IT Goes Mainstream: The Most Influential Trend in Recent Generations?

Digital technology dominates human communication in toe areas where it is accessible… certainly in the West where smart phones and access to the cellular networks can be obtained for fees that can be managed on modest salaries, much of our economic, political, and cultural interaction is mediated though information and compute technology (ICT).

Just as young people were heavy users of analog electronic media (e.g. radio, television, recorded music), they also started using computers when they entered the consumer and education markets, but the highest levels of use were concentrated in rich white male populations. The stereotypical “computer nerd” was based on the demographic profile of the people who were heavy computer users. This can, in part, be explained by the observation that the first computers to enter the consumer and education markets were designed for users to write programs. Landauer (1997) noted that programming requires certain cognitive skills, and so it is especially appealing to those who are more introverted and who engage in more intuitive thinking than the general population. Early computer users tended to interact with friends and family less and participated in extracurricular activities at school and similar out of school activities less than the rest of the population.

In 2005, researchers supported by the Kaiser Family Foundation (Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout 2005) reported that young people who reported heavy use of ICT also reported spending time with friends and family, participating in extracurricular activities, holding jobs, and engaging in physical exercise at a level never observed before. The stereotypical computer nerd no longer described the heavy technology users; everyone was using technology. The researchers interpreted these results as ICT becoming more widely used among populations of young people including those who participated in many activities. This was a significant change as ICT appeared to be a tool used my a small subpopulation to a tool used by the greater population.

The widespread acceptance of ICT by the young people can be explained in part by the increased usability of the devices that was observed over several decades. Originally, consumer and educational computers in the 1970’s were used to write computer programs and input and output was limited to alphanumeric characters and punctuation. By the early 1990’s, alternative input devices such as a mouse that was used to control icons representing files displayed on a graphic user interface (GUI) and programs written by others to perform useful functions were widely available. By the end of the 1990’s computers capable of displaying media (high resolution graphics, audio, video, and animations) and connecting to networks were widely available. Each of these advances in computer capacity increased the appeal of the devices to wider audiences.

The current media landscape for young people includes very mobile devices. Cell phones and music players that include the capacity to connect to wireless networks are gaining popularity and are influencing students’ experiences and expectations as information users. These devices also provide an excellent example of the phenomenon that science and science fiction writer Stanley Schmidt (2008) called “the digital melting pot” as such a device today provides several services that were only available in separate devices only a few years ago. Apple’s iPhone provides an illustrative example of the convergence of phone, camera, notebook, book, and email device into a single handheld (clearly this is an incomplete list of iPhone functions and any list is necessarily incomplete as the collection of applications users install to customize their phones is growing constantly). As ICT evolved from being a tool for programmers to multi-function devices, they then were used by more general populations and they became tools for rich social interactions.


Landauer, Thomas. 1996. The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness, Usability, and Productivity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Roberts, Donald, Ulla Foehr, and Victoria Rideout. 2005. Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-olds. Washington, DC: Kaiser Family Foundation.

Schmidt, Stanley. 2008. The Coming Convergence: Surprising Ways Diverse Technologies Interact to Shape Our World and Change the Future. Amherst,  NY: Prometheus Books.