The Dangers of Painting Technology Trends with Too Broad a Brush

When it comes to the debate on the relationship between Social Media and Knowledge Management there is an article that though quite old now (Sept 2008) is still very often cited as authoritative – “Social Media vs. Knowledge Management: A Generational War” by Venkatesh Rao. Whilst seductive on first read, this piece demonstrates for me the danger of using too broad a brush to trace the outline of unfolding trends in technology.

Rao’s blog paints a picture of two generations – the Baby Boomers and Generation Y-ers – fighting it out with two different paradigms of how they relate to and handle knowledge – through top-down Knowledge Management on the one hand, and free-for-all Social Media on the other. According to Rao, in the middle of this are the Generation X-ers, involved in both and allied to neither.

There is certainly always an inertia involved in any discipline when new ways of doing things emerge – people work long and hard to become established in their field, and they will naturally try to fit what emerges into paradigms with which they are already familiar. It is also natural that people will cleave to ways of doing things that they grow up with first – this certainly does not mean that people are stuck in ways of doing things dictated by their age – there are enthusiastic older users of social media just as much as there are younger people seeking to impose order and taxonomies on their knowledge.

Rao’s post is part and parcel of a wider mindset that views the unfolding of technology and knowledge-exchange in simplistic terms, uncomplicated by culture, race, class, education, profession, personality and so on. The whole notion of the Baby Boomer, for instance, is one that is located in a specifically western developmental paradigm – the use of computers and the web has followed a distinctive trajectory in other countries and continues to unfold with a specifically local flavour depending on the environment – familiar western demographics are not universal. If the sentiments in this blog reflected reality, marketing would be simpler – we could just pursue everyone simply based on generation. Wherever technology and techniques are adopted, they become embedded in and reshaped by the local cultural and social environment.

The history of the internet as much as any other unfolding of events, past or present, is not so easy to characterise or periodise – people are complex, their mass behaviour is often chaotic – otherwise, why would we need to get a grip on knowledge in the first place? Whilst it is perhaps easier to divine the likely future behaviour of corporates, where the profit imperative is clearly driving things, for everyone else there is no single dimension – age, race, class – which can be used to group and characterise behaviours. One of the joys of the net is that the way people adopt and use particular sites and technologies is unpredictable in the extreme – which is why we all necessarily indulge in some level of futurology.

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About jonallenby
I'm the co-founder and Technical Director of a new media agency - Lime Media. I would describe myself as having a healthy scepticism about technology - new ways of doing things are always new, but they are not necessarily better. Best to cut through the hype and think about how technology will physically change people's lives, for better or worse. I am also struggling to finish a part-time PhD in language, metaphor and philosophy at Goldsmith's College, University of London. Apart from thinking and reading, I like playing with my children, cross-country running and White Crane Kung-Fu - though usually not all at once.

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