At this point,the internet has been part of my life for about 15 years – that’s half my life. It seems like a good time to ask what will be normal for my daughter in 15 years. Most people I know became aware of her existence via Facebook, and she will live her whole life online.
“The internet – what’s that about then?” I was asked that in 2001 by a friend at university. It’s not a question anyone would ask these days though. My 6 month old already gets how an Ipad works, she will be using computers before she can read.
I was a teenager when the internet emerged. I remember at school being shown it by the IT teacher who spoke of it as if it was a mystical elixir. I remember searching for my football club’s website and waiting 20 minutes for a page of facts to download.
Its near-impossible to predict what will be normal online for our kids. Many years ago, when Facebook was just starting, a friend and I had a drunken discussion about setting up a social network and we decided that the future was a service which just involved people posting real-time close up pictures of their genitals, because eventually, it would be the only thing left that you didn’t know about a person. But reality has caught up with our hilarious satirical vision – chatroulette, grindr and blendr are running with the idea, and that dick-pics are common in online dating now too!
The questions my generation have asked ourselves about online and offline boundaries just will not apply to Ada, and the question that my parents generation ask – “why, what do you do online, what’s it all for?” will either be irrelevant, or more relevant than ever.
I think the classic false-assumption to make is that people use the web (especially social media) to replace a real-life activity whereas actually it’s an addition, or an enhancement. But if it is ever-present in your life, as it will be for all our kids, it won’t be an addition or an enhancement, it’ll just be life.
There’s a political debate about how to keep kids safe online – to make them aware of the difference of online life and offline life, to protect their own privacy, to avoid being exploited. How to survive in a world where cyber bullying exists and where your enemies are as connected to you as your friends. We have this fear that living online is like living in a hall of mirrors, your life reflected back at you in words you wrote previously, forever damaging, forever there.
But I think these are only issues to those of us old enough to remember life before the internet. Our kids will live online in exactly the same way as they live everywhere else – they won’t ascribe any significance to the difference between online and offline, in the same way we make nothing of the distinction between life when “on the phone” and “off the phone” (I like to think of my online personality as the equivalent of my telephone voice – its just me adapting to a medium).
I’m not going to need to teach Ada about how to distinguish online and offline, I think it’d be a pointless task and I couldn’t teach her anyway.
But there are some much more fundamental things she will need to know, and that I can teach her. I can show her how to focus on one thing at a time, teach her how the library works, and help her understand how rewarding and reinvigorating it can be to experience solitude, exclusion and isolation. To have time just to think. I can teach her how to draw strength from friends wherever she finds them, and to insulate herself from her enemies (sorry, pomposity alert – think that last line may have been from a Spiderman film…). I can help her define herself in relation to something other than the opinions of her peers, or the comments she makes online.
I will try to make her understand that having a great time is more important than photographing it, and that the value is not in the sharing, but in the moment itself.
Not sure whether I can to teach her these things without resorting to Wikipedia though…