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Computer Age Generational Divide; Different Risk-Taking Behavior?

Posted Apr 19 2012 12:00am

I have blogged previously about the idea that surfing the web and using search engines can affect one's patience for reading physical books as opposed to e-books (see: The Rewiring of Our Minds; Brought to You By GoogleIs Google Really Making Us Stupid or Is This a Far Broader Issue? ). This idea is commonly posed as the question: Is Google making us stupid? There is no question in my mind that the web and digital age changes our behavior in ways that have not yet been examined. A recent article about our "computer-controlled future" delved into this topic in ways that surprised me (see:  Competing Visions of a Computer-Controlled Future ). Below is an excerpt from the article:

Children are growing up in a world in which the distinctions between real and simulated life, as well as between machines, humans and animals, are starting to disappear, concludes Sherry Turkle.... Indeed, the behavior of small children can reveal whether their parents own iPhones and iPads. These are the children who spread their fingers across paper photo albums when they want to enlarge the images or drag their fingers across television screens when they're bored by a cartoon they're watching. According to a recent study by Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow, a person who knows that he or she can readily look up a piece of information online doesn't remember it as well as someone without Internet access. The study finds that the human brain treats the Internet as an extension of itself, as a kind of external memory. Ideally, this means that trivial knowledge can be stored in this external memory, freeing up brain space for creativity..."In terms of IT and computer use, there is an enormous divide between those born before 1970 and after 1980," Moshe Rappoport...concluded in 2008. "The former will remain digital immigrants for the rest of their lives." According to Rappoport, most young people have already logged thousands of computer-game hours by the time they're 20, thereby acquiring skills and thought patterns completely foreign to the older generation. Rappoport also argues that the change in the use of technology has had immense impacts on established companies and economic sectors. In computer games, one can quickly reach the goal through risky behavior and then simply start over again. In a similar way, the younger generation is characterized by a willingness to take risks. "Nowadays, 25-year-olds who have already established six or seven companies are no longer a rarity," Rappoport said. "In the past, a business idea was considered a failure if it stopped working after two year. But, today, it's much more about trying out ideas, implementing them and then discarding them again."

The term "digital immigrants" is used to define individuals who did not grow up with computers and the ubiquitous web and need to learn to use these tools on their own (see:  Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants: The Relevance for Pathology ). At that time nearly four years ago and in relation to the information-seeking behavior of pathology residents, I had this to say:

...[T] he most important of these assumptions on the part of pathology residents is that the web is the first place to which they will turn to acquire information about, say, a challenging case encountered in a surgical pathology reading room. I have had senior faculty colleagues express surprise to me that their residents and fellows will walk past a book shelf loaded with authoritative pathology text books and atlases and turn to on-line pathology resources for assistance in such circumstances. Many of the digital resources that they turn to may have been developed by experts in the field but, to my colleagues, they seem to lacked the weight of the hardcopy books and atlases.

It had never occurred to me that risk-taking behavior on the part of the younger entrepreneurs may have been inculcated in them by their familiarity with computer games in which they can reset a game and start again without any penalties. In a milder version and with a PC or Mac, striking Command/Control Z allows one to reverse any mistaken action. I strongly believe that computers and the web have changed my behavior and my set of skills over time. I have never played any video or computer games so I can't comment about whether they have changed by risk-taking instincts. However, I do relish the ease with which errors or poorly worded phrases can be changed with a computer. I also most certainly view the web as my "external memory" and will launch a web search with my smart phone at the drop of a hat. 

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