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For decades, social scientists and technologists have alternatively predicted the emergence of “computer kids” or a “net generation”–a cohort of children, teenagers, and young adults who have been immersed in digital technology and the digital way of thinking since their conception.

This new generation, the thinking went, would be everything that their parents weren’t when it came to technology: They would know how to type, partake in electronic communications, and be able to rapidly figure out how all this stuff worked. They would be so adept at using computers that calling them “computer literate” would be an insult. They would see society as something to be mastered and hacked, not something that they need to fit inside.

Certainly, a lot of evidence supports a “net generation” effect. Although there are no reliable statistics on computer literacy, good figures do exist on Internet usage, thanks to the Pew Internet Project. According to its survey released earlier this year, 74 percent of people in the United States age 18 to 29 have Internet access, compared with 52 percent of those age 50 to 64. Among the over-65 set, Internet access plummets to just 18 percent. And in my own age group, 30 to 49, 52 percent have some kind of Net access. These figures certainly argue for the existence of a “Generation N.”

But the more time I spend with the kids who should be members of Generation N–today’s high school and college students–the more convinced I am that the notion of universal computer competence among young people is a myth.  And the techno-laggards among us risk being relegated to second-class citizenship in a world that revolves around, and often assumes, access to information technology.

People who spend years working with computers learn how to use them; people who lack that experience, don’t. I’ve seen 40- and 50-somethings who burn their own CDs and have phenomenal command of applications like Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. Like Generation N, they’ve wanted to get something done and invested the time to do it.

The difference between these old fogies and today’s teens is that, for many teens today, learning to use a computer is no longer optional. The teachers in my town’s high school refuse to accept papers unless they are typed on a computer. Typing itself is taught in the middle school (where they call it “keyboarding”); students who went to a less technologically progressive school system and transferred in are expected to pick up the skill on their own. Not a problem! “We all figured out how to get Napster going and download music,” says a friend of mine who recently graduated from Stanford University and now works for a major investment firm. Everybody her age knows how to use a computer, she says, just like “everybody knows how to change their oil.”

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