My son recently explained earnestly to his mother that one must never, under any circumstances, text-message a girl to
break up with her. She would, in his words, “hate you forever.”
This is no doubt true, and I must confess feeling considerable pleasure at his budding concern for the feelings of others. But my wife’s telling of the story left me a bit puzzled. You see, this particular son is in kindergarten and years away from texting, though the girlfriend might come along a bit earlier.
This vignette led me to think about how changes in media, especially new media, will alter the life of my kindergartner. I am no futurist, but it seems to me that three big trends are clearly emerging.
First, the facility youngsters display with digital devices is a lot like the skill with engines that men of my father’s generation displayed. Just as there is hardly an American man in his 70s who cannot work wonders with an internal combustion engine, there is hardly a second-grader today who cannot master a mobile device. This leads me to believe the ubiquity of mobile computing will replace virtually all other ways of communicating—at work, at school or in one’s electronically entangled love life.
Second, gap will widen between those who can and those who cannot access the information stored and transmitted on these devices. Remedies for this are abundant, but the biggest impediment to using these devices isn’t the vagaries of broadband connections and wireless footprints, it is the incapacity to access information in any format, even a McGuffy’s Reader. An astounding one in seven adults is illiterate. That is more than twice the number of Americans who live in places that cannot be reached by wire-line Internet services. Without better educational outcomes, all the available technology in the world is simply a nifty toy.
Third, there is great opportunity in commerce for those who can adapt and adopt the new technologies. Firms that find ways to communicate information about goods and services, and orchestrate their delivery, will thrive. They will demand workers who are good at both traditional tasks and those that aid in communicating. That vast suite of communication skills that are the building blocks of emerging media will one day be as necessary for success as navigating the Internet and operating a computer are today.
These three trends place demands on individuals, public policy and commerce, respectively. American households and businesses will adapt and thrive; they always do. Naturally, I am far more worried about public policy.
The new world of emerging media, mobile devices and social networks will also make us learn a new and evolved set of manners. The digital natives (those under about 25, like my son) already know them. Happily, though, when I Googled “how to say I love you in text,” the Internet yielded a remarkable 319 million Web sites. Perhaps it will not be such a scary and different world after all.•
Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.