Neither digital native nor mired in analogue cement: I’m the adaptive generation
Those knobbly bits on the side of your phone? They’re ‘buttons’, matey
“Don’t they teach you anything at school?”
This was a refrain often heard by those of my generation when we were starting out in the job market. It was always delivered by those with seniority over oneself in both experience and years – i.e. some crumpled old failure stinking of cigarettes and piss.
It used to frustrate me enormously as a youngster that I was not in a position to fire back with a sarcastic “OK Boomer!” since I had, myself, been born in the official final year of the Baby Boom. Not only would the above-mentioned retort have been inauspiciously self-referential, it had yet to be invented and so I would have risked ripping another tear in the time-space continuum.
Stand-up comedian Mark Watson recently recalled on BBC Radio 4 about getting a part-time job at the local supermarket, as soon as he was old enough, and being shouted by a customer while working on the checkout tills. He had to weigh some fruit whose appearance was unfamiliar to him and asked the customer what they were.
“GREENGAGES!” screamed the customer. “They’re GREENGAGES! Don’t they teach you anything at school?”
Admittedly the curriculum has changed repeatedly since I was at school but I don’t recall ever having to write “…Maths - Physics - English Lit - Double Greengages…” in my weekly timetable. In fact, the Identification of Fruit for Weighing Purposes simply never arose at any point in my education. I certainly don’t remember dropping Fruit Studies in my third year so that I could focus on Latin.
Despite this, anything and everything would be thrown back at you by your elders and betters as evidence of your lack of education. What do you mean you can’t juggle with knives? Can’t identify a capercaillie from 700 yards? Can’t roll a cigarette with one foot? Can’t kiss your own backside? Can’t jump from a plane without a parachute? Can’t find a cure for cancer? Can’t bring peace to the Middle East? Can’t solve the population crisis or single-handedly halt climate change?
Don’t they teach you anything at school?
Even after I embarked upon my career in computer magazines, my Dad, a clinical psychologist, used to complain to me that his MSc university students couldn’t write in coherent sentences. Didn’t they teach us anything at school, he would ask. Apparently the illiteracy of his post-grad dunces was mine too, by association based on age group.
I can’t remember exactly when the situation flipped but I do remember the satisfaction with which I would pick and choose when I would be free to help him operate his new TV remote control. Technology was a breakthrough for my generation: it gave rise to the cliché of bright sparks like us shaking our heads at sad old duffers trying to push floppy disks into the fan vents. Oh how we enjoyed that, stifling tears of mocking mirth as we snorted into our lattes.
Sandwiched precisely between my generation and that of my parents was the one that invented personal computing.
In the spring of 1973 – that’s 50 years ago (in case you don’t have a calculator app to hand) – a bunch of bean-bag-huddling mentalists at the photocopier manufacturer Xerox unveiled the Alto. This was arguably the world’s first modular computer designed to fit comfortably and independently at a user’s desk.
The PARC research and development team had looked at what IBM was up to and thought it would be a wheeze not to put a computer inside a gigantic walk-up console covered in knobs and dials. Instead, they conceived the idea of cramming all the processory-thinky stuff into an low-rise box that could be left on the floor, while the display unit and keyboard would be separate pieces of hardware connected to the big box with external cabling.
This meant you could install it in just about any office – even on an ordinary desk – and still have space in the same room for that all-important Xerox photocopier.
Subsequent updates on the Xerox Alto concept over the remainder of that decade added a mouse as a pointing device, formulated the convention of a menu bar and conceived a graphical user interface based on the analogy of files and folders. Oh, and Ethernet networking and object-oriented software design.
It would still be a good eight years after the first Alto appeared before Steve Jobs even saw one and experienced his famous epiphany: “It was obvious to me that all computers would work like this.”
To some readers this must sound like pre-history. This is especially the case with kids currently going through high school. I mean, a modular computer? Who uses one of those any more?
Well, you have to wonder what might have happened if that wacky bunch at Xerox had been allowed to pursue Alan Kay’s all-in-one portable Dynabook concept from five years earlier. Check out the photo of the concept design, below. Looks familiar, doesn’t it? This was in 1968: the year The Beatles sang Hey Jude.
Now, what’s really odd is that the generation situation has flipped straight back again. Just as I thought my own tech skills ought to be slipping into geriatric irrelevance, I find myself having to help youngsters find the SHIFT key…
These days all my peers seem to have anecdotes to share along the same lines. One claims to have employed a business school graduate to work on the sales team only to find that she didn’t know how to calculate a percentage. Another said that someone who had just joined their creative team was coming up with utter shit for their luxury goods client; it turned out they were slotting clipart into templates on an app on their smartphone in the genuine belief that this was how creativity works.
A mate in Belgium shared this wonderful report with me about Generation Why and Zedders crashing and burning on tasks as challenging and complex as pressing the big green button on a photocopier.
It quotes an extract from Reddit in which a Millennial said he had been asked during a tech job interview which aspect of computing he disliked the most. When he replied “Printers”, the interviewers pissed themselves laughing.
Apparently, this is a real thing: the digital-native generation is so highly adapted to the handheld screen that it struggles to adapt to anything that isn’t an app. Printers, photocopiers, scanners… machines with moving parts in general. Other tasks they find overwhelmingly challenging include reconnecting to the internet when the connection drops, and dealing with a freeze in the middle of delivering a presentation.
It’s not that they can’t press CTRL+ALT+SHIFT or press that green button on the copier: it’s that they feel “tech shame” about their under-preparedness to deal with unfamiliar environments – you know, such as the real world.
According to a study by HP, one in 25 mature employees believe colleagues are sniggering behind their backs about their lack of technical know-how. For younger employees – “digital natives”, remember – this fear is felt by as many as one in five.
Worse, even though these bright sparks make sure they include “mastery of MS Office” among their skills listed in their CVs, it turns out plenty of them don’t have the faintest fucking idea how to add some numbers together in a spreadsheet. This might in some way be related to the fact that nobody reads software manuals or consults the Help menu, while TikTok videos showing Excel hints and tips can easily register subscriber numbers in the millions.
I’m really not sure how much useful Excel tuition you can fit into a 30-second portrait video two inches across. Actually, I am: none at all.
For heaven’s sake, don’t they teach them anything at school?
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. While 1973 should be engraved in the hearts of everyone who ever worked in the development of personal computers, for me that year will always be when Pink Floyd released Dark Side of the Moon. It’s not necessarily my favourite band or album, but I still imagine the world that preceded it as being filmed in black and white with a hair stuck in the shutter.
UK English teaching was awful in the '70s & '80s. Your Dad was right, Mr Dabbs. I know loads of people who had to re-educate themselves later on. To catch up on all the stuff they failed to tell us about! I learnt more about English from my French tutor than from 10 years at school. Bs for Eng Lang & Eng Lit 'O' Levels meant NOTHING.
Some of my younger colleagues could read a long technical article on a screen with comprehension, whereas I had to print it out and scribble on it. OTOH, they were old enough to be impressed when I told them I started doing serious computing on a VAX running BSD UNIX bearing license number 2. FWIW, I had my first greengage experience a year or so ago, from a jam in a jar. I still don't know what they look like in the immature state.