The “I like” Technique


Digital Natives

Angela had been taking care of her grandchildren since they were very young. Her eldest daughter, Francesca, gladly entrusted them to her; Angela was a good help, as Francesca was so absorbed by her daily routine, juggling work and a thousand other commitments. Her ex-partner, the kids’ father, had been living abroad for several years now; they were on good terms but certainly he wasn’t useful in raising them daily. As for them, Elm and Olivia were always thrilled to stay with grandma.

When the little girl turned twelve, her father gave her a mobile phone, a smart one, with a big touch screen, a nice camera, and the Internet connection. It was beautiful, it was called iPhone, and it had a pink cover to protect it from falling. So he could call her, or rather, video call her.

Since the minimum age for using WhatsApp had been raised to sixteen, she had installed FaceTime, an app by Apple. Olivia was on cloud nine. She got into her cell phone that day, and a year later, she seemed lost in it.

She didn’t like going to Grandma’s anymore. She said to her, “How boring here. You don’t understand anything about apps. Daddy is really cool! Look, he made me a TikTok account, from remote!”

Angela didn’t understand. She saw her granddaughter shaking in front of the screen, trying to follow the rhythm of the song that was rumbling through her headphones, and she felt cut off. She was in a lot of pain. In fact even Elm, the eldest, had moved away a bit because of the computer: now he was spending hours playing Fortnite, an online role-playing game in which you conquer an imaginary island, as summarily explained to her a friend from yoga, Adele.

She sounded like an expert to Angela, since she talked about Internet stuff like she were perfectly comfortable with it, even if she was already in her 70s.

She tried to read up. She discovered that her grandchildren, like all of their peers, were defined as digital natives, that is, individuals born together with digital technologies. A generation of people at ease with these technologies, as opposed to previous generations, defined as digital immigrants. But then what was her friend Adele? An old digital native? A cheater?

“But what digital natives!” Adele burst out laughing when Angela asked her about her secret. “My son is a geek, he’s been playing with computers his whole life. He inherited it from his grandfather, who is my father, who repaired radios, TVs and sound systems. For me, these computers are no different from the machines that there were before. Just a little more fragile and complicated. And obviously connected!”

But Angela continued to feel uncomfortable. She really hated those smart-things, she felt like they were replacing her in the grandchildren’s lives. Of course, she had to admit it: she knew several people who, just like her friend Adele, had become very clever geeks, to such an extent to engage in interpersonal relationships mediated by the digital devices: in short, they were dating people they met on online platforms!

Somehow, some of her peers often found the interconnected multimedia realities more interesting and engaging than the disconnected situations: they had all the recognized digital media use and abuse characteristics that should have been peculiar to the so-called natives - both qualitative and quantitative.

Yet they were people born before TV - in the 1940s - not with the Internet or the Web! How was that possible?

The Point of View of Cognitive Neuroscience

All humans with a brain can become digital natives because the brain is extremely plastic and changes very quickly in learning procedures.

This does not mean at all that these people are capable of understanding, analyzing, modifying and teaching the procedural mechanisms that they repeat! The presumed generational difference between digital natives and digital immigrants is based on the confusion between different types of learning and memory, in particular between procedural memory - or implicit - and declaratory memory - or explicit.

Cognitive ergonomy is a matter of head, so as to say: body and habits. Thanks to digital media humans can decrease their cognitive load and, for example, delegate the task of remembering all the numbers of their address & telephone book. The work they have to do (ergon, in Greek) is performed by the address book, which works through precise rules (nomos, rule). An indispensable help.

We didn’t take any classes to learn how to consult the paper address book. And not even that of our phone, or the management of contacts on a social platform. Maybe we had to ask someone more geeky than us, we probably don’t know exactly how it works, but the important thing is that we reach the goal.

To achieve this, we will have to do a series of repetitive actions, namely, to go through a procedure. We follow the obvious traces in the algorithmic procedure interface designed for us by others. The procedure coincides with the steps of the algorithm that lay beneath the interface.

To simplify, let’s say that the organization of our cognitive system is mainly based on on intuitive faculties and reasoning. Relying on intuition, all we do is interpret a context through patterns that are already part of our unconscious mnemonic baggage. The cognitive and computational effort is minimal, since we don’t have to think about what we’re doing. We act automatically.

Instead the reasoning requires a considerable cognitive effort, we must dwell on a problem, make a hypothesis, follow a sequentiality that requires a slow pace and full involvement. Intuition allows you to act and use a tool without being able to explain how it works, while reasoning can make us able to to explain exactly how something works without being able to use it.

A violin expert may have no idea of how her own musculature works, but she knows how to use it perfectly. Conversely, by reading a manual we can be theoretically able to describe the steps to drive a tractor without being able to drive it in practice.

Practical Alternatives

By now Angela was convinced that she could manage to get by with that digital stuff. She reached out to Adele describing her problem.

“You need to apply the ’like’ technique!” her friend exclaimed… “Here’s how it works: once you find out what you like, you try to find out a practical alternative. You like dealing with your granddaughter, right? But this FaceTime thing upsets you, as well as TikTok, right?”

“Yes, that’s right. Imagine that I bought myself an iPad so I could install FaceTime. I just can’t understand the other one, but at least… Now when I call Olivia, she answers.”

“Sure. So you need something to cover up the same functions: seeing each other through a screen, but without all those nonsense, like having to have an account and an Apple device… look, I use Jitsi with my grandkids living in Montevideo. That’s how it works: we make an appointment, with a time and an address. For example, at 5.30 P.M. Central European Time. At this point, I open a browser, I type in the address, I enable the camera and microphone and zac!, I meet up with them. No login and password, no notifications!”

“All right, I’ll do it, but first let’s try together once. I don’t want to make a bad impression with something that doesn’t work.”

“Of course it does. In fact, show me your tablet. There you go.” In the course of… a half hour, Angela had become familiar with the new toy.

And it worked!

Olivia initially grumbled a lot. Then she let herself be persuaded, and remained astonished. Maybe she could have used the same system to call her friends secretly… On FaceTime everyone was always there all over the place. Not to mention WhatsApp (of course she had an account even if she was younger than 16 years old) she couldn’t stand all those notifications anymore.

Instead her grandmother’s system was simple, nobody knew about it and it was not related to the phone number, so it was necessary to make an agreement before. There was no way to send notifications to call someone who wasn’t already informed of the appointment: time and address.

“Grandma, you’re a genius!” Olivia concluded.

“Mostly I have a good friend!”, winked Angela with satisfaction.