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Changing of the Guard

Afraid your tech-savvy students are outpacing their teachers? Don’t be. Let them lead the way to excellence.

As the Los Angeles times reported recently, many adults were shocked when the first batch of iPads distributed by the Los Angeles Unified School District as part of a plan to purchase them for all students were "hacked" by students within hours so that they could be used on the open Internet.

That this actually took adults—teachers, parents, law enforcement—by surprise can be explained by one simple phrase: "The Last Pre-Internet Generation." In fact, that phrase explains so much, and is so useful, that we ought to begin using it as an acronym: TLPIG.

"Why were they so shocked in L.A.?" "TLPIG!" Who in the Internet generation would not expect people who are handed powerful devices to immediately figure out how to use them powerfully?

There are a great many things about the world our kids now live in that far too many in the last pre-Internet generation just don't get, and perhaps never will. But we in that generation must stop standing in our kids' way or, worse, trying to drag them back to our world.

I first wrote about the culture clash between digital natives and digital immigrants in 2001, and it resonated around the globe. What we are witnessing today is the logical next step. We are living through a cultural extinction—the disappearance from the world of the pre-Internet view of humanity and their (our) way of seeing the world. It will take several decades for all of us who are TLPIG to pass on, but pass on we all will. What will remain will be people who never knew the slower, unconnected world that we and our predecessors enjoyed (or endured, depending on your perspective).

Nobody likes it when his or her culture and way of life disappears. But if we are to be of any help to our kids, those of us in the last pre-Internet generation must not resist change and try to pull kids back to what was important for us. Rather, we need to accept the passing of things we loved, such as paper books, and help our kids move on.

The new world context for this and future generations will be profoundly different from ours in many ways. There will be far more variability, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity than in the past (try Googling "VUCA"). On top of that will be the extremely rapid pace of change—not just faster, but accelerating—in which tasks that took us years or decades to accomplish (e.g., deciphering the human genome) will require only hours, minutes, or nanoseconds, and in which more and more powerful capabilities will be carried with us, worn, or embedded in our bodies.

But of all the differences, the one with the most impact will almost certainly be that the entire world is—so quickly—becoming networked. We are not all there yet, but we very soon will be. Our kids will grow up in the world of Always On Real-Time Access (AORTA).

Young people are now in the process (as we all are) of teaching themselves how to do this. Facebook and its cousins, already connecting one-seventh of the world, are humanity's first, halting attempts to figure out how people can be effective as "network nodes." Unlike reading and writing, which, despite millennia of trying, have still not reached the entire world, the skills of being an effective online node can be, and already are being, spread extremely quickly (with, of course, all the typical problems and hiccups that come with major change).

Pre-Internet/Internet is a far bigger divider in the way people deal with the world than is analog/digital. Many in the last pre-Internet generation find the connected world incomprehensibly difficult. Many are quick to cast aspersions on the behaviors of the kids who are trying to deal with it. These negative attitudes are holding our kids back, and it is time we addressed them. We have focused much attention on our so-called digital natives. But we also need to turn a brighter light on ourselves, the older generation, as we experience not just the death throes of our lives but of a view of a world that has lasted for millennia. Barring Armageddon, the world will never again know the degree of separateness that humans have lived with through the end of the 20th century. The implications of these changes are enormous, and it is time we faced them.

The last pre-Internet generation—TLPIG—explains a huge amount of what is now going on in society, including clashing attitudes in key areas such as privacy, secrecy, data, property, communication, education, health care, relationships, and even human accomplishment. Could it be that the reason so many fight so hard for the old ways-reading, writing, face-to-face contact, etc.—is not only because we liked them but also because they were so incredibly hard to learn and to do well? There seems to be a huge resentment in TLPIG of things becoming easier ("In my day we had to..."). It is not that we are losing the depth, but we are losing much of the old noise.

The Internet generation understands they can now take action in powerful new ways. They hate that we have overpopulated and polluted their planet, but they do not scream at us the way we too often scream at them. They would just like us to get out of their way and let them—using their powerful new technology—fix it. As one student put it: "You [TLPIG adults] see technology as a set of tools. We see it as a foundation-it underlies everything we do."

A New Foundation
Here are some examples (there are so many it is hard to know where to begin).

Privacy, as TLPIG knew and valued it, is gone. Once information is online, it is findable, period. We should not need any more "hacking" examples to send this lesson home. Our kids will live in a nonprivate world, compared with what we knew. There will be no more of others not knowing, or not being able to easily find out, your salary, your medical issues, any criminal record you might have, or the pictures you posted when you were young. Thinking we can keep information private is a figment of the last pre-Internet generation's imagination.

The same is true for secrecy, which is currently a hot topic for companies trying to compete globally, as well as for governments trying to keep their countries secure. Not only is secrecy impossible in the new, connected world, but in many cases it is not even desirable. In an era of WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, and international cyber-stealing, the idea that we can keep any secrets is already far too TLPIG. Our kids will learn to live in a transparent world. Despite the work of many in TLPIG, I doubt if we can really protect intellectual property as we protected property in the past.

In education, the idea that we should or can have different educational opportunities for people depending on their location and income is going away with the last pre-Internet generation—beginning with MOOCs and soon expanding to something far, far better. We can now give everyone the same, and the best, education—and we will.

That people have differential health care in a time of total world connectivity is also an absurd artifact of TLPIG. This will disappear through science and telemedicine—if not in a single generation, then in two.

Thinking that "data" has become "big" (because the pre-Internet generations saw so little of it) is also a point of view that will die with the last pre-Internet generation. The amount of data in the world has always been infinite—now we can, to our benefit, collect and put more of it to use. The last pre-­Internet generation sees the data job as "compressing" what existed before; the Internet generation sees the job as first sticking everything into "backup" and then bringing out only what we need, in more usable forms.

Calling the shorter communications of the new generation—Twitter and 30-second videos, for example—"the shallows" is so TLPIG. In reality, "depth" comes at every size (think aphorisms and haiku) if we learn to make it happen. Another artifact of the last pre-Internet generation is wanting to "look someone in the eye." As online relationships quickly become more nuanced, our kids will not only "feel" what others feel but know their thoughts as well.

And finally, I believe that most individual accomplishment—something valued so much in the past—will also die with the last pre-Internet generation. There is now almost nothing in the world that does not require some effective collaboration to get done well.

Many in the last pre-Internet generation will claim, I'm sure, that "human nature," or something else that is important to TLPIG, will never go away. They will be right, in the limited sense that nothing ever completely disappears—we still have communities of nudists and people making flint arrowheads. What does happen, and is happening now, is that old ways of thinking and doing move into smaller and smaller niches.

The last pre-Internet generation is coming to an end, demographically (and definitionally), and there is no stopping it. And as the new, digital age rises, a way of human life is dying. All of us in the generation feel it. Some of us are going gently into the good night ("I'll just stick to the old ways till I die"), and others are raging ("Let's fight to preserve for our children the things that were good for us"). But whether we go passively or actively almost doesn't matter. A new age is arising, no matter what TLPIG thinks or does.

As we, TLPIG, board the ship to oblivion, it is important that we mourn the passing of our pre-Internet life. But, at the same time—and far more important—we need to help our kids think about and enable their future. Good luck, kids. You'll need it. Perhaps the best help we can give you is to help you build the foundation and get out of your way. My guess is you'll do just fine.

Summer 2014—


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