Redesigning Work for a Tech-Savvy World

Back in the early 1990s, long before all the excitement surrounding the Internet, I spent a weekend with an old technology buddy in Ann Arbor, Mich. The plan was to help him install a new personal computer, but the real “ah-ha!” of the weekend came from observing his seven-year-old son play Super Mario Brothers and watch cartoons on TV at the same time. The amazing thing, at least to me, was the boy’s ability to engage fully in both activities, and to be able to answer, albeit somewhat tersely, adult interruptions without losing either the boy’s place in the game or his enjoyment of the cartoons.

I can see no way that I, or most people my age, could do what these kids do without having to think about it. I can certainly learn to play video games. But interrupt me with a question and I’m lost. I can watch TV and more or less interact with others at the same time, but I soon lose track of one or the other. And I see a lot of teen-oriented TV as nothing but noise—especially the music video genre. It’s not that I don’t like the music; after all, I grew up with rock and roll. It’s the presentation I can’t get used to.

I’m a technologist from way back. I built my first computer in 1966, and I’ve been writing code since about the same time. I actually know how things like TV and mobile phones work, not just how to make them work. But I didn’t grow up surrounded by video games, MTV and the like. In the world of technology, I’m practically a first-generation immigrant, while the kids I’ve watched over the years are natives—and that makes a big difference.

Now fast-forward a decade or so to a world full of dazzlingly complicated video games, multiple channels of jump-cut entertainment, and PCs everywhere. Then add in instant messaging, chat rooms and mobile phones with short messaging services. The teenage children of my friends and colleagues use all of these technologies on a daily basis. Not only do they intermix them in complex ways, they are inventing a whole new set of languages as they do so. Depending on your point of view, their interactions with the technology and with each other through the technology are either richly complex or bewilderingly trivial—and perhaps both at the same time.

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