The Software Generation Gap

August 16, 2008

With more and more digital devices flooding the marketplace, I’m noticing a trend as I survey new users’ awareness and understanding of the devices — many don’t even realize they’re using software. I’ve also noticed that those who are familiar with digital devices and software are quick to write-off those who don’t understand. They’re labeled and dismissed as part of some “old” generation. They’re banished to a “digital divide” or “device generation gap,” because they’re not part of this elite “device generation,” etc, etc. (Substitute your preferred label.)

To me, this doesn’t seem to be so much of a generational gap as it is an “understanding gap.” There is definitely a gap, but the gap merely separates those that recognize their device interaction as being software-driven, and those that don’t. Devices used to be strictly hardware-driven. The modern equivalents are just generic computers (of some size or computational ability) running software, and that’s the unfamiliar territory wherein many new technology users get lost. That’s not to say new users can’t learn to understand, but the rapid pace of change and lack of available bridges — explanations for relating traditional devices to software-driven — does seem to be leaving many in the digital dust. As more and more users grow up in a world where software-driven devices is all they’ve known (the “Software Generation,” if you will), it’s understandable they can’t identify with those who haven’t. Imagine yourself on the other size of that gap. Grasping the difference between solid-state hardware and software-driven hardware can be difficult from the new user’s perspective. The difference is perhaps more obvious with a PC, but for those traditional devices being rapidly replaced by software-driven equivalents (think phones, radios, etc.) it’s much less obvious for those whose experience is built on the traditional device.

The Software Generation could build bridges across the gap for these “older generation, new users,” but it is paradoxical that to do so they first need to recognize that the gap exists — that there was once a world without what they now assume is ordinary, and that they are blessed (or cursed) with knowing nothing else.

So if you’re one of the few who see the gap and (like me) have lived on both sides, take the time to put yourself in the shoes of those who are still making the trip to the new world. Recognize that it’s not their intelligence or experience that is the problem. It’s their frame of reference, and I am convinced they can be connected to the modern Software Age if we’re willing to build a bridge across the gap for them.