argue that lifting the bonnet on Donkey Kong is a more meaningful education than flicking angry birds across a screen.
You won’t have been to a business or consumer technology focussed presentation recently without hearing that the world is now full of Digital Natives. This tech savvy generation were ‘born digital’ and are as at home with technology as they are with breathing and walking.
Today, and if you are of a certain age, while you might be able to use Blackberry Messenger to arrange a game of golf or use your iPhone to record how many miles you have jogged while the kids are at school, the label of Digital Migrant puts you in a technology lower class which is age, and not capability related. However good you are with tech you can never be a native.
Of course, this is nonsense, and this new breed of Digital Natives, our governments who educate them, and the businesses that employ them, need to realise that being comfortable with a gadget or device won’t make your country a technology innovation powerhouse or knowledge economy.
So, for all the Digital Natives out there and however tech savvy they are, we need to ask ourselves, how many Digital Adventurers do we have?
I am happy to admit I am 43 years old, have a rapidly receding hairline, and have only 14 friends on Facebook. But, let me be ambitious here – however advancing my years may be, I would argue that I have more digital adventuring skills than any of my youthful native cousins.
In 1982 my late, great father, fishmonger all his life, bent over backwards to buy me my first Dragon 32 home computer. This made-in-Wales beige wonder machine cost £199.00 (there is a link to Wikipedia if a 20 year old wants to know what a real computer looks like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon_32/64) and was the single biggest purchase our household made for many years.
Now, before the natives think £199 is nothing, the average wage in 1982 was £180.16 a week – so the Dragon 32 cost 110% of my parent’s total weekly income. And that is average; a Welsh fishmonger earned the national un-average wage, so in real money this extra large keyboard cost two weeks total family income. It came with no screen and no way of loading any games unless you had access to a tape recorder, and then it wasn’t guaranteed anything would load.
So, what did we do? We purchased a Dragon 32 magazine or programming guide and we learnt to make it do things ourselves; that meant typing in hundreds of lines of computer code and hoping it did something in return for us. Back to the price, a decent laptop today is £300 and the average weekly wage is £501 so a high performance laptop, with super slim screen, Wi-Fi and CD player costs only 59% of a weekly salary – and you can logon and download the world pretty much for free.
Anyway, this isn’t a sob story – don’t feel sorry for me, because that it is how technology worked in those days, not just for me, a geeky 14 year old, but for all of us, and it made us fanatical about computers. Every Thursday night, 200 of us would make our parents drive or walk with us to the Wrexham Memorial Hall, carrying 20” black and white TVs to the Wrexham Computer Club, where we would share games, programming ideas and even have programming competitions.
So, is there a moral here?
Well, the average age of most of the people I know who now work in the IT industry is something between 38 and 45, and we all grew up with IT that did nothing unless we told it to. It doesn’t mean we are any smarter than today’s Digital Natives, it just means we had to find our own way of making IT work. It also doesn’t mean that we all became Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, but this was the generation that fuelled the explosion of IT innovation and expansion within business and consumer markets.
I can guarantee that the average CIO reading this will have played Donkey Kong till their fingers hurt, and debugged the programme that made it work just because they could!
What we must not lose sight of as an industry is this – the fact that this next generation can plug a CD into a games console or move their finger across the screen of a smart phone, doesn’t mean that we have a new generation of Digital Adventurers to develop the next wave of IT innovations.
My former UK colleague, CTO Simon Daykin, readily admits he has more computers in his attic than is sensible, but, that his deep knowledge of how this stuff works makes him passionate about building a cloud computing platform or enabling the next generation of BYOD enabled IT infrastructures.
When I next hear an analyst talk about Digital Natives as if they are somehow technology alchemists I intend to stand up for us 40 year olds. We may be losing our hair but we are not losing sight of the fact that to continue to realise the social and business benefits of technology, we need people willing to get under its skin, not simply be able to move their fingers across its surface.
In the coming weeks we will be hearing about Disaster Recovery in The Cloud, Mobile Device Management (MDM) versus Mobile Application Management (MAM) and we’ll find out what makes a CIO ‘elite’.