Generation Q

Thomas Friedman had an interesting piece in last week’s NY Times about “Generation Q” – the generation of young people today whom he calls The Quiet Americans – and why they both impress and baffle him. Friedman explains that this is a generation imbued with an improbable sense of optimism and idealism, and yet it doesn’t seem compelled by a commensurate level of activism.

Trying to figure out what drives the current generation of young people can be a challenge, and many of us in the computing world share Friedman’s sense of admiration and bewilderment. Those of us who came of age in an era of ATARI, Betamax, 9600-baud fax machines, and floppy discs – not to mention encyclopedias, phone books, pen pals, and film cameras – wonder how these kids can grow up surrounded by technology, from texting and Twittering to MMORPGs and iTunes, and not possess any desire to create it themselves (much less know how it works?)

Because, however ironic it may seem, this generation has not shown much interest in learning about computing and information technology. The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA reports that incoming freshmen have turned away from computer science as a major; in fact the number of students choosing to study it has declined by 70 percent since 2000. In addition, the very field we depend upon for future innovations in everything from medicine and national security to communications and banking may not be attracting our best and brightest: College Board data tell us that when it comes to math (a critical foundation for computing) the SAT scores of intended computing majors are lower than those of students choosing majors such as the arts, language, and biology.

Herein lies the source of our concern: this is a generation for whom information technology is an integral part of daily life. The fundamental tenets of computing pervade everything they do. Yet computing is not a fundamental tenet of their educational and occupational pursuits, and having a creative job in IT is not on their to-do lists. Why?

Perhaps we’re turning on and tuning out. In a world that requires activism, Friedman says, technology may actually be causing apathy. He speculates that perhaps this generation is “too online,” and points out that “Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy didn’t change the world by asking people to join their Facebook crusades.”

Former WNBA player and computer science major Kate Starbird blogged for us that she grew up with a computer so basic that it ran BASIC, so lacking in features that to get it to do anything remotely interesting, she had to learn how to program it on her own. Later, after opening a computer lab for inner-city girls and watching them interact disinterestedly with the fully loaded, donated computers, Kate speculated that maybe they weren’t interested in creating things with the computers because we’d made it too easy for them simply to be consumers.

Computer scientists have long defined computing as a field in which computers are used to solve real-world problems. There’s no doubt that technology has made our lives faster, easier, simpler, and safer, but there are still many problems out there that need solutions. This generation’s students will become the next generation of leaders, innovators, artists, scientists, architects, legislators, and parents, and they will do so in a world that seems more connected, informed, threatened, polarized, and accelerated than ever before.

What drives people to become creators, instead of just users? How do we develop a generation of activists?

Jenny Slade is Communications Director for NCWIT. She thinks algorithms are sexy.

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