The introduction of informatics in everyday life has caused the digital revolution that we currently face. Given its accelerated dynamics, digitalization has led to the co-existence of a native analogue, “old” generation and a native digital, “young” generation. In this context, sons and daughters eventually ended up educating their parents in certain aspects of reality. Are we therefore facing the end of an educational path traditionally based on vertical transmission?
Education and teaching have been traditionally structured in a vertical manner: older generations, usually represented by parents, caregivers and teachers, educate the younger ones.
This paradigm has lasted for millennia. However, with the invention of informatics and the introduction of a digital dimension, does it still hold true?
The traditional educative hierarchy was established at the origin of human history. Simply put, oral communication represented the only way to transmit cultural content from elders to youngers.
With the invention of written language, knowledge became accessible simply by reading. In order to become a reader, a teacher was needed to explain the alphabet and the grammar. Once students could read, they still needed a guide to fully understand the history of humanity, and to discover literary products and other written sources of knowledge. In the absence of a person made of flesh and bones, the access to culture was totally denied. Thus, young pupils still required adult masters for their education.
On this line, the introduction of traditional mass media – such as radio and television – did not change much. Knowledge became more easily accessible for the low-middle class workers, who could educate themselves via broadcasting. A famous example is represented by the Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI), an educational program ideated in the 1970s to sustain active learning via radio. It was originally designed to implement teaching in poor regions of the planet (1). Despite the innovation brought into play by traditional mass-media, the pupil-master paradigm was maintained: hired personnel at radio or television stations were mainly adults, most often in the second half of their life.
However, firstly with the appearance of computers and later with the advent of smartphones, a couple of major changes undermined the traditional educative path. At school, children began to study informatics*, a discipline that – in most cases – their parents completely ignored. In this historical transition, children could experience the unprecedented possibility to understand an entire subject matter without the strict need for familiar guidance. Furthermore, they began to use digital platforms to access a vast amount of knowledge. They could avoid asking for teachers’ advice and support, finding lots of information and cultural content by themselves.
Right now, the role of the physical master has been replaced by the Google search bar, which displays no age and does not set any generational distance. Although search engines are controlled by real people behind servers that are indirectly responsible for people’s education, the act of browsing gives users the illusion they are self-educating.
“Why should I listen to my high school teacher” – a student may say – “if I can get the same information on the web less stressfully?”
Another strong issue regards the life on digital platforms. In contrast to radios, televisions and typewriters – which were mechanical tools whose functionality was very easy to comprehend – the web is a complex environment with countless unique rules. As already pointed out in the article “Digitalization: From the world of bodies to the world of minds”, informatics has introduced a novel living dimension, where young generations in particular grow and spend most of their time: social networks.
The skill and experience required to fully adapt to social networks is substantial: elders simply cannot keep up, while most of the parents who are now in their late forties or fifties could have a hard time. Even when adults are very talented and adaptive, on average it is unlikely they will become more competent than their children in digital matters. Nowadays, a lot of bureaucratic and financial activities are implemented via digital tools, and parents still need their children to help them make sense of it all: online banking, marketplaces to buy or sell things, just to mention a few.
In the 21st century, sons and daughters may eventually end up educating their mothers and fathers about several aspects of the world.
Among many others, this situation led to the current crisis of the patrilineal model: in the pre-internet era, the father used to symbolize all of the knowledge, rights and values that a son should inherit and transmit to his lineage. Now that this pact is broken, children and adolescents more easily disrespect their parents, weakening the traditional conception of family and demanding new rules to orchestrate the family unit, rules that are still far from becoming a reality.
However, is it really so urgent to set new rules?
Is this discrepancy between generations going to last over time, or is it just a contingent process destined to end?
In practical terms, the digital revolution happened extremely fast, not covering more than a couple of decades. For instance, the percentage of households in the United States with a computer at home increased by 240% between 1997 and 2016. Twenty years represent less than one third of a generation. That’s the reason why humanity is now experiencing the co-existence of digital native, “young” people and analogue native, “older” people.
From this picture, we can expect two mutually-exclusive future scenarios.
Analogue native people might soon disappear. In the next twenty years, only digital native people will give birth to offspring, thus restoring the original pupil-master paradigm.
However, if we imagine further unexpected technological advances to keep impacting on human civilization, the imbalance will hold. Newborn generations will always be “native-like” for certain indispensable cultural traits, proving themselves to be more adaptive and expert than their parents.
Only the speed of technological innovation and its applicability to daily life will tell. Right now, it is becoming critical to explore new strategies to reinforce communication between generations. Introduction of cross-age tutoring programs might help to strengthen the relationship between grandparents, parents and grandchildren: for instance, playing videogames together, or watching videos on YouTube may help elders to get in touch with the reality of youngers, at an age where children still need an active interaction with older generations for their personal growth.
Doubtless, humanity will meet other historical transitions in the future and must be trained to face them.
*As an example, in Italy at primary school digital alphabetization was officially introduced in the academic year 2003/2004.
- Ho, J., and Thukral, H., “Tuned In To Student Success – Assessing the Impact of Interactive Radio Instruction for the Hardest-to-Reach”, Journal of Education for International Development, 2009