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Bill Gates, Digital Immigrant

Yep, according to author Marc Prensky, Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft and the face of the personal computer revolution is a digital immigrant. But so is Steve Jobs, Apple chairman, and Marc Andreessen, a founder of Netscape, the first popular web browser. And, as I was so correctly reminded this week, so am I. Actually, you can pretty much sum up digital immigrants as at least those born before the mid-1980’s. Even you my friend reading this right now are probably a digital immigrant, too.

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To put this in context, Prensky wrote in his piece “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” that today’s youth have “spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age.” He coined the term for this current generation as Digital Natives because they are “native speakers” of the digital language of iPods, Xbox360 and the Internet. He reports that today’s youth have been networked most of their lives and are accustomed to instant messaging, a “Facebook” style of community, and their encyclopedia being Yahoo and Google search. So where does that leave Bill Gates and all the rest of us?

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Well, Prensky somewhat glosses over the fact that digital immigrants like those above (excluding me of course) thought up, created and implemented the digital universe as we know it. And the idea that all born after the 1980s are automatically digitally inclined is sometimes countered by socio-economic status or lack of access to those networked systems. He points out that many immigrants came to technology later in life and adopted many of their aspects for their own use. But because of their upbringing, young people are surrounded by digital stimulants and their brains may have developed differently than previous analog generations. Though the old-fogeys may try to assimilate, we late arriving immigrants will also most always stand out and speak with an accent, while some will have an thicker accent than others.

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So what that means to Leaders (and management) is that the information or collaboration systems we make available to the people we lead today may meet our analog needs, but consider those coming behind us and their needs. In reality who uses them most? We need to loosen-up a few of the old stodgy ways we communicate and more readily accept new ideas and suggestions. Look around your organization and see how many young people you influence and let them influence you. And we need to expand our understanding of these communities ourselves lest we become expatriates or people who are only networked or connected for set periods (work, events, necessity), but quickly return to their analog ways of the past. To not do so widens the gap between the two cultures and information and knowledge cease to flow. Staying ahead of the bow wave seemed to work pretty good for Mr. Gates…maybe he was on to something?