Last Friday, I quickly re-blogged a news item on the 2009 Osbaldeston Lecture, by Martha Piper, former president of the University of British Columbia. Over on my Posterous miniblog, a reader reacted to my highlighting of an analogy that Ms. Piper made between the wristwatch and a Blackberry device. I’m going to reproduce those comments here, because they raise a good point:
“In a speech at the National Arts Centre, Piper likened today’s public service to the declining popularity of the wristwatch. Everyone over age 50 wears one, but most Canadians under 25 don’t.”
The wristwatch analogy has been used before, it is nothing new and it is not accurate. Most teenagers wear watch not so they can tell time but as a fashion statement. I would really like to meet a public servant that is isolated in Ottawa, the ones I work with are plugged in, on the move and aware of the world changing around them AND are part of the change or driving it. Perhaps she is talking about her perception of Ottawa, and if so, she has been isolating herself in BC. She is clearly out of touch.
I agree — if you focus on the demographic angle, it’s true that the wristwatch analogy is not accurate. It’s a stereotype, and if you were to leave this out of it, it would be more effective.When it comes to technology, young people are not inherently more “with it” than their elders. Different people use the same tools in a wide variety of ways, regardless of whether we can are “youth” or “middle aged” or whatever. & in terms of adoption rates, I’ll bet there is a wide variation in all demographic groups. I suspect that it is more about individual attitudes rather than generational.
What stuck me with the wristwatch/blackberry analogy was not the demographics however; it was the image of an older mechanical device that does one thing well, vs a newer digital device that does a lot of things, including what the old tech did. Maybe the new BB doesn’t tell time as stylishly as the old wristwatch does, but I’m willing to give that up to be able to also use it to communicate with my friends/family/colleagues, read news, organize my schedule, check weather, etc., regardless if I’m at my desk or not.
I realize that wristwatches are almost all digital these days, but to me they still are artifacts of the mechanical era, when the technological paradigm was a narrowly specialized — each tool should “do one thing, and do it really well.” Compare that to how 21st century digital technology is inherently open-ended and focused on multi-functionality. To me, that is what is effective about this analogy — as a comparison of two technological eras.
Regardless, after having had a chance to read the full text (warning PDF link) of Ms. Piper’s remarks, it turns out that the best stuff was not what I saw last week, it is the material that actually followed it. More on that tomorrow later.
(Oh BTW, I do beg to differ with the idea that public servants do not isolate themselves in Ottawa. I feel that point is highly debatable; I can think of a few bureaucrats that I’ve crossed paths with recently … but anyhow.)