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Experts in human-computer interaction say that the real difference between teenagers and their elders is teens’ willingness to experiment with computers, combined with their acceptance of the seemingly arbitrary conventions that are endemic to contemporary computer interfaces. In other words, teens aren’t worried about breaking their computers, and they’re not wise enough or experienced enough to get angry at and reject poorly written programs. The teens just deal with computers, as they are forced to deal with many other aspects of their lives. These strategies, once learned and internalized, are incredibly effective for working with today’s computer technology.

Likewise, today’s systems are teaching their users–young and old alike–to multitask as never before. Just as their parents talked on the phone while doing math homework, today’s teens browse the Web, send e-mail, and simultaneously engage in multiple chat and Instant Message sessions while allegedly working on an essay. A friend of mine has a daughter who developed a flair for language: she routinely has chat windows going in English, French, and Japanese–and both her parents are native English speakers!

But the point that seems to have escaped my friend is that everybody doesn’t know how to change the oil on their car. It’s not a generational thing; it’s simply the result of 20 years’ experience. But when you are surrounded by people who all share the same technological skills, it’s easy to forget that there are others who aren’t with the program (so to speak). Unfortunately, with the changes overtaking our society, today’s kids who don’t have tech experience and tech aptitude are going to be left behind much faster than their elders.

And that’s the danger in believing that time will give us a population that’s completely computer literate. Remember, the Pew study found that 26 percent of young adults do not have Internet access. An even bigger determiner than age is education: only 23 percent of people who did not graduate from high school have Internet access, compared with 82 percent of those who have graduated from college.

Certainly, more kids today are growing up wired–but millions of them are not. Meanwhile, we’re rebuilding our society in ways that make things increasingly difficult for people who aren’t online. For example, people who don’t want to (or can’t) buy their airplane tickets on the Web now typically have to wait on hold for 30 minutes with the airline or go through a travel agent and pay an agency fee–sometimes as much as $50. When I needed to renew my passport, the local post office didn’t have the form: they told me to download it from the Internet.

This is a problem that won’t be solved through more education or federal grants. As a society, we need to come to terms with the fact that a substantial number of people, young and old alike, will never go online. We need to figure out how we will avoid making life unbearable for them.

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