When I was a child, my dad would always come to me for help with just about any electrical appliance in the house. The only device he knew how to operate was the TV, but it was limited just to switching it on/off, changing channels and adjusting the volume. If he accidentally pressed some other button on the remote, he’d be shouting for my assistance. When we got a remote controlled electric fan, it took him months to finally figure out how to use it. He’d just wait for someone to come along and turn it on for him. For some reason, he had a hard time figuring out these things, no matter how straightforward and easy it seemed to everyone else. (Please don’t get me started on teaching him how to use a computer, it’s a whole new level of frustration)
Fast forward about 20 years, and here we are today in the year 2015. By now, almost everyone kinda has some level of technological literacy. While most people still don’t know how to set the time on their microwave ovens, they at least know how to send a Whatsapp message on their smartphones. After 20 years, my dad finally figured out how to check e-mails and surf the internet on his smartphone and computer. Over the years, I’ve witnessed how he transitioned from (1) printing stuff from the Internet, putting pages into an actual physical folder, so that he can share those things with me; to (2) forwarding e-mails to me; and finally (3) spamming everyone in the family with weird stuff he found online via the Whatsapp group chat.
I think many can attest to seeing their parents and grandparents slowly acquiring some technological literacy. Smartphones and tablets have certainly helped aid this transition. Perhaps, the biggest motivator is the fact that they can now watch all their Hong Kong or Korean dramas anytime, anywhere.
While most people in Singapore have learnt how to use the computer and the Internet, there is still a small minority who have absolutely no clue how to use these tools. In many ways, they have become irrelevant to society, as they are unable to contribute in any significant way (or at least, what is regarded significant by society) due to their inability to work with a computer. So even if they are willing to forego a senior managerial position, they are still unable to take up a menial administrative position, because such jobs still require the use of a computer. In addition to this, they are unable to share in the experiences or interact with everyone else. In many ways, they are exiles of society due simply to their inability to use these technological tools.
In the future, while there will most certainly be much less (or even none) who are incapable of using computers, there will be a new form of irrelevance, one that is beginning to manifest itself in the present. This irrelevance is in the form of not understanding the new tools (apps) of interaction.
Let me illustrate this problem with my own experience. I am no technological dinosaur. I can set up the time on a microwave. I can code in several languages. I have set up parallel computers (put simply: supercomputers), and programmed them to crunch huge chunks of numbers. If you give me any new piece of technology, whether it’s hardware or software, I am able to master and learn it very quickly.
However, in recent times, I find myself having difficulty with certain apps. These apps are not difficult to use. The difficulty exists because I don’t understand what the app is for. Take Twitter, for example. I’ve had an account for years. I’ve tried on and off, but with much failure. I simply don’t get it. How do you write anything meaningful in less than 140 characters? What’s the point in saying something so ridiculously short to the entire world? Facebook makes a lot more sense to me because I am sharing my life and thoughts in more than 140 characters. I can write substantially and share it. And best of all, because my posts are limited to my friends, the sharing is more meaningful and directed. There is decent conversation. But Twitter? I don’t get it.
But this problem is not limited just to Twitter. I don’t get Tumblr either. Content producers are few. And almost every other account on Tumblr consist of people sharing other people’s original content. What’s the whole point in that? Instagram, at least, makes a little bit of sense to me. But I don’t see why I should bother with Instagram when Facebook does the same job.
What’s going on is that with the advent of these social media apps, an entirely new culture and paradigm of interaction and engagement has emerged.
It is this new paradigm that makes everything about Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and every new social media app on the market, seem so senseless to me. I know how to use these apps, but I don’t see a point, and consequently, I don’t know how to engage and interact with people on such platforms.
Having been lamenting this inability to understand Twitter, I realised I’m not the only one in my circle of friends.
It is this, “I am not getting it,” that is affecting my peers and those older than us. Of course, many of my friends just shrug it off. They don’t think it’s a real problem. “We’ll just leave the kids, the younger generation to have their fun.” Or “This online service is not my thing.”
I, however, think that it is a real problem. If we don’t see a point or purpose in this developmental trend in technology, it shows that we don’t have even a remote understanding of what it’s about or how it’ll affect us in the future.
It may not be a big problem now, but it will most certainly be a big problem in the near future.
Many organisations are already ensuring that they are able to reach out to the public through these new means of communication. This lends support to the perpetuation of such a new cultural and paradigm of online interaction. And as the younger generation grow up to develop new apps and systems for the world to use, communications and interactions will inevitably be based on this new culture and paradigm. So, we’re going further away from the more “traditional” models of blogs, of Facebook, of lengthy materials, to exchanges that are short and instantaneous.
Maybe, with the rapid transformation of cultures thanks to technology, an entirely new paradigm for engagement and interaction online would have surfaced. Or even two paradigms given how fast things have changed in recent years. In which case, we are not just one world behind, but possibly two or even three worlds behind the younger generations.
Already, we look at some old people with bewildered looks because the things they say sound really strange. In the future, the younger generations will look at us with even greater bewilderment, just as how we are so weirded out when we read about the crazy norms in ancient civilisations. It will only get worse.
Thus, the new form of irrelevance in the technological future is this: Simply because we don’t understand this new culture and paradigm of online interaction, we will be excluded from the public discourse as the bulk of all discourse will continue on these new platforms, in accordance to those new cultures of engagement and interaction. We will not know how to effectively communicate with the younger generation, and perhaps we may not be able to share our wisdom, thoughts, and experiences with them. Being excluded from the public discourse on such platforms, we will become the new class of invisibles. Invisible to the younger generations because we are unable to voice ourselves in ways that would engage or attract their attention. And just like the current class of old people unable to find decent employment because they don’t know how to use the computer, we too may end up being like them, unable to find employment because we are unable to source for work on these platforms, simply because we don’t understand how we’re supposed to interact with people online to get work; or because we cannot effectively fulfill our tasks on these platforms because we just don’t get it enough to use it properly.
It is a scary thought, but this future possibility presents itself in my face every time I try to use Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and every other new service, only to be frustrated because I just don’t see the point in using these things.
This is the trend on the Internet. Every new service seems to model itself on a Twitter-like model of interaction.
If you understand Twitter and the other apps, good for you. Don’t be complacent, and keep learning how to use newer services in the future.
If you don’t understand all these other social media tools, and you don’t understand what I’m saying, then I think you should give Twitter a try. Start an account, follow a few people, and try posting something. As you struggle with your attempts to write something remotely interesting, and as you struggle to find people to engage with your writings, imagine that this is the future of all online interaction and work. This is a glimpse of how you’ll become irrelevant to society in the future.