The Big Stakes of Little Screens

January 8, 2019

Depending on how well we help our daughters and sons master their devices and the new ecosystem being created by them, our kids can either establish mastery over their screens or allow technology to have mastery over them.

by Kristina Stewart Ward

On a very real level, the child being born and raised today is a distinctly new kind of person, someone growing up in immersive digital landscapes that we’ve had decades to watch evolve, and years to process and become acclimated. While our kids’ generation has been labeled “digitally native,” we sometimes forget that this refers only to their surroundings, not to some innate tech fluency or critical thinking skills they’re born with.

Like us, our children still need to develop these competencies in order to thrive, but unlike us, they’ve never known anything other than their 24/7, fully-connected world. Their ability to sink or swim in this “new normal” has accordingly higher stakes, if only because they understand no alternative way of life.

This idea is brilliantly captured in a now-famous joke told by the late author, David Foster Wallace: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”

How did we arrive at our current tech landscape?

Wallace was ahead of his time when giving this opening gambit at a commencement speech in 2005. Some 14 years ago, our “brave new world” was only just emerging. But even then, pre-iPhone, new kinds of expertise and nimble mindedness were being required of those graduates (many of them the same age as us) when they emerged from college to take on a big, unfamiliar ocean that they didn’t yet recognize was wet. Do you remember feeling prepared?

If you can hold the attention of children, you can educate them.

Now as parents, they (we) recognize that the stakes have only increased since then. Devices are equally as good at being sedatives as they are at being stimulants, and for now, at least, we’re the ones deciding what role they’ll play in the lives of our kids. If that sounds scary, we can glance back even further than Wallace, looking to 1969 and the rise of Sesame Street, whose creator, Joan Ganz Cooney, found herself in a situation similar to the one we face today.

Creating mastery

Sesame Street hit the airwaves 50 years ago with the clear-eyed goal of mastering the addictive qualities of TV, harnessing it to better educate the next generation, and inspiring a more engaged, more generous culture in the process. Or, as Malcolm Gladwell so crisply described the show’s secret power in his book, The Tipping Point: “If you can hold the attention of children, you can educate them.”

That doesn’t sound so unlike the potential that tech has for our own kids—it certainly has their attention anyway. So what do we, as parents, want from tech now that it does? And what would we like to see from our kids? It’s not so hard to imagine ourselves being as brave and optimistic as Joan Ganz Cooney when she embarked on an audacious quest to convert television’s neutral (but potentially negative) platform into a mass distributor of content serving the greater good.

Even if our own version of the greater good involves just the kids under our roof being a little more curious, autonomous and prepared for a future that’s arriving more quickly every day, then that seems like a good start. If we also help our kids establish more agency over the devices getting them there…well, even better.

We’re all wizards when we put in the time

Alex Klein, the founder of Kano computer kits for kids remembers his “aha” moment as a tween when his laptop smashed open on a concrete floor. “Suddenly the veil was peeled back on the secret world of synapses and circuits in this otherwise closed black box. It made me curious about how all of these tiny components and sensors created the magic I saw on my screen.” Flash forward to 2016 and no less than Joan Ganz Cooney’s Sesame Ventures is investing in this company that empowers kids to develop that same sense of mastery over digital tools. Using Javascript, Unix and Python along with brightly colored buttons, boards, cords—Kano now joins companies like Raspberry Pi and littleBits in doing just that.

Unless kids can also see themselves actually creating some of this magic, we risk losing them to passive consumerism.

“The devices and codes made by programmers shape the world around us,” says Klein, the 28-year-old who studied Ethics at Yale and Politics at Cambridge before founding Kano in 2013. This isn’t the typical tech wiz background, but it’s one that gives Klein broad context for his do-it-yourself computer assembly kits and their long-term goals.

“Kids look around our connected world with such a sense of wonder,” he says, cautioning that unless they can also see themselves actually creating some of this magic, we risk losing them to passive consumerism.

“There are 20 billion connected devices in the world, and fewer than 20 million people globally actually know how to code them.” He likens these numbers to the 1% so vilified during the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, which he covered as a journalist. “If we think it’s scary that 1% of us controls all of the wealth, why aren’t we more concerned that fewer than 1% control everything else? A very small subsection of our society speaks magic words in the form of algorithms and suddenly they’re moving things with their minds, and putting things into yours.”

Klein had that last analogy in mind when he developed the “Harry Potter Kano Coding Kit” that just took top innovation honors at the 2019 annual Consumer Electronics Show. He explains that programmers and machine learning are a kind of wizardry, and he thought it would be cool to let kids feel a bit more like wizards themselves. While the bulk of the kits Kano sells look like a mash-up of Legos and transparent motherboards, this wand actually looks like a wand. Of course, you still assemble it and program it through kid-friendly instructions until you’re waving this device in front of one of your screens and enchanting it with familiar Hogwarts spells and incantations. The empowerment is clear: it’s a hero’s journey, no so unlike Harry’s himself. Only our in case, any Muggle can become a wizard if they put in the time.

Don’t just prepare for the future: create it

The device seems to be finding its audience and it’s now among the offerings found in Apple stores worldwide. It doesn’t hurt that Steve Wozniak is among the investors, the man famous for hunching over his motherboards in a garage until Steve Jobs finally dragged him, and that desktop personal computer, into the public domain and into history. But more than just being an Apple co-founder, Wozniak is renowned for the joy of tinkering itself, and that is where he and Klein really connected. They both want to see other young people engage with devices this way—to be creators, not just consumers.

Joan Ganz Cooney feels the same way. “When it came to TV I knew it could teach because I knew 3-year-olds who could sing beer commercials. Today’s tech is just another digital teacher. We decide what content runs through it.”

“Tech is not just a way to make money or solve problems,” concludes Klein, “it’s a way to express yourself. Coming at your devices with a sense of wonder is a great start, but then you have to get in there and figure out how these things actually work. And even then, coding is just a means, not an end in itself. You’re not inventing devices, you’re inventing the future.”

Kristina Stewart Ward is the former Executive Editor of Harper’s Bazaar, Editor-in-Chief of Hamptons magazine, and Society Editor of Vanity Fair. She runs Incite Media, a branding company focused on engagement through storytelling and lives in New York City with her two sons.

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