Commentary

Grandma Via YouTube

This week we had a Webinar on Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives. We featured brain scanning images, survey results and the work of Marc Prensky, Gary Small and other researchers, showing how technology has created a generational divide between our kids and us. For me, though, it all came into sharper focus when I walked past our computer at home and saw my youngest daughter, Lauren, sitting there with crochet hooks in hand.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Learning to crochet."

"On the computer?"

"Yes, there's a video showing how on YouTube."

"Really?"

"Yes, Dad, YouTube has now replaced Grandma." (Smart mouth on that kid -- not sure where she gets it from.)

Adapting With Our Plastic Brains

Prensky and Small have written extensively on how exposure to technology can literally change the way our brains are wired. Our brains are remarkably malleable in nature, continually changing to adapt to our environment. The impressive label for it is "neuroplasticity" -- but we know it better simply as "learning."  We now know that our brains continually adapt throughout our lives.  But there are two phases where the brain literally reforms itself in a massive restructuring: right around two years of age and again as teenagers. During these two periods, billions of new synaptic connections are formed, and billions are also "pruned" out of the way. All this happens as a direct response to our environments, helping us develop the capabilities to deal with the world.

These two spurts of neuroplasticity are essential development stages, but what happens when there are rapid and dramatic shifts in our environment from one generation to the next? What happens when our children's brains develop to handle something we never had to deal with as children? Quite literally, their brains function differently than ours. This becomes particularly significant when the rate of adoption is very rapid, making a technology ubiquitous in a generation or less. The other factor is how much the technology becomes part of our daily lives. The more important it is, the more significant the generational divide.

Our Lives: As Seen on TV

The last adoption that met both conditions was the advent of television. There, 1960 to 1965 marked the divide where the first generation to be raised on television started to come of age. And the result was a massive social shift. In his book "Bowling Alone,"   Robert Putnam shows example after example of how our society took a U-turn in the '60s, reversing a trend in building social capital.  We became more aware and ideologically tolerant, but we also spent less time with each other. This trend played out in everything from volunteering and voting to having dinner parties and joining bowling leagues. The single biggest cause identified by Putnam? Television. We are only now beginning to assess the impact of this technology on our society, a half-century after its introduction. It took that long for the ripples to be felt through the generations.

You Ain't Seen Nuthin Yet.

That's a sobering thought when we consider what's happening today. The adoption rate of the Internet has been similar to that of television, but the impact on our daily lives is even more significant. Everything we touch now is different than it was when we were growing up.  If TV caused a seismic shift of such proportions that it took us 50 years to catalog the fall-out, what will happen 50 years from now?

Who will be teaching my great grandchildren how to crochet?

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5 comments about "Grandma Via YouTube".
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  1. Monica Bower from TERiX Computer Service, June 25, 2009 at 11:24 a.m.

    I think a major difference that's already felt between the TV and Internet is that for 30 years or so you had 4 channels on TV if you were lucky. It made TV a unifying social experience, and much of the dithering and hand wringing in TV advertsing today didn't start with the internet, but started when Cable started offering content that permitted advertising. The fragmentation that began with a jump to 25 channels from 4, and 50 from 25, and with the introduction of satellite 200 from 50, is perfected in the internet, where the channels grow by petabytes per day, and where 'viral' just means you've approached the unifying capacity of having a mere 200 channels. Probably nothing in existence on the internet has been seen by more than 1 in 4 people in the US besides Google's landing page.

    But the funny thing is, before TV, and more than that before nationally syndicated content on Radio? We were utterly fragmented at the macro level but fairly unified and social on the micro level, which is not so different from the way it is right now. I think the anomaly was the 30 years of having only 4 stations, not the rapid return to self-directed media consumption where whatever it was you wanted to do, you went out and did.

  2. Thom Kennon from Free Radicals, June 25, 2009 at 12:15 p.m.

    It's funny, but how the digital divide goes both ways.

    My 8 year old memorized all the Beatles songs by finding videos on YouTube that people load up with the song playing over a scroll of the lyrics.

    My other kids is learning piano parts by a cool iPhone app that works like that old light up keyboard.

    On the other hand, I'm the only one at the dinner table going on about the power of FriendFeed and Twitter to drive social discovery, share and community. Blank stares from teens and tots alike.

    They'll get there. And chances are they'll learn to crochet from someone they meet on FriendFeed. Then we can all say - "I told you so!"...

  3. John Bruce, June 25, 2009 at 1:19 p.m.

    Great post, Gord! I actually LMOA & LOL (I think you know what those stand for. If not, ask Lauren) when reading your exchange with your daughter. Reminds me of my home. I think in 50 years, our grandchildren will be taught by a modern version of C-3PO.

  4. Thomas Pick from Webbiquity, June 29, 2009 at 9:09 a.m.

    Thanks Gord for this thought-provoking post. As I tried to formulate a suitable comment on it, I realized I had way to much to say for this space, so I wrote a blog post as my comment. I'd love to get your feedback on this:

    Gord Hotchkiss, Neuroplasticity and Kids These Days:

    http://webmarketcentral.blogspot.com/2009/06/gord-hotchkiss-neuroplasticity-and-kids.html

  5. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, June 30, 2009 at 7:38 p.m.

    Tom...

    Read the post. Great way to summarize the pace of technological change. And yes, the implications are staggering. The social shift we've seen in the past century has been painful to absorb. If things continue to move faster and faster, can society absorb the shifts without beginning to fracture. Think of the social stresses in the 60's..as the impact of television began to play out.

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