The News – 02/06/01
Generation E Thinks Different
With Generation X getting a
bit long in the tooth, and Generation Y never quite getting out of the
gate, Generation E, for Electronic, takes the Net for granted and snaps up
new technologies and innovations at a pace their elders can only envy.
Image the poor disadvantaged children who aren’t part of the 51 percent of
US homes with Internet access. Well, just because they’re not getting it at
home, it doesn’t mean they can’t pick it up in a New York minute. A recent
Business 2.0 UK article described an experiment in a village in India:
a certain age - between 13 and 16, according to most research - humans
confronted with something new will try to relate to another thing they
already know, whereas below that age, children accept new things on their
own terms. This can give them almost mystical powers of cognition, as the
visionary academic Dr Sugata Mitra has shown with experiments with
Generation E in India. Mitra takes touch-sensitive screens wired up to the
Net, and embeds them in walls in settlements where people have no
experience of Net access - urban slums, remote rural towns, small villages
- and leaves them, without any instruction or teacher, to see what happens.
He watches using CCTV [closed circuit TV], and what he sees is
always the same. The 13 to 18-year-old boys poke about for a bit, look for
someone to help, give up and slope off. Girls over 13 stand peering at the
boys. The adults won't touch it, seemingly afraid of hurting it, or
themselves. But the boys and girls between eight and 13 figure out the
clicking principle in two minutes, the drag-down menu in another two, and
start surfing in about 20; eerily, the speed and order in which they learn
is always the same.
Selinger, a British academic studying the impact of the Net on children's
education, thinks that children exposed to the Net at an early age are evolving
a different sort of attention and concentration. Text is not the most
important medium anymore, she says, and "visual perceptions of the
structure of information are changing. It's easier to dart around and get
taken off the point with hypertext, and I'm sure this is why children's
concentration span is said to be poor. I'm not convinced it is, though. I
just think it's different."
My kids are definitely
showing signs of being post-literate. And when you think of it, the
supremacy of text sparked by Gutenberg’s Bible was really an aberration.
Before movable type made text accessible, most learning and tradition was
oral and visual. Is the media of today returning us to the form of learning
that first distinguished us from the apes?
ideas aside, what does this mean for the Web, which is currently mostly
text? Right now sites that are primarily visual are basically an annoyance.
I personally can’t get to the “Skip intro” button fast enough when I see a
home page that uses Macromedia’s Flash multimedia technology. And the inevitable
insipid musical accompaniment! Turn it off! Turn it off!
But I doubt my kids will
have the same reaction, especially as bandwidth improves and visual artists
begin to pay more attention to communication rather than pretty images. Do
vendors such as TellMe or AOL Phone, which provide telephone access to Web
services, have it right? Call a phone number, ask for information in
natural language, and have it read to you? Well, what’s not to like? Other
than not having a good way to cut and paste notes, who wouldn’t rather call
up and say, “My stocks” and have the quotes read to you? Would you prefer
to fire up your computer (2 minutes for a PC), log on to your Internet
service (1 minute), start your browser (40 seconds), type an URL (10 seconds
without typos), and wait for the page to display (30 seconds to 1 minute
depending on connection speed)? I don’t think so. There are certainly some
challenges for these services, including the much too literal way they read
you your email. Nonetheless, the concept is good.
It reminds me of the story
of the CEO who was being pitched an Executive Information System (EIS) many
years ago. The salesperson was describing how he could have information on
his business instantly available at his fingertips. The CEO, not impressed,
snarled and said, “You want to know what I do when I need information?
Watch.” He picks up the phone, dials, and says, “Hey Smithers, get me the
latest sales figures, pronto.” Problem solved, and sales opportunity over.
While there is certainly a
place for text in the GenE world (witness the huge popularity of Short
Message Service (SMS) among teens in Europe) other modes of information
acquisition may be more important, and certainly can have larger short-term
The Business 2.0 article
offers several differences between GenE and us dinosaurs:
media model: absorption
of imagination in one medium, lying in bed listening to record dreaming of
chosen pop star.
Generation E: surfing Net, watching TV,
talking to mate on phone, shouting at younger sibling because they want a
Old media model: a brand whose consistency
of content brings them back time and time again.
Generation E: Once you've seen the content
once, you've seen it forever. The exciting thing is surfing for new sites,
not revisiting the same ones.
Old media model: Hey kids - we can talk your
Generation E: Yeah, but we can talk our own!
Generation E Wants to talk to itself, or directly to its heroes. Which is
kind of the same thing.
Old media model: If in doubt, use sex.
Generation E: Er, OK. I didn't say
everything had changed, did I?
Old media model: This week's competition
winners! i.e. the cool and the lucky get to go in the spotlight, as usual.
Generation E: Everyone's a winner - talking
in a chat room is the only place where all kids, shy and loud, pretty and
nerdy, boy and girl, get to be heard equally in 14-point blinking type.
So what does this mean for
your Web site? Well, if you’re B2B, you probably don’t need to worry for 10
years or so when GenE starts into business. But if GenE is part of your
target audience for a B2C site, post-literate communication should be huge
on your radar screen. Maybe you should try to come up with the next Hampsterdance,
the Web site that spawned a hit single and a significant merchandising
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