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Augmented Reality Overload: A Digital Natives Guest Post

Last week, in my post on ROFLCon, I wrote that

All barriers between real life and digital life seemed to collapse during the conference. In an audience full of laptops, iPhones, BlackBerries, and digital cameras, the volume of instant commentary created was enormous and baffling. But it wasn’t even just the audience: Adam Lindsay [a panel member, representing his website LOLCode] apparently live-posted much of his own panel directly to Twitter, between answering questions about LOLCode. And he wasn’t alone.

Only problem: I was wrong. In the comments, Adam Lindsay kindly noted that while he had planned to Twitter from the panel, and had in fact mentioned that he might (hence my confusion), in the end he wasn’t able to divide his attention that many ways at once. After reading this comment, it struck me that it might be valuable to see to what extent a digitally adept adult— in a sea of other digitally adept adults—experienced a digital usage generation gap between himself and his peers vs. the hundreds of college students milling about at ROFLCon. Adam was kind enough to oblige with the following guest post.

It’s worth noting that Adam’s views are his own, and though I’ve chosen to reprint them here in their entirety, they should be taken as one personal narrative rather than representative of any official position of the Digital Natives project. That said, we’re incredibly grateful to Adam for sharing his acute observations and personal experience, for writing such a thought-provoking piece, and for being willing to enter into this discussion in the first place. We look forward to hearing your responses.

Diana Kimball, Digital Natives intern

I am 35 years old. I have been on the internet for half of my life. I “speak digital” fluently, but I have to admit that I don’t speak it as a native, and likely never will. I’m a dinosaur in this world, and I know I will be replaced by more nimble successors.

I’ve been thinking about it, and my big failing is that I can’t multitask like the younger set, or as women are famed for doing. The cost of switching between digital life and real life has a real mental cost, especially in terms of attention, in the psychological sense. And the reason why I feel as though I am not a digital native is that I feel this cost with every transition. I’m monolithic. I can think about one thing at a time. I am Windows 3.11. I am Mac OS 7.

This hit home for me during ROFLCon, where, armed with iPod touch and a long-established Twitter account, I thought I could keep up with the real and virtual worlds into which I was immersed. My droll plan was to live-twitter during my own panel, perhaps with just a “HAI WORLD. IM IN UR PANEL…” As it was, the panel was too fast-paced, and required too much of my attention just to keep on top of it. I had to be present, in the moment, and any step away from that would have been unfair to everyone else in the room.

I would try to keep an eye on Twitter during the conference while I was in the audience, but always ended up discovering that focusing on it took too much away from my understanding and enjoyment of what was going on in the panels. Twitter was useful, it did enhance the experience, and I believe it was the right medium that consensus established as a backchannel. However, for me, it was a matter of stepping out of the real life experience of the Con, and stepping into a digital reality. It was not an augmented reality; for me, ROFLCon’s digital backchannel was simply another parallel session track that I could follow. It seemed clear that for the younger set at ROFLCon, there was far less difficulty in meshing the real with the virtual.

So. I don’t feel like I’m a digital native. There are some trends, some things my younger colleagues love, that I know I don’t share in fully. I think they point to my failure to change context nimbly, but it could possibly just be me. What do you think?

Unlike nearly every person out there, I hate watching video while at the computer keyboard (with one notable exception). That is, I hate browsing through YouTube. Thankfully, I don’t have to miss out on videos of cute kittens, theremins, or both together, because I can defer YouTube to its proper context: I mark a promising video as a “favorite,” and when the mood strikes me, I use my AppleTV to catch up on all these effectively bookmarked videos while lying back on my couch.

I love music. I have spent tens of thousands of dollars (erk) on a legitimate music collection over the years. Yet I hardly listen to it, primarily because I can’t listen to most music whilst working. Music with lyrics (and I love intelligent lyricists) just collides with all the reading and writing I’m constantly doing at the keyboard.

As I close in on finishing a large, overdue project, I realize more and more that I need to swear off instant messaging. I have been instant messaging, in one form or another, ever since 1990, when I stepped onto the proper internet. I like to think I communicate well in the medium. However, IM takes far too much of my attention: I dedicate myself far too intensely to a real-time conversation, and everything else that I try to do is disrupted. I don’t dip into chats while continuing with my emailing, my writing, my editing, my coding, or my web surfing. The chats eat my attention.

I look at the next generation, say, my three-year-old daughter, and am in awe of what they will accomplish, having all the collected knowledge of the world wide web at their fingertips from day one. I’m am absolutely confident my daughter will develop the mental agility that I lack in order to mediate between the real and multiplicity of digital worlds she will be presented with. I hope, both as a parent and as an educator, I can help develop the critical facilities she and her peers will need to filter through all that information.

In the meantime, I’m having fun in this new world, myself. I get by pretty well with the language, after all. I know there will come a time when I will reach my limit, when all I can do is sit back and watch in wonderment what these kids can do.

But not just yet.

Adam Lindsay finally got used to being called The LOLCODE Guy while at ROFLCon. He sporadically blogs at, and formerly blogged more regularly on the role of digital multimedia tools for research in the humanities at