Computer Generation: Visions and Demands

Paper presented at the third international conference on Military Applications of Synthetic Environments and Virtual Reality, MASEVR'97, Sweden.

by Anders Sandberg <> and Robert Söderberg <>


The computer generation consists of the young people who have grown up with the spread of personal computers, cellular phones and information networks. Their visions, ideas and demands will likely affect the development of virtual reality systems strongly, and likely affect future forms of organisation, interaction and politics. This is an attempt to analyse some of the ideas of the computer generation.

The computer generation?

Dividing people into generations is an exercise in futility, since there is no limit to the individuality and complexity of people. The more we try to define individuals, the more truth slip through our fingers. But at the same time, as we grow up we are imprinted with views, culture and ideas (memes [Dawkins76]) from society and especially from people of our own age and social group. Ideas which are imprinted during a formative period can persist throughout life, creating long term effects as a generation grows up and influences society.

The computer generation is a loose term, intended to suggest the generation of people who have grown up with computers.

The real computer generation, born in the 80's, has grown up with computers in the home. It is the first generation who has had access to computers all their lives and take them for granted. To the older members of the computer generation, born in the late 60's and 70's, computers are something new and interesting. We still remember the Sinclair ZX-81, the Commodore VIC 20 and the Apple II. Computers and information technology is something that appeared during our youth before our eyes, but except for some enthusiasts they were not in common use until recently (the early 90's or so). However, the younger members of the computer generation have always had computers, and don't regard them as something new or special. They are tools to be used, just like the cellular phone, the other defining technology of the computer generation, a generation which could as well be called the communication generation.

In the following, we will look at some of tendencies, visions and demands of the computer generation. Some of these concepts are technologically driven, some are the result of changing societal attitudes; they interact to form the world-view of the computer generation.

Media Awareness

The number and amount of available media has been steadily growing during this century, and each generation has adapted to them in its own way. "Generation X", described by Douglas Coupland (and defined by the marketing establishment) grew up with the modern media and mature advertising techniques; the result has been a surprising level of media awareness, an intimate knowledge about the languages of the different media and how they are intended to affect us.

This has led to the idea of the "ironic generation" which sees through much of the surrounding lies and manipulation attempts and takes a perverse delight in parodying them. The advertising business quickly caught on, and invented rebel advertising, advertising that plays on anti-advertising views. The result has of course been an ever escalating co-evolution of advertising and media awareness.

The computer generation has grown up with this, and moves the media evolution into cyberspace. It is at present hard to tell what will happen, but judging from the current trends many will no longer want to be information consumers, they want to take an active part in shaping the media around them.

The child of the remote control may indeed have a shorter attention span as defined by the behavioral psychologists of our prechaotic culture's academic institutions (which are themselves dedicated to little more than preserving their own historical stature). But this same child also has a much broader attention range. The skill to be valued in the twenty-first century is not length of attention span but the ability to multitask---to do many things at once, well. Douglas Rushkoff,
The computer generation has not much need for long attention spans. In fact, in the high-bandwidth, interactive, fast-moving environment they have grown up in a long attention span is likely to lead to confusion as too much happens. Instead an increased attention range is useful, the ability to deal with many different and contradictory things at once without being stressed by them.

Mistrust of Authorities

Bread and Circuits: The electronic era tendency to view party politics as corny -- no longer relevant or meaningful or useful to modern societal issues, and in may cases dangerous. Douglas Coupland
The computer generation is not anti-authoritarian. It is un-authoritarian.

There is a widespread loss of confidence in authorities today, ranging from contempt for politicians to doubts about the big institutions of society such as traditional religion, science and economy. The computer generation takes this further: it sees no need for authorities, and does not consider them legitimate. This is a profound difference from older generations, who might mistrust authorities but still accept them as authorities; to the computer generation they may have power and wealth but no intrinsic status.

Attempts to wield authority or manipulate are resisted; a common reaction is to ignore them. Attempts that cannot be ignored often lead to one of three different responses: a sullen compliance, well planned to waste as much resources and energy as possible for the authority through deliberate inefficiency, attempts to counteract the authority by circumventing it and its rules, or a militant, angry response which lashes out in general.

An illuminating example is the reactions of the users of Internet to various attempts to ban certain materials; this has in several cases led to the creation of multiple overseas mirror sites, regardless of what kind of material was threatened [Huber96]. The interesting thing is that this kind of disobedience so far has worked; it is becoming increasingly apparent that ordinary forms of censorship does not work well on the net.

On a personal level, the decay of the authority figure has also been accompanied by the disappearance of the idol. The computer generation doesn't attempt to emulate idols in everything like previous generations, but instead pick and choose aspects they admire or like instead of taking an entire mental "package deal".

Locally - Globally

Another effect of the presence of powerful, ubiquitous communications and mistrust of authorities is the increasing importance of the personal network of friends and acquaintances.

One of the main reasons authorities are less important to the computer generation is that they are remote and hard to reach. Remoteness is not measured physically, but rather socially. The personal network is close in social space, and hence gains importance, while the authorities fade into the distance.

These social networks are unbound by physical location; through cellular phones, Internet and email it is easy to remain in touch regardless of where in the world you are. To the computer generation there is no real difference between acting in a physical community and acting in a virtual community, except the obvious differences in how communication is done.

While the personal, local networks are the basis for social interaction and shared world-views, the computer generation is also becoming increasingly global. Through modern media and communications the world is becoming accessible. It is not the global village, rather the global network with a multitude of levels and subnetworks unbound by geography.

The Presence of Computers and Communications

While older people struggle with developing social norms to handle the use of cellular phones (for example how to deal with pagers and phones during lectures or restaurant visits) the younger generations have already adapted to them, seamlessly integrating them into their lifestyle. The same occurred a few decades ago when the teenagers occupied the phones, using them in "frivolous" ways their parent's would never have dared to think of.

Universal access

SAN JOSE, Calif. (Reuter) - The number of personal computers connected to the Internet will rise 71 percent this year to 82 million, driven by demand by businesses to stay in touch with their customers, a report by a market researcher said Wednesday. 970820
One of the major demands of the computer generation is universal access: access to the infosphere everywhere, everytime for everyone.

The technological details doesn't really matter to them, what is important is how the systems can be made to serve their purposes. What the computer generation want is systems that do what they want without being obtrusive, an universal interface to the information they take for granted. When this link is broken, the loss is felt strongly; being cut off from the Net is almost physically painful.

The spread of the Internet, and the accompanying hype is instructive. It is almost taken as a natural fact that in a few years almost everyone will have access to it, and since this is a self-fulfilling prophecy (it motivates people to get access in order to avoid being left out and companies to invest in this future mega-market, which of course makes the net grow faster).

At present, around a third of all households in Sweden and the US have a personal computer, and the percentage is rising at a high rate. While there is some lag between different countries, the trend is fairly clear. The same trend is noticeable with the spread of cellular phones and other new communications technologies: access anywhere, anytime, and an increasing speed of adoption.

When I asked a young friend what his demand for the future was he shouted: "Bandwidth to the people!".


Video games are the first example of a computer technology that is having a socializing effect on the next generation on a mass scale, and even on a world-wide basis," says Patricia Greenfield in Mind and Media (Harvard University Press). As anyone who has played with game-addicted youngsters knows, they often have extraordinary semiotic skills. Describing the embarrassing experience of being thrashed at Pac-Man by a 5 year old, Greenfield says, "as a person socialised into the world of static visual information, I made the unconscious assumption that Pac-man would not change visual form. Children socialized with television and film are more used to dealing with dynamic visual change." At some things, it seems, our kids are destined to be smarter than us. McKenzie Wark, Super Mario Mania
One of the the more unexpected sides of the spread of computers is the effects of games on the mindset and skills of the computer generation.

According to surveys, after word processing the most common application of personal computers is computer games. Games are even more common among younger people, needless to say. The computer game industry has gone from an insignificant offshoot of the arcade game industry in the early 80's to a major player in the media world, earning billions of dollars. By becoming a vital part of the entertainment industry it influences the world-view, imagery and ideas presented in other media.

The entertainment industry is also driving much of the development of consumer electronics and advanced computer graphics such as virtual reality; at present it is unclear if the most advanced and portable VR systems can be found in academic, military or commercial research labs, but the commercial systems will definitely have the biggest impact on the population. And as the games get more graphically and computationally demanding, the consumers buy more powerful computers; today's computer games are one of the most important forces in the development of personal computers.

But the presence of computer games also influences the players.

Computer games are a new phenomenon, not similar to any previous play activity. But just like all games played by children, they serve to train new skills.

What is especially interesting in the context of this conference is of course the popularity of strategic or tactical games such as Command & Conquer, Close Combat and Harpoon, as well as simulation games such as Sim City and Civilization. It seems that as the graphics and interfaces improve, a wider and wider audience has begun to play strategy games which were previously almost solely confined to a small strategist subculture.

Another class of games that are very relevant to this conference are networked games such as MUDs, Xpilot, Doom, Quake and Descent. These games are based on having several players interacting in the same game environment simultaneously, either working together or against each other. It is quite common for teams with shared goals to form, and work together against other teams. The members can be distributed across the network, sometimes with no out-of-game contact.

What skills does these game teach?

The Net

The spread of the Internet will have a profound effect, not only on a practical level but also symbolically. As we have mentioned, the growth of the net is self-enhancing, and has come to symbolize many of the values of the computer generation: global access, freedom from authorities, global reach but with personal networks, and fast and flexible growth.

At present the Internet is still very limited, but there is no sign that the growth will decrease, quite the opposite [Sciam97, Brimelow97].

Interactive information

...many members of the current computer generation are using the Internet, cable, and newly established video news services rather than the newspapers or even their own locally-originated tv morning and evening news programs as the source of their information and, more importantly, marketing services.
David Graham Halliday, Point of View 7.02,
One of the developing markets is interactive information services. Traditional media have increasingly begun the transition towards becoming more interactive. Typical examples are the net-versions of newspapers, magazines and journals, the rise in "viewer's choice" television where the viewers are invited to influence the program, and especially the attempts to create new, interactive forms of entertainment and information intended to replace the current systems.

The demand for universal access both makes this possible and desirable; for the media producers it is a potential market, for the media consumers it is content. The computer generation goes further: it is used to interactive information and does not like static information that just sits there - ideally it should be possible to not only interact with, but use, edit, influence and participate in. It is a more experiential mode of participation than the reflexive information used by past generations [Norman94]. In order to be taken seriously by the computer generation, you have to communicate with its member, not just speak to them.

...the marvel of postmodern communications [makes it so that we] recede from one another literally at the speed of light. We need never see or talk to anybody with whom we don't agree." Harper's Magazine
At the same time, we are seeing how media are becoming increasingly fragmented as everyone can freely choose what they want to see and what they want to ignore. In a newspaper it is not possible to ignore the front page headlines, but on the net it is trivial to set up a killfile to remove postings from irritating people or to not access websites with differing views. This leads to an increasing divergence of world-view as the Net and Net media grows more important: people already see the world in fundamentally different ways, with the help of information filtering they can create their own (tunnel-) realities.

Accelerating Change

Things are changing faster than ever, and the rate is increasing. To the computer generation this is the normal state, easy to take for granted.

We are increasingly seeing a divergence into a "fast lane" and "slow lane" society, where different parts change at different speed. This creates huge tensions as old institutions gradually fall behind and struggle to keep up - witness the legal problems caused by the Internet or genetic engineering, which are clearly beyond the ability of the current legal system to handle.

The flexible, ambitious people of the fast lane feel constrained by the slow lane, and want to break free or at least overtake it. This will drive the emergence of even more diversity and new forms of organization, as well as increasing tensions between the more and less adaptive people.

It is interesting to note that not even the computer generation is completely positive about the speed of change. They see its downsides quite well, but instead of trying to halt change as certain extreme neo-conservatives and luddites suggest, they want to find new ways of dealing with change in order to avoid the tensions and risks. As a friend put it: "It is funny to realize you are nostalgic at 20".

Diversity and Divergence

The computer generation does not have an unified vision. It has a multitude of individual visions, all different. Some individuals have very clear visions of the future and how to get there, while others lack them and see a depressing view of the future similar to the present (only worse).

There are clear social differences here; education, social class and sex does influence the amount of optimism and ambition which is emerging. In general the cities tend to be more optimistic and future-oriented than rural areas, but there are notable exceptions. A good education and a learned flexibility goes a long way to make you optimistic, at least about your own future. The women are quickly edging in, and may in the long run get an advantage over men in the networked society that is emerging.

There is a noticeable risk that there will be a division between the people ambitious and interested enough to learn and use the new technologies, and the people who do not care or dare to learn them. We are already seeing not just a generation gap between generations, but a intra-generation gap between different parts of the same generation.

New, Flexible Organizations

Corporate bureaucracies and centralized planning will not be favored in the Digital Age. Plans must be made quickly and acted upon quickly. Time to market will become even more critical, with a couple of months delay being perhaps fatal. Individuals throughout organizations will need to be empowered to make decisions. Fobairt Internet Report
As we have seen, one of the major demands of the computer generation is flexibility and speed, and it tends to organize along informal networked lines. This suggests the need and eventual emergence of new forms of organization, likely based on the virtual organizations today, that can quickly adapt to changes and meet new demands.

If an organization isn't flexible or respond fast enough, the computer generation tend to circumvent it, go to another organization or make up their own.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. A typical example is the Swedish Young Scientist Association, which was founded around 1969 and is a traditional association with chapters organized into districts, with traditional statutes and elections. At present it has around 3000 members, slowly decreasing. Compare this to Sverok, the Swedish Roleplaying and Conflict Game Association, which was founded in 1988 and at present has 28000 members, quickly increasing.

What is the difference? Both are directed towards the same age-group and often have overlapping interests; formally they appear to be very similar. Sverok is basically a virtual organization, with little need for a traditional bureaucracy since most of the individual chapters are completely independent but keep in touch through the net (while the young scientist association still largely relies on traditional newsletters and meetings). The organization can quickly adapt, present an unified face outwards if needed but otherwise act on a very local level. Obviously this has paid off.

The same will apply in other fields; we are already seeing how traditional, large inflexible corporations are faced with competition from small, flexible networked companies. Likely this trend will continue in other areas, including politics and societal institutions. Do we really need all that bureaucracy when it could be handled by computer?

The Eclipse of the National State

Political, social and commercial systems are being outpaced and outmoded by technology Peter Cochrane, Head of Research BT Laboratories
Few organizations are as stable as national states (they are intended to work that way). This suggests that they and their parts will have increasing problems of staying relevant as things change and the demands for flexibility increases. The idea of the eclipse of the national state is spreading, and taking on momentum.

The rise of virtual communities (with increasing economic and political power), digital, untaxable money moving across the net [McHugh97], unauthoritarian thinking and the globalisation tendencies all serve to undermine the national state. Just as the legitimacy of authorities is being questioned, the legitimacy and relevance of the national state idea is being questioned by the computer generation. When the only difference between countries is the domain name, why bother?

This is in many ways a naive idea, but it is also self-fulfilling since the more people ignore national boundaries and institutions, the less important they will become. And very real developments such as strong cryptography and digital cash with accompanying strong corporate and financial interests are on the internationalization side.

As the national states are becoming less important, loyalty to one's network, friends and culture become more important. This is no longer linked to geography, rather to the social geography of cyberspace. It is quite possible to enjoy one's culture without linking it to a state.

Enhanced reality

Computer games and virtual communities are virtual worlds, but most people actually prefer to live in the real world. One development which we believe will become increasingly important is enhanced reality, the combination of virtual and real.

One way of bringing this about is wearable computers, also known as smart clothes. The idea is to integrate computers and communications equipment into the clothes of the user, a system which is always present, adapts to the user and allows the user to both interact with the real world and the information environment.

At present wearable computers are just experimental systems and toys, but it seems likely they will grow in use since they can provide many of the things the computer generation wants: universal access, flexibility, quick access and "existential media" [Mann97], media which allows self-expression and self-control.

Beside the obvious changes in how people interact with computers (is there a need for offices if the computers are part of the clothing? Why not work in the park? And is the computer separate from yourself, part of you or an "exoself"?) the social implications are interesting. Virtual communities can easily "tune in" to the same information channel, experiencing a shared enhanced reality. A multiplayer networked game set in enhanced reality appears entirely feasible, and would combine the excitement of current games on personal computers with the physical excitement of "laser tag"; such games will certainly be developed once the technology is adopted by enough people.

We may see new tools to create virtual communities, "social software" intended to facilitate social interaction, sharing of information and world-views. As reality itself becomes more tunable (edit out the parts you don't like) the divergence of world-views seen today will grow exponentially [Chislenko96]. It is also likely that the way we see reality itself will change.

In the long run, technologies such as nanotechnology [Drexler87] may even make the physical environment just as mercurial as the software world. If that happens, then enhanced reality takes on a whole new physical meaning - reality has finally become an information medium among others.


The computer generation is the logical result of the technological and social development of the late 20th century: spoiled in some sense with easy access and material wealth, quickly adapting to a world that changes faster and faster, networked and used to technology. It is already one of the driving forces in the development of the Internet, virtual environments and the ideas that will determine the direction of global society in the early decades of the 21st century.

The computer generation is right now mainly in its teens. Long before 2010 it will be a noticeable political, economical and technological factor. It's visions can be described as:


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