Magnetic-Storage-Media Natives

A colleague recently forwarded me a light-entertainment link to a blog post and associated video clip showing what happens when a bunch of young children are confronted with old and obsolete technologies (VideoDiscs, 8-track players, an enormous HP rollerball, etc.) and asked to guess what they are.

The footage itself is endearing, funny, and very, very sweet. But what I found most interesting, once my initial don’t-kids-just-say-the-darndest-things reaction had faded, was the apparent mismatch between what is actually shown in the clip, and the editorial slant taken toward what is shown in the clip.

The rhetoric is familiar. The ages of the children aren’t given – to my untutored eye they look somewhere between eight and ten – but they’re all clearly Digital Natives. Le Monde accordingly promises “un grand moment d’incompréhension!”, a note also struck in the captions at the end of the clip bemoaning the fact that these technologies are ‘scarcely thirty years old, and are already antiquities’ – as though the children are left reeling in confusion by the bizarre artefacts they’re faced with.

But the thing is, by and large, that they’re not. Watching the clip, the kids seem to use the following rough heuristics in their (very hands-on) approach to the tech:

  1. If it doesn’t have any obvious buttons, switches, or other affordances to manipulate then it’s a storage medium (in a way, even the girl who identifies a 3 1/2″ disc as a bank card is right about this)
  2. If it does have buttons and switches and you can insert something into it, it’s a reader for a storage medium.
  3. If it has buttons and switches and you can’t insert anything into it, then it’s a game (understandable given the age of the children – though full points to the boy who works out that a rollerball is really just a mouse on its back)
  4. Every device has an ‘on’ switch (hence the girl’s joy when she lifts the arm on the turntable and it starts spinning, followed by incomprehension when she discovers she can move it radially; likewise the perception that a rotary phone dial serves to activate the phone)
  5. If it has a plunger on top, it’s probably a bomb.

Furthermore, with the exception of #5, all these rules work pretty well. A 5 1/4″ disc basically is a CD case; floppies, eight-tracks, and ColecoVision cartridges essentially are cassettes, in one form or another. And once you couple this with the idea that you’re going to have to stick the “cassette” in some other device to get anything out of it, you’re 90% of the way to being competent with that technology.

Of course, the problem with this stick-it-in-the-device-and-see understanding is that, what with everything allegedly moving to the Cloud and a purely online existence, it is foreseeably obsolete. If Google, Amazon, and the many, many Cloud-based startups are right, within five to ten  years the very idea of portable consumer storage media will be veritably antique.

In which case, we’ve rather miscalibrated our own sense of the March of Progress and our own relationship to it. On the (admittedly scanty) evidence of this clip, the real technological consumer revolution occurred way back in the ’70s, with the advent of the eight-track, and the current rising generation is right there in the same boat with us ageing punks and GenXers: we’re all actually Magnetic-Storage-Media natives, mere australopithecenes about to be out-evolved by the true Digital Natives. The Children of the Cloud.

Of course, it doesn’t work like that. And anyways, I’m not worried about the kids. They’ll adapt – just as we adapted, back in the 90s, to the explosion of the web and digital technologies. And if the clip is anything to go by, they’ll even do it with inventiveness and energy.

No, what worries me is the adults. The editors and the analysts. The ones who can only look back and grow dizzy,  stunned by the shock of the not-so-new. The ones, paradoxically, who seem most impressed with technology, and who might thus very well miss any real revolution to come because they’re still getting over the fact that digital media used to be square and fit in a disc drive.

And now they’re oblong, and go in the USB slot.

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