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Business Technology: Teens' Inscrutable Adventures

If someone mentions to you the word "teen-agers," what comes to mind? Monosyllabic answers to questions like, "How was school today?" The ability to consume 6,000 calories per day? Confusion or clarity? Insights or limited experience? Self-centeredness or a profound sense of fairness? Awkwardness or limitless potential?

A friend from Japan--he's in his sixties and was a mainstream IT professional for much of his life--told me recently about how he sits, transfixed, on the trains and subways in Japan these days and watches young teen-agers communicate vividly and emotionally with each other from a few feet apart--via E-mail over their cell phones. "They say that in another year or so they will be beaming video messages to each other," he says, "and the funny thing is, none of them thinks that will be a big step." Another friend runs a massive imaging laboratory within the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and has mastered some of the most mind-boggling video, imaging, and electron-microscopy equipment this side of a sci-fi movie. And from what source does this well-plugged-in high-tech scientist find out about the really cool stuff happening these days with personal technology and the Web? His 13-1/2-year-old daughter, of course. "I've tried to figure out how she does it, how she knows all this," my friend says, "and the best answer I can come up with is, she and other kids her age just think differently than we do."

“It’s very, very simple how [my grandfather] did it and how millions of other people did it, and it’s the reason we all have such strength: They kept thinking about this idea in their head, this ideal of America, America, America, the land of the free and the home of the brave. ... And by coming here, they made it even a more special place because they worked very hard to make this a better place for themselves and their children ...”
“So I really believe we shouldn’t think about this site out there right beyond us, right there, as a site for economic development. ... We should think about a soaring, monumental, beautiful memorial that just draws millions of people here that just want to see it, and then, also want to come here for reading and education and background and research. You know, long after we’re all gone, it’s the sacrifice of our patriots and their heroism that is going to be what this place is remembered for. This is going to be a place that’s remembered 100 and 1,000 years from now, like the great battlefields of Europe and of the United States.”
—From the farewell speech of
former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Dec. 27, 2001
Now, please resist the temptation to give me the "Well, DUUHHHH!!" reply and flip the page--I readily admit that I bring nothing new to the discussion by saying, or repeating, that teen-agers think in different ways than do adults. But the larger point, and one on which many businesses will rise or fall in the coming years, is this: What would it be worth to understand and have insight into how teen-agers do think? What do they admire, what do they hate, what do they want, what do they need, what do they care about? When it comes to technology, what makes one gizmo generate a shrug, while another gets the ultimate accolade of "cool"? Why do they love clothes from Abercrombie and Fitch? Why would they type out E-mail messages on a postage-stamp-sized keypad rather than speak to the person across the aisle? What tools could make groupware homework less a shortcut and more a collaborative undertaking that's both rewarding and cool?

Why did scooters capture their fancy? Why did Instant Messaging become a de facto new language? How many images/ boxes/screens can a 16-year-old comfortably and even eagerly manage and interact with on one monitor? Anyone who went into a retail store over the recent holiday season knows from actual, objective experience that teen-agers are all too eager to do the brick-and-mortar thing, but what is the online counterpoint that makes them pick, say, Abercrombie and Fitch over The Gap? What do they really, really think about Napster--did the grownups just hide the cookie jar or is there something to this idea of an artist deserving compensation for her/his creations? As a 15-year-old, is it cooler to hack into your school's server where academic records are kept or to know how to make digital movies that can be shown on handhelds?

I won't ask how many teen-agers can dance on a pixel, but I think it's essential that all of us, regardless of the business or industry we're in, plan to learn the answers to a heckuva lot more of these questions than we currently have. These amazing, mysterious, and rapidly emergent young people who both charm and confound us might very soon be our partners, employees, or even managers, but they'll definitely become--if they aren't already--our prospects and customers. Do we have any real clue about how they will interact with technology, and it with them, in the coming few years? Are we prepared to think and behave in the new ways that such, uh, different customers will require?

It's a huge set of questions, and one that InformationWeek will explore periodically in the coming year. (P.S.--If anybody out there has answers to any of the questions above, please send them my way!)


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Bob Evans's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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