The Digital Native is Dead… and I am pretty sure Steve Jobs is the Killer

Posted on July 15, 2014


Name: Digital Native

Time of Death: Mid-2000s

Cause of Death: Excellent design

More than a month ago I was at the TACOS workshop (you can watch the recorded session here). As part of it there were break out sessions in which we talked about issues that related to technology, the future of the profession, digital worlds etc. During one of these talks the topic of the ‘Digital Native‘ was raised. I gave a half-formed answer then, but now, after some time to think, I have managed to reform my thoughts into a half coherent message.

What is a Digital Native?

It is a weasel term that means different things to different people. I am using it in the context of people’s skills to code. There is a belief, sometimes a religious fervor, that many people hold that everyone under the age of 35 is a digital wizard. That is because we grew up with the Internet, personal computers, and now smart phones and tablets. Apparently,  maybe through osmosis??, we are masters of the digital world. Now if you think that because I am under 35 that makes me a king of the digital world and you want to give me a job because of this, STOP reading. Pay no attention to the man behind the blog. I will take your no-questions-asked job.

Confusion of Design and Ability

Another person in the discussion summed up this (dis)belief best,

“Because a kid has been raised to swipe a screen to change the page, we believe that they can code” – (very close to what they said but I don’t want to misquote them so I will attribute to Anonymous)

The discussion was specifically about training and careers involving working with digital products i.e. coding. Unfortunately, we now attribute the ability to pick up and use a tablet with the user’s skills instead of the product designed. How many billions are spent on user interfaces? One click buy on Amazon does not make you an expert in eCommerce. It means Amazon really wants your money and is trying to make is easy for you to give it to them.

Where does design end and skill start?

Take a look at this photo. What is it?

Desktop Folder Icon

Desktop Folder Icon

What does it look like? A manilla cardboard folder that we use in the real world. When PCs were invented the designers could have called folders anything – repository, holder, beebopbubop. Alright, I made up the term beebopbubop but that’s my point, they could have named them anything and used any icon they wanted. However, we use the term folder and they look like the physical folders you would find in any physical office. Why? Because that is what people in the 1980s and 1990s were use to. They used a schema that everyone was familiar with so that people would understand what to do with folders – put files in them.

5000+ years of good design

This is not new. When the ancient Egyptians began using stone what did they use as their model? Reeds. Seriously, if you go to Egypt and see the Old Kingdom stone buildings, 5000 years ago, you will see reed blinds over windows and doors carved into the stone. It is as if the stone should be unrolled to block out the sun, like a real mat (it is so cool to see). Before stone the Egyptians built with reeds and thus their first attempts at stone making was to emulate what they already knew. It is design 101 – use what people already know. If you have to explain it than you are failing.

Pyramid of Djoser, Mortuary temple – columns made to look like reed bundles. Image from Wikimedia

How Bad has It Gotten?

Ask yourself – when was the last time you change out the battery on your iPhone? iPad? Any Apple product?

You might have to go back to the very first iPod to have an Apple product that lets you change the battery. That’s right, the very concept of trusting you to change out a battery was taken from you. Steve Jobs was obsessive about his products and it shows. He is not alone and while I call out Steve Jobs in the title of this post there are countless other examples of things designed just be picked up and played with, no experience necessary. We have designed out the need to learn anything in lots of digital tools/toys.

Is this Bad?

Like everything there is a good side and bad side to this.

The good –  anyone, well almost anyone, can now use a whole range of digital products, from ages 2 to 102. This is great in that it broadens the range of digital tools everyone can use.

The bad – There is an App for That

An entire generation was born in to a world that designed for easy use, which means they have not had to struggle, invent, or learn how to code. If you read the stories of computer users in the 1970s and 1980s you will find that most of them had to learn how to code to use a computer. That was because back then if you wanted a computer to do something you had to program it yourself. Now, you buy an app for that.

People still learn to code. They still tinker and play with computers but they are a small minority. There is no ‘Generation Technology’. We have raised a generation to use ‘one click’ to buy the app that can do the work for them (Generation App or Generation Click, or drop a line in the comments on what they should be called). That, I would say, is not knowing how to code or possessing any sort of skills that employers want.  Our success, or more precisely the success of people like Jobs and companies like Apple, has killed off the “native coder generation”.

In an ironic twist, probably the closest thing to a digital native you will get are people over the age of 35-40, and only some of them. They were the ones who had to learn to code just to use a computer.

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