Touching Screens: Digital Natives and Their Digits

Since I attempted to brand and explicate the Advent Horizon idea, the following clip has been circulating online. “The new generation is growing up with more digital than print media,” deigns The Huffington Post. “They play with their parents’ smartphones, tablets, laptops. We guess It’s only natural that they examine items that don’t respond to touch — and then move on to the things that do.” Danny Hillis once said that technology is the name we give to things that don’t work yet. I think this baby would disagree with that statement wholesale.

Though I find the sentiment that Steve Jobs “coded a part of her OS” a bit much, this clip reminds me of a story  by Jaron Lanier from the January, 1998 issue of Wired about children being smarter and expecting more from technology. Lanier wrote, “My favorite anecdote concerns a three-year-old girl who complained that the TV was broken because all she could do was change channels.” Clay Shirky tells a similar story in Cognitive Surplus (Penguin, 2010). His version involves a four-year-old girl digging in the cables behind a TV, “looking for the mouse.”

Without mutual engagement and accountability across generations, new identities can be both erratically inventive and historically ineffective. — Etienne Wenger

These are all early examples of a new Advent Horizon being crossed. The touchscreen, the latest ubiquitous haptic device, is here to stay. To those who are growing up with it, everything else seems “broken” — much like a TV “that only changes channels” to a native computer user. We become what we behold.

Why am I always looking at life through a window?
— Charlie Gordon in Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

The screen is already the most seductive of technologies. Think about how much time you spend staring at one screen or another. Iain Chambers (1994) writes, “In the uncanny property of the computer to present a ‘world picture’ we confront the boundary set by the screen, the tinted glass that lies between the apparently concrete world and the simulated one of ethereal lights” (p. 64). We want to get in there so bad. Think of the persistent dream of entering the screen and the machine: NeuromancerTRONSnow CrashLawnmower ManVideodrome, and even Inception, among many, many others. It has a mythology all its own.

To its end, we’ve gone from wearing the goggles and gloves of most virtual reality systems to using our bodies as input devices via the sensors of Wii and Kinect, bringing the machine into the room. Where our machines’ portability used to be determined by the size of the technology available, the size of our devices are now dictated by the size of our appendages. We can make cellphones and laptops smaller, but then we wouldn’t be able to hold them or press their buttons individually, a limitation that the touchscreen is admittedly working around gracefully. Still, we have to design at human scale. These are the thresholds of our being with our technology.

The Machine is not the environment for the person; the person is the environment for the machine. – Aviv Bergman

The long-range question is not so much what sort of environment we want, but what sort of people we want. – Robert Sommer

We have to think carefully and cumulatively about what we design. Technology curates culture. Technology is a part of our nature. How will we control it? The same way we do our lawns or our weight: Sometimes we will; sometimes we won’t, but we have to remember that we’re not designing machines. We’re designing ourselves.


Chambers. I. (1994). Migrancy, Culture, Identity. New York: Routledge.

Christopher, R. (2007). Brenda Laurel: Utopain Entrepreneur. In R. Christopher (Ed.), Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes. Seattle, WA: Well-Red Bear.

Keyes, D. (1966). Flowers for Algernon. New York: Harcourt.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators. New York: Penguin.

Sommer, R. (2007). Personal Space: The Behavioral Basis of Design. Bristol, England, UK: Bosko Books.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.


And I say peace to Friedrich Kittler (1943-2011).