My friend Joe Ugoretz has a new article on social software in the Academic Commons. He provides a good overview of a number of social software tools and suggestions about how to use them. But also embedded in his piece is a warning about what happens if we fail to embrace the new technologies and make them our own.Joe tells four stories--(1) a parent who desperately Googles for a a clue to his sick infant's condition on his mobile phone, (2) a wikipedia article blossoming within minutes of a new pope being declared, (3) a faculty member who finds new and interesting photos for class through Flickr's social tagging capabilities, and (4) another faculty member who is devastated by bad reviews on RateMyProfessor.com. The first three stories are about people who understood the social implications of the technology and were able to take benefit from that understanding. The last one was about a person who was caught off-guard and hurt by it. Note that there are no ages attached to any of the people in the examples. The people involved could be 25, 45, or 65 years old.
In my opinion, the generational difference between "digital natives" and the rest of us is grossly exaggerated. The defining factor is mostly experience, not age. The faculty member who found pictures through Flickr probably has the experience base to understand wikipedia, think to Google for medical information, and put the snarky reviews of a couple of students in the proper context. It's the lack of experience that makes some of the doings of "those crazy kids" seem utterly foreign and bizarre. I remember being puzzled when I got my first email account. "This is cool," I thought, "but what will I possibly use it for?" Think about any of the technologies that may have appeared out of nowhere to become mainstream within your lifetime--call waiting, caller ID, cell phones, ATM machines, cable TV, broadband, etc. Think about how you felt about them when they first came out. Think about how you feel about them now. And think about how you feel about the bozo who still hasn't learned how to use email or the eccentric friend who still doesn't have a cell phone.
Technology can create cultural divides that we don't need to rely on developmental neuropsychology to explain. Google makes the world look different. Tagging makes the world look different. Wikis make the world look different. Add up enough of those differences in perspective and experience, and you have people seemingly speaking different languages. Kids learn the new stuff easier for lots of reasons, but that doesn't mean older folks can't or shouldn't. We have a widespread adult literacy problem here. Parents and teachers need to learn these new tools so that they can see what their kids see. They can, they should, and they'd better.