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Not so private lives

Thu, 08/31/2006 - 8:00pm
Thomas G. Robinson, Executive Vice President, CBGCommunications Inc.

I don't often feel as young as I used to, but I think I feel even more restless. Such is the dichotomy of modern life that baby boomers (I'm on the low end of the boomer age range, thank you) can now be termed the "old and the restless."

Thomas G. Robinson
It is intriguing to look at the growing technology use gap that researchers see related to young people preparing to shape the communications technology future versus those of us in the mid (and beyond) age range. For example, young people have no qualms at all about accessing a variety of multimedia content on the smallest of screens (they not only prefer, but express that they have an integral "need" for, portability), while for older generations, the bigger the screen size, the better. Younger people like multiple, different types of content to be presented to them simultaneously and like their information in quick doses, whereas older people want to focus on one presentation of a particular subject.

Speaking of time, or the lack thereof, it is the one constant between generations– no one has enough of it. We all want to have the ability to access information when it best fits our schedule. However, the younger generation would much rather access a podcast, while older people are going to look for full programs on-demand.

Finally, the old adage still holds that if you make something as easy to use as the (landline) telephone, the more those of any age will use the technology. Good examples of this are the GPS and other "smart" systems being installed in today's automobiles and available through portable units for adding to existing vehicles. Young people love to program them with touch screens, wade through multiple menus, etc., while older people need them, but their acceptance rate is forecast to grow commensurately with the growth and sophistication of easy-to-use speech recognition technology. In fact, speech recognition technology has been hailed as potentially the great equalizer between young and old generations.

One extremely interesting, and perhaps particularly disturbing, difference between the younger and older generations' approach to the use and acceptance of technology is related to privacy concerns. The younger the generation, the less they are concerned about privacy. They have become the MySpace generation, where all things personal end up being available for the entire world to access. The potential for invasion of someone's privacy, including recent examples of strangers appearing at young people's homes unannounced and with intentions ranging from benign to malicious, is endless. Yet, young people will tell you that this is the way that they, again, not only prefer but "need" to communicate. They will emphasize that they are the "open" generation that now has numerous cyber versions of the old "pen pal" all across the world.

When you talk to young people about issues like wiretapping of conversations and other invasions of privacy, they do not indicate that they are as concerned as older people. When you drill down, they indicate that they understand that they are a generation under surveillance. If you think about it, they have been watched since daycare by baby monitors and cameras. Much of their lives have been videotaped. If you were an active parent, you monitored their e-mail and their weblogs (which is in many ways ironic, that you may have to invade your child's privacy beneficently in order to protect them from predators).

The younger generations have somehow gotten used to living a very open life. Some will tell you quite indignantly that older generations have gotten into significant trouble by keeping secrets. Others will tell you that life is so complicated and so fast-paced today that they really need the "Group-think" in order to survive.

Putting an issue out there which may seem private to us, to them may be just a way of getting the feedback they need in order to deal with it. Older people, though, have "been around a long time," and they have seen the harm that invasions of privacy can cause.

There's no easy answer to this problem. By definition, an increasingly connected society, while incorporating a greater ability to communicate effectively anytime anywhere, also is a less private society. However, those of us in the communications industry may have the best insight into how we can help protect those that will shape the future of our industry and impress upon them the need to maintain the balance between communicating effectively and protecting privacy.

It is notable that while some large telecom concerns cooperated in the federal government's broad wiretapping efforts, others declined and fought the request based on invasion of privacy grounds. Our founding fathers knew the delicate balance between a free and open society and our rights as private individuals. This delicate balance can only be maintained if we work now to bridge the current "privacy gap" between generations.

Have a comment? Contact Tom by e-mail at: robinson@cbgcommunications.com

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