A generation that put technology on hold is poised to move on. Its successors are ready to innovate with gusto, writes Curtis Hougland, CEO of Attention, in this opinion piece.

My freshman class was among the first to unpack new computers in their college dorm rooms. The “wheel of death” on my roommate’s Mac Plus haunted my term papers. In 1992, the subject line of my first e-mail to my boss at Random House read “production delay.” In 1996, my new clam-shelled StarTAC cut out during an important pitch to a growing book company called Amazon.com. The Blackberry 850 enabled a lifelong addiction in the tap-tap-tap of thumbs on tiny plastic keys (not to mention Brickbreaker!).

I am not a digital native. I am a digital immigrant.

Technology is Foreign

My generation immigratedto technology. Unlike digital natives who were born into technology, digital immigrants experienced tech only as professional adults. We developed our relationship to technology later in life, not as intuitive toddlers. So the “need state” of technology for digital immigrants was professional, even as it was intensely personal for digital natives. As technology came to dominate of our lives, it evoked feelings of dependence and anxiety in our cohort rather than the freedom and empowerment experienced by the generation that followed us.

“Unlike digital natives who experienced technology in a personal context, digital immigrants experienced technology in a professional context.”

As Marc Prensky, who coined the term Digital Immigrant in 2006, told CNN, “People will always be behind now, and that will be a stress they have to cope with.” Not only was technology new, the concept of technology as an integrated part of one’s existence was new, too. For an entire generation, there is a perception that technology changes too quickly. Yet it is not the pace of new technology that is too fast; it is the feeling our lives are moving too rapidly in response to technology. Digital immigrants developed a cognitive dissonance to technology. This cognitive dissonance slowed the technological revolution.

In “Slow Ideas”, a brilliant piece in The New Yorker, Atul Gawande writes, “Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But … people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.” So we move only as fast as our community of peers, who are digital immigrants for the most part.

Complicated Relationships

Generations of Americans were conditioned to control their destiny, to believe that hard work was all it took to get ahead. This was the American Dream hawked by Horatio Alger and Dale Carnegie. In this dream, technology promised not only efficiency, but also greater control of one’s destiny in the workplace. This promise of control was a chimera. Technology complicated every relationship in the single act of installing e-mail or signing up for Facebook.

Personal space disappeared. Privacy was laid bare. Information multiplied exponentially. As a result, job stress increased. Functions such as e-mails and calendars are perpetual. We are never truly caught up, like a generation of postmen. Yes, relationships offered more avenues of fulfillment, but they were inherently more complex.

Not coincidentally, the emergence of social media technology collided with other changes in the job market — a shift to part-time employment, greater specialization of skillsets and globalized supply chains — to wreck the social contract between employer and employee. Employers are unsettled by the perceived potential for change. A new opportunity is only a click away for every employee. Millennials now habitually opt out of jobs after two-year dalliances, in which departures can be forecast on the very day of hiring. The average American 25-year-old has already worked 6.2 jobs between the ages of 18 and 25, according to a recent study by the Labor Department. Talk of professional promiscuity!

The Danger of Analogs

This cognitive dissonance revealed itself most nakedly in social media. Digital immigrants showed up in this sphere in search of utility. The technological analogs of social media for digital immigrants are the phone and mail, which are based on simple cause and effect.

The phone rings, we answer it. In turn, digital immigrants misunderstood social media as a many-faced version of what we already knew, rather than a behavioral shift in which the concept of self was changing. Twitter is the analog of a newspaper. LinkedIn improves on the Rolodex. Facebook translated customer relationships in marketing into “friendship-relationship-management.” Social media could only progress as fast as the masses (i.e. digital immigrants) could adapt to it, and they depended on defunct conventions to understand why social media mattered, which severely stunted its progress. In the process, the technological revolution was set back by some 20 years.

As Cheryl Toledo wrote in a paper in the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, “Although digital immigrants attempt to speak the native language of the technology world, many find themselves printing out emails rather than reading them off the screen, sharing a website in person instead of sending the URL via email, editing documents on a hard copy rather than on the screen….”

Technology requires not only the right idea, but also the right amount of time and will for the idea to succeed.

“Technology complicated every relationship in the single act of installing e-mail or signing up for Facebook.”

Social Media and the Self

Digital natives behave differently in relation to technology. Danah Boyd, in It’s Complicated, writes that “[Digital natives] go online to take control of their lives and their relationship to society. Social media — far from being the seductive Trojan horse — is a release valve….” The phone is the closest reflection of their lives, which helps to explain why the world has more mobile phones than toilets.

Amid today’s incredible volume of stimuli through technology, digital natives ignore and access media in a more sophisticated and practiced rhythm, which often ignores simple cause and effect. A text can be answered within proper etiquette in a day, week or month. Their customer journey is inherently and deliberately indirect. This is because the behavior of digital natives is dominated by a sense of personal control — the context for technology into which they were born. This control is often misinterpreted as selfishness. It is not selfish; it is the nature of the entire social media movement, in which the individual expects to be at the center of his or her own experiences. Professional and personal lives intermingle in the great feed of Facebook and Instagram for digital natives.

As the dominant cultural and economic trend of the past 30 years, technology has unsettled the balance of power and threatened intellectual property in nearly every industry. The negative or skeptical attitudes of the majority of the population toward technology have invariably retarded the creation and exchange of new ideas, and in so doing damaged economic productivity. In short, the future arrived more slowly than it should have. Inevitable ideas such as augmented reality and 3-D Printing — both now more than 25 years old — failed to advance, in part because their analogs were too complex for the user to understand.

Why Reform Is Coming

The natives are restless. Society is now at an inflection point, in which the pace of invention is poised again to quicken. The catalysts are shifts in demographics, rules of economics and the cyclicality of technology itself:

  • Technology is cyclical. The basic business models of the Internet — e-commerce (Amazon.com), marketplaces (Ebay.com), search (Google) and community (AOL) — erupted between 1992 and 1996. Our social habits — LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, iPhone Apps and Twitter — entrenched themselves between 2002 and 2006. Essentially, there is a decade’s lag in technological leaps, in large part because digital immigrants require time to acclimate before adapting en masse. So, not only is the next 10-year cycle of invention imminent, it will also accelerate as digital natives assume greater control.
  • According to PAC Consulting, the world now has 1.7 billion digital natives, some 25% of the world’s population, an 18% increase in 2013. Social media represents both an operating system and an organizing principle for digital natives to express ideas and incite actions. These acts will be created and adopted faster by an emerging ruling class of digital natives. Conversely, the cognitive dissonance of digital immigrants in relation to faster-moving technology will actually increase, but it will be less disruptive as they cede decision-making control to the natives.
  • Economically, capital will follow this demographic shift. Already, marketers and venture capitalists are shifting dollars from baby boomers to millennials. For digital immigrants, the technology marketplace is a classic emerging market defined by inefficiency in the relationship between buyers and sellers (which has resulted, inevitably, in immature infrastructure). For digital natives, greater transparency, specialization and commercial infrastructure make up the foundation for a robust growth market. Money follows a growth market, and remains wary of an emerging market.

“Digital immigrants can offset the stress from their co-dependence through the perception of greater control of their digital selves.”

Meanwhile, “reform” — our ability to manage this transition — depends on the creation of products that offer an increasing sense of user control. This is the hallmark of the entire social media movement. Digital immigrants can offset the stress from their co-dependence through the perception of greater control of their digital selves. Digital natives can place themselves at the center of their experiences, a form of self-control. Developers witness this change. Facebook continues to expand user controls for who sees what in its newsfeed. Services such as Confide.com and Snapchat.com enable the user to control not only who sees a message, but for how long. Flipboard allows users to subscribe to a version of the web that looks the way they want it to. Spotify streams music on demand. Reform arrives in the short-term in the form of mobile-first development built around user control. It will still be slower than it should be for now.

Of course, this is the nature of immigration everywhere. Immigrants retain a sense of the unfamiliar, of being of two minds and two places. The case of assimilation around technology is extraordinary, in that the establishment serves the role of the immigrant, and the natives represent the outsiders pushing at the gates. I do not think the next wave of technology will create a better world, but it will create a different world. And it will come with greater velocity. As the computer scientist Alan Kay noted more than 40 years ago, the best way to predict the future is to invent it, and invention is happening faster and faster.

The struggle of the next generation will be to separate technology from the self, not to bring the self closer to technology. I sympathize with Don Draper on “Mad Men.” The decision of the partners at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to purchase an IBM 360 computer was a strident metaphor for changing times. The computer took over the place where the copywriters used to meet. The analog was replaced with the digital. I imagine that the office will actually know how to use the computer in the show’s upcoming season, but Don’s generation will always find the computer foreign, just as my generation finds social media (despite our hard-won proficiency). The IBM 360 was the first upgradeable computer, and technological change is a reminder that we, too, are upgradeable in our careers and our beliefs.

As a lifelong technologist, I want change. Change is normal. Change is necessary. Change is also devilishly difficult. As a global citizen, I want the next generation to surpass mine. I want it, in fact, to be the Greatest Technological Generation.

About the author: Curtis Hougland is the CEO of Attention, a social media marketing agency in New York City.