State Permanence

State Permanence

Watching my parents and others of the baby boomer generation use technology has always fascinated me. Everyone knows the concept of digital immigrant vs. digital native. When I first read about the concept my initial response was ‘Duh!’. The fact that I grew up with it, while my parents did not makes perfect sense as to why I’m more comfortable with technology.

The implications of this generational gap in proficiency isn’t really what I want to talk about, more of the nature of it.

Why is it that people over a certain age are seemingly so scared of technology? They’re not scared of it in the sense of being afraid of a giant man-eating shark, but afraid that they’ll break it, that they might do something that would render it useless to themselves or to others.

This comes down to the concept of permanence. Piaget did lots of work on the idea of object permanence, the idea that some organisms, including human babies, don’t have the cognitive ability to understand that if they can’t see something, that it still exists, which is why peek-a-boo is such a fun game for kids, and when you take away toys, they cry. If they can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.

Now, I’m not likening our parents to babies, I’m just making a case for permanence. The technology that our parents grew up with was strong, robust, reliable and unchanging. There were no firmware updates for toasters, cars or televisions. You couldn’t add hardware to your standard car to make it run faster, or ‘pimp’ your fridge to make it more energy efficient. With the advent of computers, the idea of changing your possessions has now become the standard in maintaining attention and interest in them. The hardware I grew up with changes, and I am involved in that change, whereas the my parents never had the opportunity to do the same. The gadgets of their time performed the job they were supposed to, and if you messed with the hardware, then chances are, you’d either break it beyond repair or hurt yourself. So it wasn’t done.

With computers, the fear of breaking them still persists. What if I do something wrong? What if it can’t be fixed?
What these users need to be told from day 1 is that there are only two things that can go wrong with computers, or any derivative of them.

  1. If you are physically rough with them, they will break, just like any complicated machine.
  2. If it doesn’t work the way you want it to, chances are its not your fault, it’s the manufacturer’s (see the Windows platform)

The idea of State Permanence that exists in the minds of some computer users is an interesting one. Sure, the hardware typically remains the same, but the purpose for the existence of the personal computer, tablet or smartphone is not the hardware, but the software, something that is, by nature, dynamic and constantly changing.

The best lesson a digital immigrant can be taught is that there’s nothing they can do to break a computer. Perhaps it also eludes to the nature of education in past generations, that students are stupid and incapable of learning for themselves, that an all-powerful teacher is the only one who can distribute knowledge. This is simply not true. The difference between this generation and the last is that they were always told how to do something, and never allowed to explore on their own. They essentially forgot how to play.

So if you’re teaching an immigrant to use a computer, encourage them to play, don’t tell them what to do, but give them prompts to explore on their own, and slowly but surely, the idea that they can figure it out on their own will grow in their mind, and empower them and help them remember how to play again.

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