The Internet may be one of the single greatest changes in communications since the telephone, maybe the telegraph. In only 20 years, the fabric of life has changed in almost every corner of the world, thanks to the Internet. Now, some scholars and medical researchers believe that it may be changing humanity itself.

The Internet has had a profound impact on the way we live and work, so profound that some commentators describe the younger generation as natives in a country where the rest of us are immigrants.

Just how different are these digital natives from their struggling, stammering parents? What does the world look like to people who don’t remember a time when ‘snail mail’ was the way most messages traveled, or when the desire for information or entertainment could not be gratified instantaneously?

Opinions vary. Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at Wharton, says today’s youth are different, but not because of the Internet. “People look at young people, they seem different, and they look for explanations… In fact, the reason they seem different is because they are younger than we are,” he says.

But Cappelli is in the minority. More observers say that the “Net Generation” is in fact unlike the rest of us. For them, the debate concerns whether those differences are good or bad.

Optimists argue that the NetGen are a privileged group, born at the dawn of new age that will release the collective creativity of billions of people and make knowledge available to almost anyone who wants it. Pessimists see them as a lost generation, seduced by technology into accepting an easy, shallow virtual life in place of a harder but more satisfying real one — and in the process, maybe even losing part of their humanity.

On the positive side, Peter Fader, professor of marketing at Wharton, believes that this generation is much better at multitasking than previous generations ever were. Watching his teenage children, he says, he’s astonished at how many things they can do at once.

But some researchers say it’s easier for them because their minds have been trained to handle that level of complexity. Dr. Gary Smith, a neurologist at UCLA and co-author of iBrain, says believes that the Internet may be changing our minds in profound ways.

One study Smith conducted of 24 people, divided equally between the Net Naïve and Net Savvy found that the brain activity of the Net Naïve and the Net Savvy looked remarkably different when searching the Internet.While the Net Naïve exhibited the same mental activity patterns as if they were reading a book, the Net Savvy tied in many other mental areas as well – activating over twice as many brain clusters.

Their values are different than ours too, according to futurist John Seely Brown, a visiting scholar at the University of Southern California in and co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge. Brown, the former director of Xerox PARC, the Palo Alto research lab that gave the world the computer mouse, graphical user interfaces for computers, among other things, sees a lot of promise in this generation.

“Today’s kids are fundamentally different than yesterday’s kids because yesterday we tended to define ourselves by what we wore, what we owned, and the older geneatrion, what we controlled. We defined ourselves by material assets. Today, the born digital kids tend to think of themselves as what they create, share, and – crucially — what others build on,” he says.

They are also more democratic. The opinions of the crowd matter a lot more to them than they did to older generations. Increasingly, they make their decisions about restaurants and other activities based on “crowd-sourced” reports, according to Fader – an act not like getting a critic’s opinion out of a magazine, but also not quite like just asking a friend either.

It’s also a group accustomed to rapid change, which is something they are going to need. Skills will no longer have the same half-life they did before, Brown says, so he believes this generation is going to need to reinvent itself continually. “We’re moving from a world of equilibrium to a world of perpetual disequilibrium, Brown says.

Brown believes that the Net Gen’s working life tomorrow may look like something some of them do today – play massive, collaborative multiplayer games. His hunch is that the economy may end up looking a little like the World of Warcraft. Part of the game involves bands of fighters raiding each other. The other part, and the one that interests Brown, is the collaborative work that goes into preparing their weapons and strategies. Independent groups of online warriors post as many as 12,000 new ideas every day preparing for the next raid, he says.

In this kind of environment, protecting intellectual property will become less of a concern, Brown says. Over time, he expects that most business will become more like the fashion business, where intellectual property is less something you keep than something you just create all the time, hoping that it will help you create a better reputation and attract better talent. “You have to have better ideas, you have to create and deliver better ideas and create products from them faster than your competitor. Beginning and end of story,” he says.

There are also some worrying signs. “It’s a fantastic world of opportunities but it’s also a fantastic world of dangers,” says Paul Friedel, vice president for research and strategy for Orange Labs R&D.

NetGeners often have deep knowledge in particular areas that interest them, Fader says, but can be “utterly clueless about the day’s headlines.” With the decline of newspapers and the evening TV newscasts, some pundits worry that societies are losing a common source of news.

The attention span seems generally shorter, some say. “In cases where learning is hard or you have to stick to something before it gets interesting.. I think there may be a tendency to go off and do something else,” says Jonah Berger, an assistant professor of marketing at Wharton.

“It’s harder to hold their attention, harder to keep them engaged…they’re used to sort of short bursts of information coming at them all the time,” says David Bell, a professor of marketing at Wharton.

But Fader believes that their impatience will decline as they get older. “The `gotta-have-it-now’ thing” will go away, he says. As they mature, they’ll learn, as every other generation has, that sometimes you have to wait. “When we were kids, we wanted to have it now but we just couldn’t. Then we kind of grew up and we stopped being quite as pushy,” he says.

The fact that the Net Generation, as their parents, have an uncritical view of the Internet worries Friedel. Rather than seeing it as a communications network of databases and fallible individuals, they see the Internet as an unquestionable source of knowledge. “People seem to see the Internet as a kind of animal that gives you information,” he says.

One consequences of that feeling, he argues, is that people take whatever they see on the Internet as truth. This is complicating life for teachers and professors not because what they read is necessarily inaccurate but because they may misunderstand what they’ve read, viewing a scientific principle for instance that is true in a specific case.

This tendency to rely on virtual experience may already be hurting our society in a number of ways, Friedel believes. Computer simulations, for instance, are taking the place of real experiments – and yet as with the volcano in Iceland, reliance on those experiments kept European planes on the tarmac for several days because people believed the models and did not send planes up to take samples and test whether the ash clouds were in fact dangerous to planes.

In our personal relationships too, Friedel sees a similar tendency to mistake the representation of the thing as reality. He says that while he has been able to reconnect with relatives and old friends through Facebook, he worries that being forced to categorize everyone one knows as a friend cheapens the idea of friendship and introduces a very simplistic idea of relationships generally.

It may also be having a bad effect on life communication skills. “Technology may be interfering with our one-to-one communication skills,” says UCLA’s Smith. One recent study of 200 18 to 23-year-olds, he says, found that younger people who spend a lot of time online aren’t as good at reading facial expressions as people who spend less time online.

This social disconnection may have other consequences too. In a recent blog post, one young Brazilian-based freelance writer who grew up in the US to French and Brazilian parents, Ines Schinazi — says that even now as an adult she lives with a strong sense of dislocation, which she ascribes not just to her background but to technology.
“When one has the ability to ‘be’ so many places at the same time, through e-mail, texts, Facebook, Twitter, web cams, Skype, and cell phones, standing with your feet in Brazil, your head in India, and your heart in Antarctica, it’s hard to define exactly `where’ you are,” she writes. “…Google is the new home. It’s the constant base we touch upon.”

Such a fragmented world view may also be having some other effects as well.

For one thing, it’s making them more cosmopolitan. One 2007 study of 1250 millennials (the generation born between 1980 and 2000) in the United Kingdom, Italy, and the Netherlands, conducted by scholars at the University of Brescia in Italy, found that virtually every respondent reported knowing enough English to surf an English website.

For another, it may be leading them to a more multifaceted sense of their own identity. One of the most surprising findings of the Brescia team was how many Millennials lead double lives. Young people may be quite serious at work and committed to it but when they walk out the door, may pursue, Avatar-like, an entirely different life. “They change completely their attitude during the day, during the night, during the weekend,” Alessandro Bigi, one of the coauthors of the study.

“It is not like my generation,” adds Bigi, “where I have my professor work and then I go home and have my professor life.”

Nor is this sense of multiple identities just true for European NetGen. “Perhaps what most distinguishes my generation from past generations is our fluidity, the blunt imprint of a digital childhood and adolescence. Technology has allowed us to build fluid identities, in which we constantly `edit’ ourselves,” writes Schinazi, the Franco-Brazilian American blogger, who makes her living as a writer and a journalist — but really wants to be a rock star.

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