“What are you doing girls?” I asked the twins.
“Shhh Dad, we’re connecting,” came the distracted reply.
They were sitting in the living room heads burried in the Nintendo DS consoles they’d got for Christmas, playing the same game, together but apart. On one level the remote interaction, using portable electronic devices to communicate and collaborate in real time, is a really important skill for them to develop — on another it’s worryingly antisocial and all consuming. Trying to get their attention while they’re immersed in a game or engrossed in a wireless instant messaging chat with each other (even though they’re in the same room) is disturbingly difficult.
It’s a sign of the times… technology is bringing us closer together, but at the same time its pushing us further apart, diluting the need for real human contact.
Via the internet it’s now easier than ever to connect, share and communicate via media that by their very nature transcend physical barriers like geography and time zones. Always on, high speed access to the internet is fundamentally changing the way a whole generation of people do everything, from Christmas shopping to chatting with their grandma on the other side of the world.
The rise of the internet to become a dominant force in practically all of our lives is unprecedented. According to Internet World Stats in June 2008 there were a staggering 1.46 billion people online. That’s 21% of the human population — and it’s still growing at a phenomenal rate! Even if you don’t own a computer, have never sent an e-mail, and never want to, the influence of the internet in your life is profound. How so?
Well the people, businesses and organisations around you — the ones you interact with every day — are using the internet in all sorts of ways. Take the newspaper you read this morning, for example — how much of that relies in some way on the internet? How many of the articles in it involved some sort of online research — news feeds, web search, e-mail, blogs, authority sites, fact checking? What about the business side of running that newspaper? Again e-mail, but also the too-ing and fro-ing of management reports, financial information, communication, collaboration and myriad other elements crucial to the running of any successful business.
I look at the girls growing up in a digital world and think about how different their experience of childhood is to my own. They still play outside, they still build things, they still explore, discover and do all the stuff we used to do as children, but they’re entering a world that works in a profoundly different way to the one we knew at their age. It’s a networked world of instant messaging and status updates, of online friends and personalised information feeds, of social networks, location aware mobile devices and cloud computing.
A world, in short, which is full of tremendous opportunity, one that they’re already subconsciously integrating it into their young lives. They truly are digital natives, in every sense of the term, and seem to take to all this stuff instinctively. I’m holding my own, keeping abreast of the digital lingo, even if I speak it with a foreign accent. Given the current pace of change, I just hope I can keep up.
Meanwhile, I’m making a point of teaching them that feeling the wind in their hair, the sand in their toes, the crunch of leaves beneath their feet — and yes, even real live conversations with real human beings — are just as important as all this digital mallarkey. It’s about striking a balance, harnessing the potenital of the digital world without becoming beholden to it, and remembering that there are more important things in life than updating your social network status.