While technology is often about manipulating physical matter to achieve some kind of efficiency or product, it is also very much about perspective and thinking about doing old things in new ways. And so, it hasn’t surprised me that my own thinking of technology has been heavily influenced by watching how my 10- and 6-year old boys interact with computers, mobile devices, and new media. Perhaps the most relevant part of this discussion stems from one important observation–the issue of technology adoption is largely moot for the young in many contexts.
Past habits, preconceptions, and preferences rarely factor in for kids as they pick up a new technology and I am often left wondering whether or not the lessons I learned as a linguist (in my past academic life) about how kids acquire language resembles their uptake of technology. Some of the more well-known linguists, like Pinker or Chomsky, have referred to this as the “language instinct” and I must admit I see a very similar latent competency in my own children. This kind of in-born fluency with technology acquisition is also discussed in one of my favorite TED talks by Sugata Mitra. The “Hole in the Wall” talk asserts that very poor children in the slums of India are predisposed to acquire technology skills when Internet-ready computers mysteriously show up embedded in neighborhood walls. It’s a fascinating study and Sugata is relying heavily on the belief that kids are hard-wired to learn technology. A little closer to home…here are some observations about how my own kids’ interface with technology has informed some of my thinking in this area.
1. Adoption of new technology is primarily schema changing for adults and schema acquisition for youth.
This has various implications and I’m leaning hard on a specific model of learning theory. I’ve seen the same issue in play when learning and teaching foreign language as an adult. Adults are oftentimes scaffolding new information around already acquired schema whereas children (with their reduced experience and improved mental “plasticity”) are establishing new neuronal connections with little “extra” mental processing, hence, children tend to learn language more with greater potential to reach native speaker pronunciation.
Example: My children see very little difference between an Apple, Windows and iOS mobile platform. They have not established opinions and been exposed to marketing, peer value statements and prolonged exposure to earlier iterations. They therefore move quickly and seamlessly between devices. Locating user preferences, cameras, games, video editing—no problem for them and no real preference (if you ask them) about which platform is better. It just is.
2. Children “get” technology as soon as they find a relevant purpose.
On some level, this holds true for adults as well, but we’re often forced to prioritize our technology usage and can quickly relegate new technologies to the recycling bin.
Example: When augmented reality (AR) came out, I found it interesting, but could not find any practical uses in my own life. The same might be true (so far) of RFID and most iPhone apps. My youngest quickly found that the lego.com website allows him to print different Lego vehicle pages with AR markers placed in the middle. He now holds up the AR printouts in front of the computer so that he can see the 3-D AR lego ship appear on the monitor. He was also pointed to the iPhone game for the site, which encouraged him to use my phone to scan the box of a certain Lego box to receive more points. Admittedly, there is some unneeded advertising here, but he was more than excited to join me on my recent trip to the store where he opened the app, accessed my mobile device camera, scanned the box, and jumped right back into the game. To some degree, I’ve already ruled out AR, RFID, and some of the scanning technologies. He has no such opinion and will most likely continue using it, even if he has months of non-usage in between. It felt a little bit like a glimpse of the future for me.
3. The curiosity children exhibit towards technology is often unusually strong.
Example: Chase bank recently announced that their iPhone app allows customers to take a photo of their check and make this deposit remotely—no ATM needed. While other smaller banks have moved in this direction, Chase is the first mainstream bank to do this. When I shared this with my wife, she immediately wanted to know about the security issues and constraints. She was not very excited. I know that if my children get a hold of this, they will move quickly to use the technology without a single neuron slowing down the adoption process. Sounds like the perfect experiment!
While these are obviously anecdotal stories couched in my own set of quasi-scientific opinions, each example reminds me that technology just “is” for children. As adults, we obviously have a responsibility to bring discretion to the larger issue of how and when technology is used, but I think that we are well served by acknowledging that we have an awful lot to learn from our kids in this domain and we are surely looking at the future as we watch children use technology to seamlessly connect the private, public, consumer, and personal domains of our cultural terrain.