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Digital Generation Gap

14 December, 2010 (13:23) | Social Commentary

For kids, computers are almost guaranteed to be communal, if only for parental control.

“What are you doing?” The accusatory tone caught me off guard.

“Um, I’m using the computer?” My fingers slowed as I flubbed the web address I was typing in. He raised an eyebrow and hovered over my shoulder.

“You didn’t even ask to use my computer,” he said, a mild annoyance in his voice. “And you’re typing the address in wrong. It should pop right up if you did it right.”

I pressed the delete button, watching my mistakes disappear in an instant. I began retyping, but before I could finish the address I gave up and stepped away from the machine.

My friend’s reaction surprised me and caught me off guard. Certainly, I understand the emphasis on personal in PC, but the ethical code of computers means I won’t dig through his private stuff. His porn is as safe as mine.

We had been friends for several years, but perhaps for the first time we had a palpable generational gap.

Though I had my own computer from a young age, the computers in our house weren’t personal. I would play on my mom’s computer, competing with her for the Tetris high score. I would play on my dad’s computer, using CompuServe and dialup internet, which my modem-less computer couldn’t access. My computer, which was generally hand-me-down spare parts as a kid, wasn’t good enough to warrant my parents’ time.

Those of my friends savvy enough to have their own computers also shared with their families. My best friend’s family had one computer in their small condo. When we played games on it, there was always a chance his dad would come home and boot us off.

In 8th grade, I built my first non-hand-me-down personal computer and carted it off to New Hampshire. I was one of the few kids with a full rig, and since laptops were still reasonably new and very expensive, only the richest of the rich had one. At boarding school, the number of kids with their own personal machines was slim and we’d often trade off at the keyboard for games or applications.

I made a fair bit of money using a credit card generator and signing up for fake accounts on AOL so kids could download porn. Floppy disks of images or X-rated games (like a very pixilated strip poker game) were passed around with hushed excitement. Everyone had an inherent understanding that computers were not private unless you made them so.

My friend, ten years my senior, doesn’t have tech savvy parents. Sure, they use a computer now, but so does my grandfather. His computer has always been his computer and no one else’s.

When I sat down and began futzing with the keyboard, searching for fantasy football stats, I assumed he understood the same commandments that I operated by.

Computer Owner Commandments

  • Thou shalt password protect thy machine if thou does not want intruders.
  • Thou shalt create a guest account if thou wants separation.
  • Thou shalt learn how to admin.
  • Thou shalt hide thine porn, or at least make it inconspicuous.
  • Thou shalt protect thine important data, using external means if necessary.
  • Thou shalt encrypt thine torrents to protect the innocent.

Guest User Commandments

  • Thou shalt not attempt to crack a password on another man’s computer.
  • Thou shalt not dig for the porn folder.
  • Thou shalt not read personal emails or personal files of another.
  • Thou shalt open a new tab or window, so that thy business is kept separate.
  • Thou shalt not install nor uninstall software without informing the owner first.
  • Thou shalt inform the owner of any downloads (or torrents, post-2004) initiated.

When the computer is no longer personal, these rules no longer apply unconditionally. Libraries, work computers, public terminals, these are fair game for all sorts of pranks. In a dorm or common living space, computers also lose a little of their natural privacy. Though it’s poor form to set someone’s homepage or change their background to tubgirl, it’s perfectly acceptable.

“To me,” I stated, “a computer is like a bedroom. Yes, it’s a personal space, but I still let people in, and my personal stuff is hidden in the closet. It’s not like people dig around in my closet, and if they did I would be pissed. To you, though, the entire computer is the closet.”

He nodded at my analogy, the tension now dissipated and order restored.

It’s difficult for me to realize that not everyone has grown up with the same level of technology I have. Though my code of conduct guaranteed that I wouldn’t mess with my friend’s data, he wasn’t used to others being anywhere near his computer, nor did he know of the existence or nature of my code.

When I traveled, I was very aware of the differences in culture. I constantly studies up on tipping conventions, insults to avoid, and matters of common courtesy that I might not be familiar with. It was both intimidating and refreshing to experience the differences and adjust for them.

In my own country, I rarely run across a social situation with unfamiliar expectations. Even those in which I don’t feel wholly comfortable, such as religious services or dances, I know enough to get by and extricate myself if necessary.

To find myself in a comfortable situation with a difference in social code is both uncommon and somewhat baffling.

The most difficult part now is figuring out if I need to adjust my understanding of such a social situation or if I should expect my friend to adjust his. I suspect the upcoming generations are, after all, more like me than him.



  • Sarahmarin

    In my family there was only one computer, from middle school through high school. We all had to take turns. When I went to college I got my own laptop and have continued to have a laptop since then.

    I don’t mind if someone wants to use my computer and I definitely try to abide by the Owner & Guest User Commandments. But still. Please ask to use my computer before you take it. I’ll totally say yes, just give me the courtesy of giving you permission first.

  • With people I don’t know very well or in locations I haven’t been before, I always ask. Among good friends, though, it rarely needs to happen.

    Asking is one piece of etiquette I certainly glossed over last night, but given the context it felt justified.

  • We also grew up with shared computers until I was about in 8th grade, where we each had our “own.” (This was unusual at the time… my Pops liked to build computers too.)
    I still think that the asking first, even knowing that the answer will be “yes” is the norm. It would be abnormal for someone to say “no” for sure.

    One time I hopped on a boyfriend’s computer when mine wasn’t working (we lived together, he wasn’t home), and I wished I hadn’t. I’m sure he wasn’t hiding certain things away or protecting it because he didn’t foresee an instance when I would get on his, since I had my own.

    In law school, though, laptops became FIERCELY private. I don’t really know why– we weren’t one of those competitive schools you hear horror stories about (think stealing notes or ripping cases out of shared books in the library). I think that everyone’s personal space already felt so invaded that we became really, really possessive of our computers. I even installed a privacy screen on mine so that people couldn’t glance at whatever I was doing on my lappy during class. And yes, it was password protected upon awakening (my boss had a habit of looking through our laptops while we were away from our desks).

    I get what you are saying though, if you expect it to be private, make it truly private. Your commandments make sense, but I’m not sure everyone follows them as an etiquette code.

    Is the etiquette gap generational or situational?

    Also, I could see there being an argument that the next generation may find their computers much more personal, since they didn’t grow up with “sharing” the way we did.

  • In regards to Law School, it’s a question of data.

    My friend Eric was also there during this exchange. He’s an inventor and is fiercely protective of his data. “It could cost me thousands of dollars if someone stole my designs,” he told me.

    “But it’s not going to hurt the general public,” I replied.

    “I’m concerned about me, not the general public. I just haven’t taken the proper precautions.”

    Eric, like my other friend, is significantly older than I am. While he’s more savvy than a lot of people I know in that age range, his grasp of how safe or at risk his data is seems skewed. Certainly, he worries about his data, but the fact that he’s an independent contractor and doesn’t expose his computer to public places means the only ways one could steal his data is by breaking and entering or via the Internet (which simply isn’t that likely as he’s not a big or important enough inventor to warrant the time and attention needed).

    On the one hand, I hate the idea of plaigerism and theft and I’d like to think that people won’t do things like that. On the other hand, I think copyright is out of control and support endeavors like Wikileaks, which continues to publish proprietary and classified information.

    In regards to law school, even if the school isn’t the most competetive, giving your research and/or answers to a classmate affects your grade, his or her grade, and the entire class, especially if there’s a curve. It makes sense to protect yoru data, and clearly you did so. At the same time, if you hadn’t taken steps and your data had been copied or stolen, I think the onus is as much on you as on the thief.

    When it comes to younger people, even though they have their own machines and accounts, it’s become readily apparent that digital privacy does not exist (see sexting scandals, facebook, virtual bullying, etc). If anyone knows that their data isn’t private, it’s people who grow up with technically inclined parents who know how to effect parental controls, research their kids’ accounts, and track their children by the same means. Cell phones from Disney even planned actual tracking devices enabled for parents, though I’m unsure if it’s now in place.

    While I know not everyone follows my commandments as an ethics code, I think that such a code should be part of every child’s education. If we want to experience privacy, we need to learn how to respect the privacy of others.

  • Anonymous

    I recall when our friend’s nieces were about 12 and 14 and their mother installed a key-logger on the family computer because she was certain that they were getting into things which they were told not to get into. I really didn’t approve of that approach because it implied a total lack of trust and did nothing to teach the girls about safe and unsafe things to do online.

    However, it wasn’t long before their family computer had slowed to a crawl. As a favor, I went to their house to do an anti-virus sweep and an Ad-Aware cleaning to remove pop-ups, trackers, etc. It was amazing. Usually I’d find a couple of things on any given computer. This process turned up about 700 items which needed to be removed. Some were very dangerous things like trojans, but most were commercial trackers like a very-hard-to-remove program which provided free animated email smileys but which neglected to tell the user that in accepting the program, it would generate pop-up ads every few minutes and would divert http browser requests to various unrelated sites of its choosing.

    If a household has a shared computer, I can see the value in setting up virtual machines for each member of the family so that dumb stuff is contained to a user’s own virtual machine. Unfortunately, that was not an available option back then.

    But it is a scary place out there and kids need to learn to be skeptical and realize that not every thing (or everyone) is what it seems. If an adult can be tricked by a socially-engineered phishing scheme, how can you expect a 12-year-old to make informed choices. I suppose as long as she’s not meeting someone she just met online at the mall, it’s just a matter of learning and growing up. But still….

  • There’s another thing to consider: explicit public computers. Many people have a computer hooked up to their TV or stereo for others to use. I would never use Matt’s laptop, since he’s got that thing in the living room. I wouldn’t even ask.

    Computers in bedrooms are off limits. Computers in the living rooms aren’t.

  • I agree. Location can be everything.

    I definitely don’t keep porn on my laptop, which remains in the living room in case someone needs access to the internet. It also is an old, broke-down computer at this point, with non-functional speakers and headphone jack leaving it without sound. It’s also password protected, so while I’m happy to log people in, the password makes sure I know who is using my machine and when.

    My desktop in my room, meanwhile, isn’t password protected because I know people won’t be in my room unless I invite them. I still take precautions to protect that data which I don’t want public, but because of the location, I don’t worry as much about physical security. On the other side of things, I run a personal firewall and adamantly protect my desktop from the interwebs while my laptop only has rudimentary protections. Using a more technical operating system like Linux (though really not that much more technical) helps keep people from screwing around on my laptop.

  • Earlier this year, I ran across this article about a mother letting her 9-year-old ride the New York subway on his own. It’s a well written article about teaching kids about the world.

    The Internet is really no different than the real world, only with a much smaller chance of physical harm. Protecting your kids from illicit material can only do so much because a child needs to be educated about how things really work. Personally, I believe that parenting should be about providing a guiding hand, something you and Mom did extremely well for me, without acting as a shield from reality. A 12-year-old may not be able to make informed choices, but that’s only if their parent doesn’t take the time to inform them.

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