Growing A Little Tech Geek
I live in a posh(ish) locality in Delhi, where the sidewalks are filled with fancy young mothers who are chatting away into their phones while a household helper pushes along the pram of a yelling toddler. Snatches of conversations go thus: “Kids these days! You know, my 6-month-old is so smart, she already knows how to press all the right buttons on my iPhone,” and, “Arrey, and my son, barely three, and already knows how to find all his cartoons on YouTube…” The ubiquity of technology is astounding. But more exposure doesn’t necessarily mean more understanding. Knowing how to find cartoons on YouTube, for example, is very different from knowing how to build a similar website from scratch, or repair a laptop when it crashes.
As the token young(ish) person in my family, I was always assumed to be the only person in the house who could fix a computer. If a relative’s computer crashed, I was called in to fix it; if someone’s pictures needed transferring, I was called in to copy the files; if the printer was jammed, I would be one who pulled out the paper and cleared the queue. It became a self-fulfilling expectation that had nothing to do with age and everything to do with knowledge. And as I fixed all of these things, I realized there is a particular joy to finding out all the data that disappeared during a crash is actually recoverable, if you only know how to do it. I also realized it let me into a unique club. Fixing was the one thing that only I could do – everyone else knew how to use computers, but only I knew how to fix them.
In some ways, it was about mastery. I don’t like to be dependent on someone else to fix something that is both easy and fun to do. But it was also about creativity. Knowing how to programme and create things using technology, instead of just passively using someone else’s work, taught me ownership and allowed me to be the architect of my own relationship with technology — for every new feature I loved in an unaffordable new phone, I knew it would only take a couple of lines of code to get the same feature in my older model.
I want this for my son and his generation, as well. I want him to be able to do more than just use technology; I want him to understand the how’s and why’s, too. So, I’ve focused on the wonders of technology with him. He’s a toddler, so this is easy, since they are naturally curious. I introduce more advanced concepts by explaining that the TV doesn’t work when there is no electricity and that some toys don’t run when there are no batteries. To inspire the kick of mastery and creativity I get when I fix a computer or write code, I’ve given him a bunch of toy nuts and bolts and a screwdriver, as well as a sewing-board, that is, a piece of firm cardboard with several holes punched in. I ask him to lace the holes together using shoelaces. Many times, after hours of play, he has run to me with it, shouting, “Mummy, dekho!” The excitement of building beats any game on a tablet.
As he grows up, the trick will be to take away focus from the product and, instead, try to interest him in the process of technology. A friend recently asked me to help her son with this. The boy, she said, spent an “inordinate” amount of time downloading films. We ended up spending a very fun evening examining how torrents work through distributed networks and multiple pieces and people and how they are easy to replicate. He was genuinely thrilled. Turns out, he didn’t even watch the films, he just wanted to be the ‘super guy’ who could download any movie. Now, he was the superguy who could explain why these movies remain online, despite many efforts to limit or stop access and availability.
I’ve got a long list of games and kits to share with my son as he grows – games and kits that require more than just tapping buttons on an iPhone, and, as a result, give more in return: LOGO, a programming language that will teach him the basics of coding and result in wonderful doodles; the Educational Solar Bot Kit, which is a kit to build exactly what it sounds like and will hopefully lure him away from a PS3 obsession. I’ll introduce him to Ardurino, an open-source electronic prototyping platform used by beginning and advanced engineers alike to create interactive electronic objects, and the Tech section on Instructables.
My son will learn how to use technology with or without my help, because it is the reality of the world he’ll grow up in. But I can help him understand it and develop the skills to solve large problems by breaking them down into a sequence of smaller, more manageable problems. It’s not because I want him to be an engineer. It’s because this approach (known as ‘computational thinking’) is important for any field you can think of today: engineering, economics, business, physics, the arts, history, and even music. I want him, like his mother, to know the joy of exploring and finding, the specialness of understanding and fixing, and the independence of mastering and creating.