Are we breeding a generation of app-loving, web-addicted digital illiterates?

Sang-Jin Bae thinks something is amiss with computers. He should know. He's used them for decades as a technical director for Disney'sLittle Einsteins and as an animation production supervisor for shows at places such as Nickelodeon. He even teaches. His animation classes are some of the most popular at New York University's ritzy Tisch School of the Arts.

To Mr. Bae, the problem is not the computer. It's the people using them.

"When kids come into my class they divide into three groups," he says. There are the pure geeks who love technology. There are those trying to understand. And then there is the biggest group: "Those who couldn't care less."

As remarkable as it is to consider, this hip, articulate 36-year old computer whiz makes a heck of an argument that the computer age is entering a dark new era: the age of the digital illiterate.

Today's teens grew up on SMS and Facebook. Everything is being presented to them all the time. Web companies love it, since kids are addicted to their products. But, he says, "They expect less and less from the Web and the software they use."

Mr. Bae is not just talking about obscure, high-end animation tools. Instead, he sees an essential dumbing down of bedrock computing skills.

"The kids I have, and that is roughly two dozen of the brightest young digital artists a semester, often have no idea what Microsoft Word is. They can't tell a Mac from a PC. And forget Excel," he says. He struggles to get his students to use basic computing etiquette.

"They will not use e-mail," he says. They can't manage a crowded inbox. "It's a constant struggle to have them simply stop SMSing me."

And investors face a whole world of hurt as they consider the new world of digital illiteracy. If you view the software biz through Mr. Bae's eyes, it's clear "simple is the new black" in the world code.

The biggest software simpleton of all, of course, is Microsoft. Its latest OS, Windows 8, jettisons the most profitable and complex user interface of all time – the desktop and pull-down windows – for the stripped-down tile-based "Metro" interface. Simplicity seems to also now define the Microsoft culture. The word "simple" appears no less than nine times in a single blog post by Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live division.

Serious visual-effects packages are stepping down the simpleton software highway as well. Take San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk.

"They make a visual manipulation tool called Maya," Mr. Bae says. "And the new package has automatic features for animating hair. That used to be a specialist's job. But nobody wanted to deal with it. The idea was to make it easy enough for a nontechie to use."

Dozens of photo apps also vie to be the super-simplest. The most impressive, to me, is Trey Ratcliff's 100 Cameras In 1. This smartphone photo tool boils photography down into anybody-can-chew bites. According to Ratcliff's travel site, StuckinCustoms.com, this app was recently downloaded 1 million times.


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