When I was a kid, my mother and father handed me an Atari computer. When I opened the box, plugged it into the TV, and fired it up, well.. it didn’t do anything. Â As I quickly realized, I had to make it do something. Â The first thing I set out to do with this awful-to-use beast (yes, it had a membrane keyboard — horrifying) was compose music. Â As I was a musician, treble clef was the first programming language I had ever learned, and so transposing music onto the computer was the perfect way to learn Atari BASIC. Â Of course, it wasn’t long before I exhausted the capabilities of the Atari and moved on to a Vic 20, then to a Commodore 64C.
It was with the C64 that my understanding and exploration of technology bloomed in two directions: first, in messing around with video games; second, in messing around with this crazy modem thing that I purchased one day at Woolco. Â I tried and failed to author a boat racing video game (physics eluded me as a tween), but found more traction in [ahem] ripping video games made by others. Â I entered the BBS world and built/modified my own systems, then messed around with ASCII graphics. Â While at high school I designed a billing system and almost an entire BBS using, of all things, dBase III+ and its onboard language — a project which I would be loath to advise anyone undertaking.
Still, this progression through various computers, idle when fresh out of the box, is what led me to my present career. Â The fact that the technology was a tool, and not just a medium, was for me the key to this. Â The fact that I needed to do a little extra work to get things done gave me a progressively more challenging learning curve, and a fairly unrestricted freedom of movement. Â In the 1980s, but particularly in the 1970s, personal computers really didn’t do anything.
And that was the point. Â PCs were modelling clay.
I wonder what kids think when they’re handed an iPad today? Â It does amazing things, if you download the right app. Â You can compose music, write a blog post, even edit a video. Â These are truly creative tasks. Â There are nearly a million apps in the App Store today which do all kinds of things, so it’s hard to argue that the app ecosystem limits the imagination. Â Still, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
Today an acquaintance jogged my memory of Neil Postman‘s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” in which he argues thatÂ “form excludes the content,” — that is, a particular medium can only sustain a particular level of ideas. Â In the book he holds both Orwellian and Huxleyan world views in some balance. Â For instance, Orwell feared those who would deprive and manipulate information to the masses; on the other hand Huxley feared that we would be so deluged with information that we would become passive and self-centered.
While for some people a computer that does nothing can sustain zero ideas, for others it is a gatekeeper to infinity. Â These days, every computer that ships still does next to nothing, but it is connected to the internet — by far the best conduit for ideas imaginable. Â And computers still ship with programming languages today — only now they have APIs, SDKs, and much more to work with… not to mention github. Â There are few delimiters on what we can make a personal computer do today.
With an iPad the Operating System, the means of production of new apps, and the means of distribution of apps are all off-limits. Â Whereas I learned about code and hacking assembler by trying to circumnavigate copy protection, that is not possible in today’s iPad. Â You cannot get under the hood of an iPad in any way (it doesn’t even have a filesystem), therefore you are highly unlikely to ever learn about computing from it.
When I look at Apple’s latest commercial for the iPad, I see many people making great use of works created by software engineers..
The iPad product line are incredible devices for consuming information or for creativity within the walled garden. Â For his part Neil Postman (were he still alive) would likely fear two things about the device and the way in which it handles media:
- Despite all of the hype, the iPad favours consumption over creation and negatively decreases the ratio
- The iPad, coupled with the internet to which it absolutely must be connected, buries truth and beauty with irrelevance
I believe that this argument can be extended to the device’s pedagogy in helping kids, and therefore humanity, explore the possibilities of computing. Â My concern is simply this:
When all of these wonderful apps and ideas we enjoy today were spawned from a generation of pimple-faced teens unboxing a gray, largely amorphic, hunk of silicon that would do whatever they told it to do… what happens when the next generation’s first experience with computing is with a hermetically-packaged inescapable walled garden that tells them what they can use it to do?
What happens when you replace modelling clay with a Mr. Potato Head?