Why Digital Natives Are Not The Future

Why Digital Natives are not the Future

19th Oct 2013

We often talk in hushed and reverent tones about the motivations and media habits of ‘Digital Natives’ – how this group is different from previous generations in terms of their interaction with technology and media channels; and from a marketing perspective, how we can best communicate with them and persuade them.

Looking through this prism of a rapidly changing digital world, I picked up on an interesting piece by Will Self, (courtesy of @mweigel – http://martinweigel.org/2013/10/13/what-is-the-future-of-cultural-production-discuss/) who was commenting on the work of Marshall McLuhan (1911 – 1980), a Philosopher of Communication Theory and the man who gave us the expressions – The Medium is the Message and The Global Village ; and was also responsible for predicting the World Wide Web almost thirty years before it was invented.

McLuhan’s work is viewed as one of the cornerstones of the study of Media Theory, as well as having practical applications in the advertising and television industries – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan

McLuhan has a rather sobering take on the importance of content in the digital age.
In essence his points are –
1) The nature of content produced is considerably less important than how it is delivered and how it is consumed –

Will Self observes – ”McLuhan’s point is that when it comes to the impact of new media on the human consciousness – both individual and collective – content is an irrelevance; we have to look not at what is on the screen, but how the screen is used. McLuhan saw in the early 1960s that all the brouhaha about what imagery was shown on television and what words were spoken was so much guff; the transformation from what he termed “the linear Gutenberg technology” to the “total field” – one implied by the instantaneity of electricity, was all that mattered….. ”

2) We may look at a nascent digital generation and idly consider that they are the future. They are not, they are simply one small step in a sequence of rapid changes leading in an entirely unknown direction –
Again from Will Self –

”For those who think that narrative art forms are in a state of crystalline stasis, it’s worth taking a slightly longer view: film is only just over a century old, the novel as we commonly understand it a mere two centuries old – the copyrights that protected them are about 150 years old…..The young, who cannot read a text for more than a few minutes without texting, who rely on the web for both their love affairs and their memories of heartache, and who can sometimes find even cinema difficult to take unless it comes replete with electronic feedback loops, are not our future: we, the Gutenberg minds have no future, and our art forms and our criticism of those art forms will soon belong only to the academy and the museum.”

I think Will Self’s use of Johannes Gutenberg (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Gutenberg) as the name for the existing ‘print generation’ is interesting, as the reference to the 15th century, correctly implies a ready made obsolescence.

But what is also clear, is that this pace of change in our society means that the speed at which future generation’s perspectives and habits will become obsolete – is going to increase exponentially.

It must also mean that our current definition of generational groups in terms of time – such as Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y; presently delineated by a period of approx. 20 – 25 years, is surely way too long. We need to start thinking about much shorter periods of categorisation – perhaps even as low as 10 years?

This increasing velocity is a massive challenge for governments, marketeers, and educators – anybody who is grappling with how to engage younger generations. It’s hard now, but it’s going to get harder – exponentially.