Monday, September 1, 2014

Ignore age—define generations by the tech they use

a young girl with a walkman screenshot from The Fine Bros

Correction: This post originally gave incorrect dates for the introduction of radio and television technology and the invention of the cell phone. It also mis-labeled the web as the internet. We regret these errors.

Technology is being adopted more quickly than ever, according to research done by the Federal Communications Commission, and rediscovered recently by the Pew Research Center after the Economist reworked the data in honor of the World Wide Web's birthday.

Looking at the data, it's easy to argue that generations of people no longer exist in neat baby-boomer time periods. Instead of years, we should label generations by the dominant technology they use.  In doing so, we might have more, smaller generations, but maybe that's okay.

But don't just take my word for it, let's look at some videos of adorable kids. Recently, The Fine Bros published a video in their series titled Kids React where they presented members of Generation Z, in this case 6 to 14 year olds, with an ancient piece of technology: the Walkman.

The internet is strewn with videos like these —kids reacting to rotary phones, kids playing on a Commodore 64, kids thinking camera film is an old battery, even French kids meeting old technology.

But in a way, the kids are right. The Walkman is old and fat, and no amount of nostalgia will change that. The Walkman weighed 14 oz, which doesn't sound like a lot until you realize that the most recent iPhone weighs about 5 oz. It's not really fair, though, to single out the Walkman. All technology of the 1980s looks this way today. Think about 8-inch floppy disks, 5.25 inch disks, and the portable 8-track player. All of these technologies are bulky and difficult compared to their modern day counterparts.

The Walkman video's appeal relies on one of two responses to it: either viewer thinks it's funny to watch kids try and work this machine they have never seen before, or the viewer is very old for remembering this technology. Either reaction can tell us something about how technology binds generations together, and separates them from each other. Here are a few things we've learned from seemingly trivial YouTube videos of cute kids.

1) Society is changing more quickly

The idea behind these videos isn't new: children will always be blissfully unaware of the lives their parents or grandparents lived before them. I can imagine the same video with teens of yesteryear being shown a musket after the invention of the revolver. But the length of time it takes for a technology to become hilariously obsolete is shrinking. In the late 19th century, inventions took three to five decades to be adopted by a quarter of Americans. The web got there in less than one.

Here's the chart from the Federal Communications Commission's report:


But we can also look at the data this way:


When we look at this data, its easy to see that since the invention of the radio we have been adopting technology more quickly than we did before its invention. Not only is technology being adopted by American households more quickly, there is more technology to adopt. If you look at the (ugly) FCC graph, there were 5 major technological innovations from 1876-1950. But in the forty years from 1950-1996, there were 5 more, and this data doesn't even include inventions from the 21st century.

In the past 35 years society has gone from the personal computer being invented to 78.9% of households owning a PC in their home. It has been 22 years since the invention of the World Wide Web and today 75% of people have the internet in their homes. Though Motorola had a cell phone prototype in 1973, the first commercial cell phones didn't hit the market until 1983, and 30 years later more than 90% of the population has one.

Most homes today rely on cell phones for communication. Stationary home phones, the norm when even later Millennials were growing up, are all but obsolete, and older models are straight-up baffling to kids these days. Watch the kids react to a rotary phone here:

So it makes sense that even fairly recent inventions, like the Walkman, would be totally baffling to a kid these days. The world is changing much faster than it used to, and things are becoming antiquated faster too.

2) Even people of the same generation will have very different technological experiences from each other

Technology is improving more quickly, but its also being integrated into American lives much faster and more thoroughly than it was in previous generations, making these new generations themselves fragmented. Think about the Baby Boomer generation, typically defined as those born between 1946 and 1964. By the time Boomers were born, many households already had televisions for them to watch, and by the time the personal computer was invented the youngest of them was 11. Of course, some boomers would have been early adopters and begun using computers earlier than others, but on the whole, their generation was fairly cohesive on technology. They all learned to use a computer later in life.

Generation X (roughly 1960- early 1980s) had more technological diversity. Some of them were born after the rise in personal computers and some before, but many people in this generation would have seen or worked on a personal computer before college in a way that many Baby Boomers would not have.

But even those Generation Xers who had computers experienced something rather distinct from the computing Millennial and Generation Z people are used to. Think about the 1982 Commodore 64. Though it had a joystick younger generations might recognize, it certainly didn't have the graphics and interactive abilities as the newest gaming systems. Watch young students play the game here:

When we look within the Millennial generation (defined as 1980s - early 2000s births), we see a drastic difference in technological experiences. Children born at the beginning of the spectrum maybe had a personal computer in their home, but probably did not have a mobile phone. A child at the other end of the spectrum, however, had a totally different technological upbringing. A child born in 2000 likely grew up with computers in their house, mobile phones, and not just the internet but wifi.

3) Old tech becomes a cultural reference point

In the Kids React video, one of the little girl stares at the walkman and cassette tape and says "Are these like in the movies?" Here is a girl who has obviously been shown 80s movies. No beautiful plot line or enduring tale can overcome a clunky piece of outdated technology. Even more recent technology has dated itself.


Serena van der Woodsen checks a text message. Screencap from show.

Think about the women of Gossip Girl carrying around those Blackberry phones. Today, you would not be able to pry the shiny newest model iPhone from Serena's hands. The second you see the phone, you know it was filmed in the late 2000's. Technology and cultural interactions with technology will change more quickly than a generation will flip over, creating different touchstones for those born in different stages of a given generation.

Storage space, for example, has changed dramatically. Today's, cell phones can hold hundreds of images, text messages, and apps. An iPhone can hold 8 gigabytes of information. A 1984 floppy disk could only hold 1.2 megabytes, and is now little more than a relic of another time. Watch these French kids try to understand an early floppy disk:

Within the Millennial generation, for example, we can see this happening with SMS text messaging. The first text message was sent in 1992, but commercial growth was slow. Millennials at the top of the generation may not have had text messaging until late in high school. For Millennials in the middle, text messaging was the primary form of communication. A 2011 Pew Report found that among 18-24 year olds 95% had a cell phone and 97% sent text messages. In 2013, 78% of teens ages 12 to 17 had a cell phone. Texting, even as distinct from cell calls, are a significant historical marker.

Younger Millennials grew up with the iPhone. They never made t-9 typing errors to the boy they had a crush on. They never had to call their homecoming date on a home phone. Their youth was entirely different from members of their own generation because the way we communicate as a culture has changed so rapidly. The kids in this video may not know how to work a cassette player, but I bet they know how to text gifs.

Ultimately, the way we define generations today is too broad. To say that all Millennials think something or do something is a generalization that doesn't work because—not only is it a stereotype—but the people in that group are far too diverse in the way they interact with technology to be grouped that way. What we define as 'generations' today, needs to be cut into smaller groups to allow the needs of those groups to be as well met as possible.

Update: This post has been modified to include the original technology-adoption chart from the FCC that's the source for our graph. The graph has also been tweaked to more clearly denote the adoption of the web starting in 1991, not the broader internet. And Gizmodo is right: we should have noted these changes at the time. Our apologies.

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