Interview With TAT’s Hampus Jakobsson On Digital Natives & Digital Immigrants

For my past several columns, I’ve presented a number of interviews exploring where search might go in the future. Through that process, I ran across an interesting video from a company based in Sweden called TAT*, short for The Astonishing Tribe. The “Tribe” helps create unique user experiences that keep up with the rapidly evolving frontier of screen technologies.

I reached out and made contact with Hampus Jakobsson, TAT Co-Founder and now Strategic Alliances EMEA at Research in Motion. Hampus and I spent about 40 freewheeling minutes on the phone and in those 40 minutes, we covered a lot of fascinating territory.

Of course, fate and technology had to intervene. The audio quality of the interview left a lot to be desired. We salvaged a transcription that captured the spirit of the conversation but is not of sufficient reliability to allow for extensive verbatim quotes. So I’ll paraphrase where required, but I think you’ll find the topics covered thought provoking to the point of occasionally being jaw dropping.

The Future Of Search Behavior

As we think about what search might look like, we have to think about where those searches might occur. Today, our online experiences are pretty tightly bound to a handful (literally, in the case of mobile) of devices: a desktop or laptop, a smartphone and possibly a tablet device.

In each case, the device, while a possession of ours, really doesn’t know much more about who we are or what we want than our television, dishwasher or kitchen table does. They are, in most instances, an appliance, despite their digital capabilities.

But this is not the world envisioned by TAT. Here, the world is composed of online nodes, some public and some intensely private. We plug in and plug out of the grid as we live our lives. We may carry bits of technology with us, in our pockets, wearing them as clothing or even have them physically embedded in us (being researched as we speak in an Intel lab somewhere).

The divide between technology and biology is being assaulted on multiple fronts. Nanotechnology is already creating microscopic biological computers. The world of Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity is rapidly approaching.

If we are to consider the future of search as an experience, we have to begin to imagine the environment those experiences will take place in. And that is the ground I wanted to cover with Hampus Jakobsson from The Astonishing Tribe.

I started by asking him about a favorite interest of mine, the behavioral divide between those that grow up with technology (often called Digital Natives) and those that adapt to it as adults (Digital Immigrants). As someone who engineers experiences, how do you approach these inherently different attitudes about technology?

One of the challenges identified by Hampus was in how both groups accept technology. “Will it be used?” becomes a key question. Natives tend to judge new technologies on their functionality and inherent values. Immigrants feel more compelled to learn how to use it.

Jakobsson: They (Natives) look at an object or a phone as a tool and if they don’t like it, they won’t use it. Whereas the digital immigrants feel they need to learn this, they need to use it. (Immigrants) are much more part of the design process for us, through defining the limitations.

The Dualism Of Public & Private

Another distinct difference between Natives and Immigrants are how they define their private and public worlds. Immigrants are apt to build more rigid barriers between these spheres that make up their lives. For natives, technology has been a part of their environment that is largely taken a face value without consideration of broader implications. As PEW Internet researcher Lee Rainie said, for Natives, “technology is like oxygen, it’s just there.”

This can often lead to doing things that “seemed fun at the time” but which can turn into widely accessible and long lasting personal liabilities. Case in point: the infamous and ill thought out Facebook post:

Jakobsson: Some (Natives) are on their Facebook (profile) and they’re saying, “Oh, I had a great party with these guys last weekend,” and they don’t understand that their parents are actually listening, because they’re on the same network.

(Note to my teenage daughters: Your mother and I would never do that.)

The Translation Of Technology

The analogy often used to explain the neuroplastic process that creates the differences between Natives and Immigrants is the acquisition of language. If you learn a language as a child, it becomes your native tongue. If you learn it as an adult, you’ll probably speak it with an accent and it will always be your second (or third) language.

Research has found that the reason we learn language easier as a child is that the neurons best suited to the task are available and the required circuits are rapidly strengthened and embedded. This combination of optimal neural recruitment and adaption, fueled by the massive amount of restructuring our brains go through as children, ensure that the first language learned claims the prime neural real estate.

The second language learned has two big obstacles ahead of it. The primary language is already present in the brain’s language centers. Recent studies seem to indicate that second languages may actually live in a different part of the brain. Secondly, our mature brains are simply not as “plastic” as those of a child. The rapid selection of strengthening of neural circuits that makes learning your native tongue relatively easy is not present to the same extent in adults.

The dominance of the primary language means that it will become our baseline. The acquisition of a second language begins with a translation process – laboriously translating words back to our native tongue so we can grasp the concept, then taking the response and translating it back to the second language. Only with a massive amount of exposure and practice in the new language will we become “fluent”, able to structure our concepts in this language without translation to our baseline.

The “learning” of technology follows the same path. For Natives, technology equals fluency. No translation is needed. That’s probably why Natives accept technology for what it is, while Immigrants feel we have to “conquer” new technologies.

At TAT, they have another term for this translation process. They call it “Filmed Theatre”:

Jakobsson: When TV first came around, when people wanted to create the first TV shows, they thought, what are we going to broadcast? What they did was filmed theatre because theatre was a medium which existed and which was understood. They filmed that and then broadcast it on TV.

“Filmed Theatre” shows how we tend to try to understand new technologies by using a baseline of a technology we’re already familiar with. We’re “translating” it so we can understand the concept. But this translation also limits our ability to function in the new paradigm. It not only forces a much more rigorous mental process, it also limits us because some concepts just don’t translate well. We don’t “get it”. Hampus gives the example of an online publisher who doesn’t “get” the intensively immediate nature of online:

Jakobsson: They’re (the publisher) talking about how they’re going to update their content every 24th hour. Every night they’re going to push that content to all their users and their consumers. We have to tell them repeatedly that you can’t push things out on a every 24 hour basis. You have to push it out when the news comes in. I mean, you can edit it, of course, and write it, but you can’t do the layout at night and publish it.  That’s the old way of doing media and that’s filming the theatre.

The Dualism Of Tools & Toys

There’s another distinction between Natives and Immigrants that is becoming more prevalent in education and the workplace. In fact, it was this distinction, identified in the classroom, that first led educator Marc Prensky to coin the terms Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants in 2001.

We immigrants tend to think of things in terms of being “Tools” and “Toys”, with little overlap between the two. We use “tools” at work, and we play with “toys” in our spare time.

In the world of the Digital Native, however, the divide between the two is not so distinct. “Tools” and “Toys” are merging in more and more online instances.

As a Digital Immigrant, I maintain two social profiles: LinkedIn and Facebook. Although I have both business contacts and personal friends and family in Facebook, I have almost no personal contacts in LinkedIn. For me, Facebook is much more of a “Toy” and LinkedIn is definitely a “Tool”.

Natives seem not only to be more comfortable with this merging, they expect it. “Edutainment” is becoming the norm rather than the exception in formal education. Social and professional worlds collide on social networks. The precepts of gaming are creeping into more and more business applications. I was recently talking to a developer of a new business lead program and he’s seriously considering embedding the functionality in a game-like interface.

But Who Is Right?

As we talk about Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants from our respective sides of the divide, there is a natural tendency to try to judge the merits of each. Is being “fluent” in technology better?

Or do we Immigrants tend to take a more thoughtful approach to technology because we have to…well…think about it more? Personally, I think the whole debate is rather pointless. There is no right or wrong, no better or poorer. It is what it is.

But as someone who has to create experiences for both Natives and Immigrants, Jakkobson had an interesting perspective:

Jakobsson: People think the digital natives create all of the value, but I think that’s completely wrong. I think the digital natives do create a lot of the value, but it’s often the immigrants that “hook” it into actually how people work.

In my next column, I’ll continue my chat with Hampus Jakkobson by exploring the concept of ambient technology and how it may interface with very private technology.

*Editors’ Note: TAT was recently acquired by RIM (Research in Motion).

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content | Search & Usability

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About The Author: is CEO of Enquiro, a search marketing firm that produces search engine user eye tracking studies and other research.

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