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Growing Up With Technology

The other day my wife told me that my son can now turn on the computer, take a DVD out of its case, put it in the DVD drive, and make the right menu selections with the mouse to start a movie. He's two. Granted, sometimes he ends up watching Tinker Bell in French, but hey, maybe he'll pick up a second language. I find it amazing that he can manipulate a mouse that well when he can hardly get a spoon full of macaroni in his mouth without getting some up his nose and the rest in his lap.

This breakthrough got me thinking about how people always say kids can learn new technologies so much faster than the rest of us. Then I started thinking that it's not so much that young kids can learn faster, as it's that they don't have a huge catalog of old interfaces stored in their heads that they have to overcome when learning a new one.

Think about all of the devices you've used throughout your lifetime. I'm young enough that people have thought that I don't know what a record is, but I definitely remember listening to my family's record player when I was growing up. I can still recall the distinct crackling sound that the stylus made while picking up all of the dust and imperfections on the record's surface. I remember how the turntable worked, how the records needed to be cleaned, and how much space they took up in our living room cabinets. That's one of the first devices I can remember. Here's another.

My dad had a hand-wound 8mm camcorder that would take short video clips. He'd have to send the film in to be developed, and then he would splice the clips together into a movie. Every once in a while he would bring out the video projector, and we would all sit around and watch the home movies while he narrated. There was no sound recorded with the movies, but my dad did a great job of making it interesting on his own. I always loved hearing his stories about what was happening on the screen, and I still remember the whir of the fan and the clack-clack-clack that the film made when the spool ran out. Sometimes he would bring out the slide projector and narrate while he flipped through those as well. The experience was fairly similar, even down to the whir of the fan and the clacking of the carousel as it changed the slides. Both of these projectors had their own interfaces as well.

That's pretty much where I picked up in the stream of technology related to movies and music. There are many other technology categories, from communication to transportation to energy, but let's keep it simple and focus on forms of media. I just missed ATRAC, and I've lived through cassette tapes, Betamax, VHS, CDs, DVDs, and now MP3s, Blu-rays, and streaming video. Every one of these formats introduced new features that changed the interfaces on the devices that played them, and the device interfaces have continued to evolve on their own as well. Now Blu-ray players have their own GUIs and internet connectivity, and almost any device with a screen smaller than 30 inches is a touch screen - or will be soon.

My kids will never have known about most of those older devices. They'll never have to learn their interfaces. They're starting with the GUIs and touchscreens, and that's all they know. I know it's becoming passé to list all of the things that young people never knew existed, but what about things they stop using before they're able to remember? My son tries to touch our computer screen because he thinks it should work like an iPod or a Kindle. He recognizes that it's a similar screen and figures it should be touchable, too. He understands the mouse because he sees us using it, but touching is much more intuitive to him. It's quite possible that our main computer could have a touchscreen in the next few years, and if he's still young enough, he'll never remember it not being that way. From his perspective, every screen would be a touchscreen, and that's just the way things always were.

Here's another example. I don't plan on getting rid of our movie collection in the next few years, but theoretically I could. Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Amazon, and massive hard drives are certainly adequate replacements, and if I did, my son wouldn't remember having to put a disc in a player to watch a movie. They would always be available to watch anytime on any device. If you didn't have to forget the old way of watching movies and learn yet another new interface, you'd probably pick it up pretty fast, too. It's the constant forgetting that gets hard, or maybe exhausting is a better word.

Now that interfaces are almost entirely software, they are evolving and proliferating faster than ever. That means we have to forget the old to learn the new at an ever faster pace. Our kids are growing up in this environment. They are immersed in it, so they are much more comfortable with it than we are. I wonder if they will reach a point in their lives where they suffer from new interface exhaustion, or if that wouldn't happen to them because their brains are wired differently from growing up in a much more interactive, visually immersive world.

Our children are certainly growing up in an environment that has incredible learning tools for quickly developing a markedly different skill set than we did growing up. The right video games, computer applications, and high-tech toys (e.g. Lego MINDSTORMS) can greatly improve creative problem solving, logical reasoning, analytical thinking, and abstract modeling skills. Researchers have even found that people that play video games have better surgical skills. Of course, you should be selective about what type of games your kids play. World of Goo is an excellent game for learning about physics in a whimsical world for children. Call of Duty...not so much.

To succeed with these games and apps, you have to form a model of the world in your head. You need to learn the physical rules that govern what you can and can't do in the world, and if it's a 3D world, you'll also be creating a mental map of the game world so you can move through it effectively. Often times this mental model is not based in our physical universe at all. There's a lot of abstract thinking and creative problem solving going on there, and kids are learning without even realizing it because it's fun. We should definitely be encouraging that kind of learning because they are much more likely to retain the knowledge if they are so engaged in the process.

That's a powerful skill set for them to have for the creative jobs of the future. When it comes time to design the next advanced computing device or energy technology or medical delivery system, these kids' minds will be well prepared for the task. They'll be able to dream up novel solutions to these hard problems because they're wired to think in entirely different ways than we are. I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with.