Blinking 00:00s on VCRs used to be the embodiment of the gap in the technological prowess between parents and children. Children today might ask about the meaning of “VCR” and, in some countries, question the need to record anything. Whether it is YouTube videos of a two-year old mastering an iPad or the surveys citing a typical child’s 500 friends on Facebook, the digital world is now firmly part of a child’s view of life. In a stark example of this trend, a friend recounted how his three-year old stood next to a picture frame and tried to swipe sideways across its glass front to see other pictures. When nothing happened, he gave his mother a quizzical look as if to ask whether anything was wrong with the “device”. The child’s view of how an object like a picture frame should function is now influenced by what he learnt from using technology. Research always highlights the “digital natives” generation but seeing them in action makes the case for a vastly different technological future very clear.
However, the nature of the generational technology divide today is not as black and white as it once was. Recently, my father received a fax of a printout of an internet article. When he mentioned that the text was grainy and not very legible, I googled the article on his iPad, at which point the long-winded route of receiving the article became clear to him. But let’s look at this example from a different perspective: the article was faxed by a friend of his from the same generation, yet it was from an internet website, and one that did not belong to a newspaper. My father owns a fax machine because technology moves at varying speeds in different markets. A fax machine is still important for his business as several of his clients and suppliers in the region still use them to communicate. However, most of his business’ communication is now by email. Whereas the normal generational technology divide would have previously had my father stuck in the world of fax machines and unable to comprehend the tools of digital communication, he owns several emails, laptops, smart phones, iPods, and an iPad. He bought my mother an iPad because he wanted her to stop borrowing his. He had previously bought her a laptop because she played Farmville so often that he couldn’t use his laptop anymore.
Is is interesting to note what he now perceives as complicated. You won’t see him syncing on iTunes or using his laptop much anymore. With the advent of the iPad, even a Macbook now seems cumbersome and complicated to him. Similarly, data bundle pricing from telcos may as well be in Mandarin. He doesn’t want to know the difference between GPRS, EDGE and 3G. He doesn’t want to have to decide whether 1 Gb is enough for him in a month. He just wants his emails on his mobile phone. Although devices are becoming simpler (thanks Apple), the services around them are not moving towards simplicity at the same rate and this needs to change. The good news is that the shift of software and services to a cloud-based model should enforce a simpler and easier interface.
There is broad consensus that the younger generations will use technology in a much more intense and persistent way than their parents. However, the ubiquity and accessibility of technology today is also affecting how all generations embrace technology in their lives. In MENA where broadband penetration is generally low but rising rapidly, the mass appeal of technology can only help create a larger audience for digital services and products.