Generations of Technology

[Note: I wrote the bulk of this in January 2005. The prognostications below now seem quaint in part, but the underlying theme is still relevant. Notes from 2017 are in square brackets.]

It’s helpful to classify world-changing technology according to each generation’s relation to it. Douglas Adams summarized this well:

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

― Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

Let’s take television as an example.

The generation of my great-grandparents, born before the turn of the century, could not imagine being able to instantaneously see someone at a distance, let alone see that person in their own home.

The generation of my grandparents (born in the teens and twenties) saw TV invented, and used it in a limited way throughout their later life.

The generation before mine grew up with TV, but still remembered it as a new thing. It evolved during their youth, gaining color and tape-delay. They remember the transition of main-stream entertainment from the theatre and radio to the TV.

My generation (Generation X) and most of the generation before it (Boomers) never knew a world without TV, more or less in its finished state. For the younger end, this includes things like Infomercials and cable, things our parents had to learn. Everyone watched TV, all the time.

The generation after me, Generation Y, did not even consider the presence of TV; it’s there like gravity. In fact, it’s not relevant any more, and they’re on to learning the next thing. [2017: This was 100% accurate. TV as we knew it is basically dead, killed by Netflix, YouTube, and streaming video. If you watch TV, you know it’s split into two niches: propaganda aimed at scaring 50+ year old voters, and repeats of comforting shows from the youth of 50+ year old viewers. Oh, and live sports.]

Waves of adoption

Adoption of a new technology comes in waves. In order:

1. The uninvolved, who never see the technology. Maybe they encounter it in their old age.

2. The inventors, who see it an alien technology, fresh out of the research lab. They don’t trust it, and try not to use it.

3. The first users, who use it as a new form of older tech. “Oh, it’s sort of like a horse and buggy, but with no horse!”

4. The born users, who use it as a mature tech, and find new, stable uses for it.

5. The intuitive users (fusers?), who don’t see it as a seperate tech; they merge it into everything else, or abandon it.

Computers are only half a generation younger than the TV. But personal computers are 1.5–2 generations younger, and (IMHO) more important. [2017: Is IMHO something we still say?]

If I talk about my own generation for a moment, we remember PCs emerging. We used them originally as a typewriter and then as a letter-writer and a board game; then we built our careers around it, including the dot-com bubble — basically, step 3 moving into 4. Gen Y is definitely in step 4, and will find new uses for computers I haven’t imagined yet. Gen Z is past that: they’ll see computers as old fashioned and outdated.

[2017: Yup. Desktop computers are like farm tractors, now: something that only the most specialized of people need to use. Laptops are winding down, with the rise of tablets. A computer without a network connection is now unthinkable, except in cases where security is paramount. The age of the isolated, fixed-in-place computer has ended.]

The network

The network is a half-generation younger than PCs; folks born after The Eternal September (i.e. 1993) are the first generation born within it, and they have never known a world where you couldn’t just contact everyone you know instantly.

That ubiquitous network (as embodied not in the personal computer but in mobile phones)? Well, my generation is only at step 3. Our parents invented it, but they don’t get it — oh, people like Scott McNealy can forsee it, but they don’t think of it instinctively. We (Boomers, GenX) tried using mobiles as “phones” for years, which they really aren’t. They can do that, but it’s like old TV shows which filmed people reading radio transcripts, or today’s shows with talking heads reading tweets; it misses the point. We’re missing the point. Gen Y is going to invent the point, but we’re only halfway there now.

[2017: And indeed this came to pass, with GenY building completely new things like Facebook and Reddit and YouTube and Grindr and Uber: community-based software, software that relies on the network, location-based software, video-based, picture-based, software embedded in our lives away from our desks.]

And Gen Z will turn that into something new and strange. I’m not sure I can imagine. Over the years I’ve gotten some inkling of it, but I might be too far behind the curve to grok it fully. I’m not sure this is unrecoverable, but I suspect whatever they build will always be alien to me.

[2017: I have been informed I am too old to understand SnapChat. So there we go.]

Diffusion of technology

An always-on, always-there, for-everyone network isn’t a network any more; the network disappears, and you’re just left with people and information. This happens the same way way highways disappear as a technology, and you’re just left with traffic. Distances collapse even more, and the problems become ones of privacy, control, and selectivity. [2017: Oh, boy, did they. The network grew way, way faster than our understanding of security and privacy.]

An example: if I can talk to any of my friends at any time — think like IM in your head, to translate to this generation — then I don’t need to ‘be’ anywhere for most social functions. Nor do I need to plan, unless someone has to actually travel some distance. Ad-hoc plans are the norm. “We’ll meet back at Gimbels at 6pm” is an outmoded concept; just call the person on the fly.

[2017: Call? Hah. Text ’em, chat ’em, or just send a photo of yourself at the location with a pouty face because your friend isn’t there.

Constant access is now taken for granted. A weird way it’s impacted the world: people don’t pull over for stopped vehicles. The time was, if a car was stopped by the side of the road, as a good person you’d pull over to check if they needed help, if they needed you to get help, etc. Nowadays it’s just assumed that they have a cell phone or their car has already contacted someone.]

Ad hoc communities

With very low cost to initiate or break contact, micro-interactions rise (we’re seeing this now), until they dominate; I don’t visit you for a week, or talk to you for an hour on the phone, or IM with you for a minute, I say something, and maybe later you say something back, like any conversation. But with 150 friends, conversational traffic builds, and negotiating becomes difficult. How many IMs can you handle at once? It’s the same problem, but expanded.

Work groups become emergent and spontaneous. If I need to do something, I gather the people I need to help me. We do this now, sometimes, calling people on cell phones for a moment of information, but it feels weird. My Gen Y cousin does it all the time, calling me for a one-sentence piece of info he knows I have. The generation after him will do it ALL the time. Managing that complexity will be the problem — not connecting to each other but how to manage disconnect.

[2017: Ad hoc workgroups are now all the rage. Slack has taken over business in the way Basecamp aimed to, providing a persistent place for loosely-coupled workers to gather. Sites like eBay let us briefly become shopkeepers, then go back to our normal lives. We’re still in the throes of figuring out what this means, but companies already have figured out a way to get stinking rich off it: Uber, notably, pretends that each ride is an ad-hoc coordination between driver and passengers, when in fact the drivers are more like traditional employees but with no protections or benefits.]

How long until the network is indispensible? How long before being blocked from net access is used as punishment? [2017: Yeah, okay, so that’s already been a Black Mirror episode.] How long until it is like oxygen, and the disconnected stagger and fall unrecoverably behind in the accelerating pace of human development? Or are we already there?

2017 Addendum: The Rise Of the The Next Generation

And what lies ahead?

I’m curious to hear what you think the next technology is, the one that GenZ (do we say GenZ any more? Or have we settled on the unsatisfying ‘millenial’ moniker?) will have to learn.

Some folks say Virtual Reality, but folks have been saying that since TRON. As overhyped technologies go, VR is up there with flying cars. But who knows—computers are finally fast enough that now only a small fraction of users puke when trying to wear VR goggles.

I see a big future in Augmented Reality, as a way to avoid whipping your phone out of your pocket. This may arrive for audio first, with both Bose and Apple introducing earphones meant to be worn while you’re in the world, but feeding you an additional layer of information as you go. Google Glass tried to do it, but it was a gimmick, and fashion turned out to be surprisingly important. If we do get there, I hope we heed warning tales like Keiichi Matsuda’s Hyper-Reality.

Is it CRISPR? That’s 2016’s big buzzword, the tech that’s supposed to land us in the land of Deus Ex or GATTACA , with modified humans built to withstand disease or tuned to be brighter, stronger, faster, or whatever.

So what do you think?



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Alex Feinman

Alex Feinman

Obligate infovore. All posts made with 100% recycled electrons, sustainably crafted by artisanal artisans. He/him/his.