Accomodation vs. Assimilation:
Why the Generation Gap Actually Matters When It Comes to Computing

Piagetian psychology helps explain why it is that old foggies have such trouble driving on the information superhighway.  According to Piaget's model of learning, once a stimuli has been processed as new knowledge (as opposed to simply discarded) it must find a place in the existing structures of the brain.  Two ways exist of doing that: assimilation and accomodation.

When one encounters something with four legs and a tail, there is already (hopefully) a part of the brain which recognizes these features and concludes that this is an "animal."  If this creature has never been encountered before, this new knowledge will be stored in the part of the brain which remembers animals.

However, when something totally unknown makes its way into our lives, we have to deal with it.  If this new knowledge, concept, or skill does not fit in with existing structures, we must accomodate it in a new place.  This is far more difficult because there is little to attach it to.

When older people look at a computer, they see it as a typewriter with a tv in front of it.  Typewriters and television sets are known things.  Computers are altogether new entities.  But not for a generation which has grown up to see computers as an encyclopedia, dictionary, thesaurus, phone, phone book, stereo, word processor, entertainment center, etc.  As the years pass, computers can grow increasingly complex without fearing that there will be no one to operate them.  Generations will grow up able to assimilate new knowledge into their existing conceptions of what a computer is capable of.

I was lucky to be born on the other side of the paradigm shift which effectively left my father in the dust (he only just got on-line just this millennium).  However, I am struggling to keep up with the second shift (driven on very rapidly by the first).  That is, of course, the networked world.  Although I take it for granted in many aspects of my life, occasionally I find myself reaching for one of those old, unreliable 3.5" floppies when I could just email to myself the file I need.

We're at a point where the network is more reliable that physical storage media.  Somehow, seemingly overnight, we quietly shifted into this new world where it is faster, easier, and more reliable to send data to a server somewhere (maybe on the opposite coast) and to retrieve it... all instead of just carting it across the room.  Go figure.  It's hard for the older generation to "get it" that digital is better and more capable.

In the late '90s, an email was sent out at work with an electronic form for interested employees to fill out.  I didn't get a copy, so I asked one of my coworkers, an older lady to send me a copy.  She printed out the form and handed it to me.  I looked at her like she was crazy.

"I meant an electronic copy," I said.

"Why?" she asked.

"So I won't have to retype the form."

Copyright 2007 Ale[x]plorer.

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