Does the Digital Generation Perceive the World Differently?

Does the Digital Generation Perceive the World Differently
We all know that the today’s kids are much more adept at digital technology and computer use than their parents, not to speak of the grantparents’ generation.

Think of the tons of stories of teenager hackers humiliating cybersecurity professionals and taking down major websites or the widely circulated editorial cartoon from the American newspaper Tulsa World, in which an FBI agent manages to unlock an Apple iPhone by handing it to a schoolboy and making him promise not to unlock it.

Does the Digital Generation Perceive the World Differently

But how wide is this generational gap? Are young people just more interested in modern technology and thus more motivated to learn it? Or are there more profound
differences in the way younger generations perceive the world?

The European Research Council (ERC) has recently awarded a major grant for a large research project to explore such questions. This project, titled Sensory Transformations
and Transgenerational Environmental Relationships in Europe, 1950–2020 (SENSOTRA), is led by Professor Helmi Järviluoma from the University of Eastern Finland.


It aims to explore the impact of technology on the ways we experience our environment, with special emphasis on generational differences.

The research will be carried out in three cities – Brighton (UK), Turku (Finland), and Ljubljana (Slovenia) = and participants will include both young and elderly people.

From a wider perspective, however, what is at stake is not only a comparison of the millennials’ experiences with those of their grandparents’ generation.

Does the Digital Generation Perceive the World Differently

The question of technology’s – and especially media technology’s – role in our experiences has fascinated philosophers, sociologists and media theorists since the first half of the 20th century.

For these thinkers the crucial historical watershed was the modernity of late 19th and early 20th century, which truly revolutionised the way people perceived the world and used their senses. Walter Benjamin, the renowned German critic and philosopher, suggested that human perception itself should be radically historicised.

In his probably most famous essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) he writes: “During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organised, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.”

Does the Digital Generation Perceive the World Differently

Benjamin does not claim that our hard-wired, biological sensory apparatus would change that quickly. Instead, he wants to emphasise that there is always also a cultural component in the way we perceive our environment and our mind organises the raw sense data we receive from the extrenal world.

And it is this cultural component that changes from one historical period to another. If Benjamin had lived to see the digital era, he would have taken it as obvious that the youth of today have a unique relationship with their environment.

They are the so-called “digital natives,” who have grown up with information technology and social media, and to whom the smartphone almost seems a natural extension of their body.

By contrast, their parents and grandparents, even if they may possess and use the same technology, will never have the same relationship with it.

Interestingly, Walter Benjamin, who died in 1940 and was almost forgotten for decades, has been for the second time rediscovered by scholars of digital culture (the first “rediscovery” of Benjamin was by the “New Left” in the 1970s). His ideas offer a rich resource for anyone who wants to understand how historical changes in technology and culture impact the way people experience their environment.