Technology’s Native Speakers

I first sat down in front of a personal computer in 1987. It felt strange to see the things I typed actually appear on a screen. I remember being stunned as I saw the text fill the first line I typed and the cursor magically jumped to the next line allowing me to keep typing. It was a miracle! The small pleasures in life create the most lasting memories.

The first email I received was written and sent to me in a program called “Jove,” a primitive email software system that operated on the mainframe computer of the institution I served at the time. I remember the first international email I received came to me from The Netherlands as I was working with a colleague on preparations for a professional conference. I nearly fainted when I replied to her message and only a few minutes later she was responding again to me.

With each advance came more adaptation from WYSIWYG to Windows; from a keyboard to a mouse; and from a laptop that weighed as much as a boat anchor to a tablet that feels virtually weightless. It has been an experience of constantly relearning the applications of technology in new forms.

I like to think of myself as rather “tech savvy,” but I still marvel at the ways I see young students relate to technology in a manner that seems dramatically different from my own experience. It appears effortless to them, and it drives me crazy.

Why should they be spared from suffering with manuals to learn shortcuts by a combination of key strokes? I’ve come to the conclusion that my technology experience, for most of my adult life, has been something I had to recover from. For them, this is something they get to do. As a result, they appear highly intuitive, adaptable and free to explore. They smugly customize everything they touch on any device they encounter. For them, there always has been an “Escape” or “Back” key, while the pioneers endured the harsh times as we lost pages of text for no apparent reason and with no warning.

Most of us have decided to be adult about this intergenerational injustice and simply enjoy the fruits of our labors and pass on a kinder, gentler technology world to our children. However, there is something important to recognize about my generation’s experience of technology and the experience of our younger citizens.

For many of us who were pioneers, technology has been a societal force outside of our control and, more importantly, outside of our interest. Technology has been a tool for doing things or a form of entertainment. It has been a part of our lives, but not integrated into all aspects of life. The mark of our generation is the knowledge that for all technology there is an “off switch.” For our younger colleagues, technology has been a pervasive experience – something that has been an all-encompassing aspect of life.

I have come to realize that technology for me is a “second language,” while our students are native speakers. It’s a bicultural world in which we speak the same language, but with a very different set of cultural norms and expectations.

Many of my generation look at our children and see their use of technology as a weakness, particularly as social networking has become such an amazing force in our broader culture. The problem is that for us, technology is still a world apart. But for our kids, it’s the world they know. We can’t understand why anyone would rely on text messages, Facebook posts, Tweets, and Skype as a means for extending relationships. We use these things as tools that serve when face-to-face contact is not feasible. Our children, however, do not experience a difference. For them, all these forms of interaction are valid, appropriate and productive ways for building and maintaining relationships. There is no longer a dichotomy between the real world and the virtual world. It’s all one world.

This piece was originally written for The Des Moines Register’s A Better Iowa, where President Mark Putnam served as a featured columnist.


About the Author

Mark Putnam

I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.



4 responses to Technology’s Native Speakers

I agree with your amazement at youth and today’s technology. I studied computer programming in Basic on 8 inch floppy discs, and saw computers run on Hollerith cards humidified with snow while at Central 68-72. Still I think the most important technology was the British Spitfire that won the battle of Britain and the Bombe that won the battle of Enigma at Bletchly Park. These technological weapons saved the world for decency, not some cell phone in a blue jean pocket. It is all relative.

Luanne Tilstra says:

Interestingly, I’ve heard this revolution in the way our society responds to and interacts with technology as a model for how society can change to how we respond to and interact with difference/diversity. The more one is exposed to technology, the more one can appreciate what it does for us (if we keep an open and engaged attitude). Now replace the word ‘technology’ with the phrase ‘people who are different’. That difference may be as easy to welcome as different appearance or as hard to welcome as different values.

The younger one is when exposed to technology, the more it is part of life: intrinsic to our way of being and behaving. Again, replace the word ‘technology’ with the phrase ‘people who are different’. My friends in high school were of northern European ethnicity. My daughter’s circle of friends include Chinese, Korean, African American, Bolivian, etc. The only time their race or ethnicity is part of the conversation is when an adult (teacher or parent) does something silly like not seeing the difference between Chinese and Korean culture, or expressing amazement that the blue-eyed blond runs faster than her African American friends. These wonderful your people see each other as individuals; they see the differences in culture and accept how those differences feed into personalities and behaviors, and they just go with it.

Fred Hopke says:

I am an immigrant to technology, while my children are natives. It is also true that my kids don’t know the world was ever different, while I am acutely aware that is was. I lived in the past, trust me the 1970’s were the technological past, and life was okay. Hey, we didn’t know better. Now I live in the future, a time when a hand held device can do almost anything, and if you were handed a “Star Trek” communicator today you would complain that “it’s too big and only does one thing”. I am living in “future” and I for one love it. The 1970’s ‘world of tomorrow’ could never compare to real world of today. I’m living in the “future” and loving it.
Fred Hopke Class of 1980.

Sam DuRegger says:


Great article… As I’ve delved into the world of digital for the past 10+ years, there has been an expansive shift! What you have perceived is absolutely correct… it’s one world.

I wrote this a few months ago, and I think it speaks with the same voice,

“With the internet and the “cloud,” digital experiences have become agnostic to the hardware. When one platform dies the experience lives on in the next device — no longer localized — digital experiences have become endemic to the larger networked system.

Inter-digital — when digital becomes integrated into the system, it becomes apart of more than just platforms and networks — it becomes an appendage of the person who interacts with it.”

We will never know what it’s like to play with an iPhone like my 2 year old twins do… like it’s something they’ve always known. What I get excited about is introducing them to the natural world, not to tweet and instagram their experience, but to live in them moment unplugged and engaged.

We live in fun times!