When it comes to technology, I am a relatively recent convert. Or maybe I am a reconvert, since I took programming classes in the early 1980s and distinctly remember using Basic to create a simple game of some sort. But I lost interest. Shame, really, as I might be a Silicon Valley billionaire by now if I had kept with it.
Anyway, having lapsed in this way, the upshot was that in the early 90s I marvelled at the clever pcs that not only allowed me to write up my thesis but also to play Tetris when it got too much. I only learned to use email in 1997 when it was adopted by my workplace. In 2000 my boss announced he was setting himself the challenge of doing all his Christmas shopping online. We thought this put him right at the cutting edge.
It was all mildly interesting but as long as I could use Excel and email it didn’t seem that important. But my re-awakening started in late 2007. I suddenly realised that almost everyone I knew under 30 was doing something called “Facebook”. It was one of those sudden moments when you feel old, you realise that a new generation is speaking a whole language you don’t understand.
Being a curious sort of person, I started investigating and pretty soon I was sucked in. You know how it is. You start off looking at a few blogs and before long you have a Google reader account. You download some podcasts and then find you are subscribing to 20, including some obscure amateur ones. I started devouring the works of the movement’s prophets – Don Tapscott, Clay Shirky, Seth Godin, Chris Brogan, Wired magazine. These people were showing the way to a new promised land, and I could get there sooner with their help.
I became a bit of an evangelist for the movement – giving presentations at work on how social media is transforming education and we need to be ready, and encouraging anyone I knew to sign up to LinkedIn and Twitter. I went through some initiation rites – my first retweet, my first conference using a Twitter backchannel, my first comment on someone else’s blog, my first gathering of self-described “geeks”, most recently setting up this blog.
Sure, there were those who scoffed, who said Twitter was a waste of time, Facebook banal and actually things weren’t changing as much as you thought. Email was perfectly good enough for them. I got irritated by the amount of email traffic generated by my book group and suggested we set up a Facebook group, which would be a much more efficient way of communicating. All of them flatly refused. But I could afford to be smug. The technology/social media revolution was coming like an unstoppable wave. I was among those who could see it coming and others would, in time, be forced to admit that I was right and they were wrong.
Currently, I am pushing forward my own skills with technology, thanks largely to the fantastic group of fellow believers I have discovered on my OU course. But at the same time, I am having doubts about whether this transformation really is coming, whether the “digital natives” really exist, let alone whether they are going to transform our world. I am currently running an experiment of encouraging my students to follow me on Twitter in order to have contact between classes. In the process, I have discovered that barely any of my students (trainee accountants, mostly in their early 20s) are on Twitter, or have any desire to go on it. They will chat and share photos on Facebook, but that’s it – just an extension of texting really. I have accumulated over 100 contacts on LinkedIn, of whom about half a dozen use it actively, and most of them run their own businesses and use it primarily for marketing. I was reviewing the OU’s work on Second Life recently. Impressive stuff, but I have still never met anyone who actually uses Second Life.
So are we really in the vanguard of a new age, who will ultimately be vindicated? Or are we just a slightly weird bunch of people with unusual interests? I will try to deal with the doubts for now, but in the meantime I could really do with another tech conference.