Generations and Technology

What is considered humorous in a given society can be very telling about attitudes and thought processes in that culture. One of the best places to look for humor nowadays is in television programming. Take a moment to watch this clip (original air date November 4, 2010) from the NBC sitcom Community. It shows an old man, Pierce, and his struggle with new, digital technology in an attempt to spy on his friends.

The viewer expects Pierce and his friend to be looking at images from the spy camera, but it turns out that they are strugling just to read the instructions about how to access the photos. The show is poking fun at the elderly’s incompetence with computers.

In a 2008 article in The Chronicle, Siva Vaidhyanathan posits that there is no such thing as a “digital generation.” And, of course, there is no date of birth around which we can segment society so that one side is digitally proficient and the other side completely incompetent.

Even though there may not be a clean dividing line between generations, young people who have grown up around technology often have a better grasp on technology than do their older relatives.  As explained by Ito et al. in their White Paper, kids in many families act as a “broker” or “technology expert,” helping their parents with web surfing and other digital activities. The Community clip confirms that this is, at the very least, a common enough stereotype to warrant jokes.

If a similar scene were to air 40 years in the future, it would not be nearly as funny to nearly as many people.  By that time, even the elderly would have grow up around computers. And computer struggles would be the problem of a past generation.

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