The Digital/Analog Mind Gap

Did you ever wonder why folks under, say 35, figure out computers so quickly, while us older folks take at least twice as long to get it? It’s almost as though we’re wired differently. And maybe that’s not too far off.

Generation gaps are nothing new. But this is much more than that. Young folks today really seem to think differently. And I think the reason comes back to the computer.

I had to adapt to the computer, which didn’t become an ubiquitous part of the work force until I was in my late 20s. Younger folks can’t remember life without a computer. I grew up watching a sweep second hand, moving slowly around a clock face. Gen-Y grew up watching digital numbers blinking out the time. I grew up sitting down for a couple of hours to watch a TV show or read a book. Gen-Y grew up switching between several hundred channels, while surfing the net and sending out text messages.

In short, I grew up in analog. Gen-Y grew up in digital. This isn’t just clever short hand. I’ve come to believe that growing up thinking digitally really changes the way the brain works.

Our brain is hard wired by our DNA. But its software (what we absorb from the environment around us) develops over time. Some of this “soft wiring” amounts to superficial habits that can be changed by our will (or with some kind of behavior modification). But other software, particularly that which acts on the brain while it is maturing, becomes embedded deep inside the brain and is very hard, if not impossible, to change. Perhaps the brain actually incorporates this software in some physical way, becoming a part of the brain’s hard wiring.

The effect that computers have on children is profound and deep in just this way. From the time they were born (unless they are Amish), Gen-Y folks have been exposed to all the variations of the digital world. As their brains began to develop by learning to solve problems, a digital mechanism was usually a part of the solution. It’s not just that an analog mind set became something quaint for them (as Frank Sinatra and Elvis records were quaint for my generation); it’s that their brains have been trained and rewired to think digitally.

Again: Young folks think in digital; folks over 40 think in analog. The implications of all this are enormous. First, it explains the question I posed at the beginning. No wonder a digital mind can figure out a computer quicker than an analog mind.

And while it doesn’t let either parent or child off the hook in trying to bridge gaps in understanding, it might provide clues as to how those bridges can be built.

In my own business of mass communication, this mind gap problem poses a more specific problem. Since most of the folks who run media companies are over 40 (at least!), they don’t always get how the younger folks working for them think. How can you sell a communication product (a newspaper or TV program) to an individual with whom you can’t fully communicate?

The answer: You hire folks who are wired the same way so they can advise you what to sell and how to sell it. But then you have the problem of communicating with that group of employees, and figuring out how to be a part of a product line you might not understand or appreciate.

This is just the tip of a large iceberg that I submit us old analog thinkers are going to have to grapple with until we’re sent out to pasture (hopefully not too soon). Somehow we who grew up in analog have to start understanding how to think in digital. Otherwise we’ll never figure out how to work with, motivate or sell to Gen-Y. And it’s not just a matter of adopting or understanding different social skills or a different psychology. We’re talking about major re-wiring or at least a manual on how to adapt an older model to a newer one. The first person to write such a manual will make a lot of money.

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David Asman is the host of "Forbes on FOX" which airs on the FOX News Channel, Saturdays at 11 a.m. ET.