Natives and Interlopers: Whose future is the present?

Google.com was registered as a domain in 1997. If you were 6 years old in 1997 then you will be 21 now, you might have your own children, a job and a mortgage. The world you have grown up in is very different to the one that I grew up in.

There are lots of reasons for these differences but the obvious is one is computation and the unceasing charge of western society towards ubiquitous computing. We have got to the point where we must concede that computers and computing are the ephemeral infrastructure of today’s society, an, unfortunately, invisible layer underneath everything.

Everything? Well pretty much. And if not quite so today, the fact is that pretty soon nearly 100% of our essential interactions will be governed and controlled via computers.

The recent US elections were computerised. On one hand this sounds wonderful (easy to use, quick to count), but on the other hand nearly 100% of the population have no knowledge base that could allow them to understand the mechanics and hence, the veracity of the count. The US elections have become an article of faith. People no longer count ballots, they program computers. If you suspected that there was election fraud, and lots of people do (always have, of course, computers or not), you’d have to be a coding expert to even start the right dialogue. Most of us are not coding experts and so, whereas your average citizen could, at least, understand the corruption of a Huey P Long or Tammany Hall the same is not true of today’s institutions.

Now If you were 6 when Google was launched you are what marketers call a digital native. Like much of what goes on in marketing it is a subtly misdirecting phrase. It gives comfort to those of us born before the execrable line in the sand that is Google. It implies a world where our instincts are still dominant, where our experience is the valuable hoard of wise gold that will steer us through the challenges of a changing world.

“You are a digital native, I am of the world, the whole world, you are only digital.”

Like all subtly misdirecting marketing phrases it also harbours some stone cold truths. It delineates two different groups of humans. It tells us what is different about them. One group understands naturally. The other does not. It’s a brutal phrase if truth be known. It shouldn’t be a source of comfort for those of us too old to lay claim to the name.

William Gibson told us that the future is here already, just not distributed equally. I’ve always taken that statement at face value and unquestioningly assumed that the inequality implied was geographic. New York versus Bangladesh, for example.

At the same time I have, of course, always realised the truth of the difference between the generations in terms of technology adoption.

So in reality we have both a spatial inequality and a generational inequality in the distribution of the future, and those inequalities overlap. Whose world is the real world? Or, to borrow Gibson’s terminology, whose future is the present?

I’d argue that it’s the one belonging to the natives. Those that understand naturally are always at an advantage. In this case the present, the world, is their present (future), born of their technology and beholden to its invisible dominance.

And as I live in that same world (even if my experience of it is different) I should acknowledge a second truth, a truth that also flows from this juxtaposition between space and generations, which is that there is no offline anymore. Not one tiny bit. Everything is digital. Or to be more Zen, everything is.

When I started writing this I had structured my thoughts with the guiding concept, ‘the end of offline’, which I have since discarded because it implies a handover, a change of who holds the reins.

It’s much more than that, it’s not just a change in who holds the reins but also a change in what the reins are, and more obliquely a change in awareness of what the reins are.

It’s almost always been the case that wisdom is delivered to society by those who have lived and have built experience through living. It’s no accident that the classic imagery of the wise, is also the imagery of the old. Thus the impetuous nature of youth, the energy and vigour of youth, the experimentation and risk taking of youth is tempered by the wisdom of age. Youth has always been the interloper, a successful interloper of course, youth almost always gets old after all.

In today’s world, those we have named digital natives are in fact just natives. This world is theirs, and it’s neither online or offline, it just is. They see no divide, because there is no divide.

However, if the digital natives, are in fact just natives then it’s the rest of us who are the interlopers.

Smile Gramps.

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