Saturday, July 25, 2009

cyber kids

After a few weeks of lobbying on my part, I convinced Geekydaddy that we really needed to get ourselves iphones. Geekydaddy is a fully fledged silicon valley geek type (he designs microprocessors for a living) so we had, until the children came along, always been both early adopters of new technology and Mac users to boot, Geekdaddy even owned the prescient apple "Newton" personal organizer since he was on the design team of the chip inside it. Other demands on our finances recently had meant that we were slumming it, technologically speaking, making do with a 5 year old powerbook, plain old motorola slider phones, and the original 5G ipod. Then an incident involving a breastfeeding mother (me), the powerbook and a precariously balanced glass of water prompted an upgrade to a new mac laptop for my birthday last year, and last week we finally joined the iphone crowd. Now I too can take photos of my lunch and post them on facebook in real time! How did I live without it?!

Many reviews have been written of the iphone, so there is no need for me to give my version, except to say that we love these devices. So smooth and simple, such a sleek intuitive interface, and so many strange yet beguiling applications that can be downloaded onto it. Most of the miniature electronic devices on the market today from phones to cameras, are tiny computers, of course, but this really feels like one, a tiny little computer that lives in your pocket. Have a sudden idea for a blog post or an experiment while in the car? Quick, take a voice note. Drink a great yet cheap bottle of wine and want to remember the label? Snap a picture of it. In heavy traffic on the way to pick up the kids and want to call to say you will be a few minutes late? Use the voice activated dialing and say "call Daycare". If you have a British accent this apparently translates into iphone-glish as "Play Portishead loudly and refuse to turn off", thus negating the safety features of the voice dialing by causing the driver to scramble around for the volume control, but if spoken to with a forced American twang (I always end up sounding like I'm from Boston via Brooklyn when I speak fake American), the iphone behaves admirably.

As a tool for a busy Mother it has many advantages. I find the ability to keep my endless to do lists in one electronic spot very useful, and have fast discovered that the iphone is also great for amusing the kids. One great idea I got from a "how to amuse your kids with your iphone" blog was to keep a "favourite" list on 'you tube' as an application on the phone. I put a stock of Disney movie song clips on it, then called Geekygirl over to take a look. The sensible mother would never let her children find out what an entrancing device the iphone is, of course, if she ever wants to actually use it herself, but I felt rather like a kid with a new toy, and wanted to share my new found wonder with my daughter.

Geekygirl watched the tiny crisp figures of aladdin and jasmine fly across the screen and gasped. "Mummy, it is so cool!".

And that got me thinking. What is cool to a three year old anyway? To us grown ups, a tiny TV that can be held in your palm is somehow an emblem of the future, something promised by the science fiction of our youth (along with the personal rocket packs which never seemed to materialize). But to Geekygirl, only three years in the world, everything is cool, TV itself is still entrancing, a giraffe at the zoo, a bus ride, a swimming pool, the sight of a sliver of moon in daylight. The world is still full of so many things she has yet to experience, yet electronics seem to have a special draw.

I used the miraculous phone as an in flight entertainment system on our drive back from tahoe last weekend, holding it over my shoulder so both kids could watch the movies, but I wondered, will I be taking something away from them, their imagination and creativity, by exposing them to too much technology too early? Will I create monsters who have to be constantly stimulated and amused by expensive devices?

We live in a middle class part of San Francisco, and have a wonderful parent network connected through a yahoo group and by our interactions at local playgrounds and coffee shops. It is a generalization of course, but as a parent tribe here we are something of a cliche. We are left of mainstream America, wholesome and idealistic in our parenting. We eat organic, we recycle, we breastfeed our children for a year or two or three, we use clotn dipaers, or at the very worse environmentally friendly disposables, we strive to only wear natural fiber clothing that we hope wasn't made in a sweatshop, we don't let our kids watch much very TV, we feel that wooden puzzles, multicultural books and indigenous craft materials are "better" toys than plastic princesses and electronic talking Elmo telephones.

Well meaning folk email the group list links to  unverifiedstories about traces of plutonium found in mainstream brands of baby bubble bath, and lists of impossible to find sunscreens that cost more than their weight in gold but were made by local buddhist monks using sustainably mined zinc oxide and organic calendular oil. (I exaggerate, and don't mean to dismiss the very real concerns we should all have about pollutants in the environment). Something that always sums up our community philosophy to me is our annual Easter Spring egg hunt where the eggs are filled with organic whole wheat bunny crackers and stickers, and there is not a Cadbury's creme egg or a marshmallow peep in sight.

Despite this peer pressure I find it hard to buy into the 'technology is bad' argument. After all our kids will grow up into a technological world. Knowing ones way around a touch screen interface will probably be a useful skill in the future, possibly a more useful one than being able to thread beads on a string or do needlepoint (not to dismiss the pleasure many people take in the latter activities).

The genius of my iphone has brought home to me the great pace of technological change in our world. Thirteen short years ago i wrote my PhD thesis on an old mac classic and stored it on floppy discs. I "interviewed" for the position that brought me to the US with my brand new email account that I accessed through a Unix interface on a computer that I had to reserve time on. The work in that thesis, the cloning and molecular biology which took me over three years to complete could probably be done in six months or less now. The industry in which I work, biotechnology, was just a twinkle in Herb Boyer's eye back in 1970 when I was born.

The world is moving fast. We ask children "what do you want to be when you grow up?", a question that is in many ways unanswerable, because some of the jobs that will be available to them in twenty years will be things that we have not yet even conceived. For powerful evolutionary reasons the young people in a human societal group are drawn to playthings that resemble the tools their elders use, so it is no wonder our kids want to press buttons and peer into screens. Somehow they know that no one is going to stop the world, and they can't get off, so they had better keep up.

Tomorrow the Geekyfamily is taking a long daytime road trip to visit old and dear friends. In anticipation of this I thought about getting Geekygirl one of those leapster game devices, and emailed my parent group for opinions about them; evil brain cell destroying timewasters, must have educational tools, or parental survival necessities? I got mixed responses, one of which was from a practical mother of two older children, bright and well balanced kids, who said "My kids loved theirs. I feel that it was educational, and it was great for long car trips. I'll sell you ours with 15 games for $40.00". I said "deal".

And since i needed something for Geekyboy too, I picked up one of those programmable "Elmo knows your name" electronic phone toys. I was impressed to find that I was able to program it to say his rather unusual Scandinavian name. I would also have been able to program it to say "hello Bilbo". So very useful for those parents who decided to name their child after a Hobbit. Technology, isn't it wonderful?!


Coding Mamma (Tasha) said...

Interesting post. We are pretty much pro technology here (working with computers all the time, I suppose we would be) and are encouraging Rosemary to use the netbook, desktops, consoles, DS, mobile phones, etc. etc. Touch-screens make technology much more accessible to small children. Rosemary has always automatically tried to touch options on the screen and so gets on well with the DS.

The i-Phone thing I'm not so sure about. My contract runs out in November and I will definitely be getting some kind of smart phone to replace my current one, with a decent data package. I am, though, not a big Apple fan, despite having been one in the past (first computer I bought myself was an LCII, bought with my first grant cheque) and think I would be more inclined to go for something else. But I do like the idea of a touch screen. I would prefer one that I can program myself, rather than be limited to Apple's app store, so one with Flash and/or Java capabibilities would be better. Hmm, I think I'm going to have to research this one in great detail!

Anyway, thanks for a thought-provoking post. Hope the children like their tech gadgets!

(Oh, and I have always fantasised about living in Silicon Valley.)

SandyCalico said...

Fascinating post. We have far too much bleeping plastic crap masquerading as toys bought for our boys by well-meaning aunts and uncles....but, real, grown-up technology has to be good for them. You are so right when you say this is the world they are born into.
It amuses us when the boys (from a very early age) press buttons on electronic devices. When did we evolve to have the button pushing gene?!!

Amity said...

My husband got an iPhone a couple weeks ago and as he was showing our 3-year-old some pictures on it, she reached out and used her finger to flick to the next image, without being told or shown that that's how you scroll through. The thing that really amazed us though was when we were looking at a map on the phone and she knew to hold her first finger and thumb together on the screen and then open them wide to zoom in. We were dumbfounded. THIS is what growing up with technology from birth does, I suppose. She has an innate sense of how they work. It's incredible.

I wasn't going to get one but after using it a few times and seeing how useful it is, I'm really, really considering it.

Noble Savage

P.S. - any chance of allowing the 'Name/URL' option for comments? I hate the way Blogger forces me to use my Google ID name just to leave a comment.

geekymummy said...

Tasha, maybe the Palm pre would be for you. It is a lovely device, I nearly got one, but my work didn't support it.

NS, thanks for the tip, I just had left the default settings, hadn't thought about changing them. Should work now!

followthatdog said...

I think it is all about balance. I am extremely pro technology, partly due to my work and partly just due to my natural inclination, Dave is less technology oriented. I have no problems with kids being exposed to new technologies and think that their world is significantly different than ours. We need them to be comfortable using this technology that is so pervasive if they are going to be living in this world we've created.

That doesn't mean that my kids don't play with traditional toys, do arts and crafts, and play outside too. When they get too hooked on some high tech gizmo, I may ban it for a bit using the "oh no, mommy needs to get new batteries for this!" trick.

As far as ruining their imagination via technology, keep in mind that when the printed word was first made widely available people warned that this would be the end of education too.

It is an interesting discussion though, I was talking with DJ this weekend and he was talking about the challenges of making tv and interactive programming (web) for kids since they are increasingly tech savvy and more agile thinkers than we were at their age. They actually fund a whole institute to research this.

And so you know, my replacement iPhone arrived yesterday, so I have rejoined the world of the cool. I felt so freakin' isolated with a regular cell did I ever survive?

Coding Mamma (Tasha) said...

Thanks. I shall look at the Palm pre when I do my research. Am working on being 'allowed' a new digital camera as a giving birth present (What? Many women ask for diamonds, so it's surely cheaper than that!) and then the new phone as a late birthday present when my contract runs out in November. Now, if only some nice PR person would come along and offer both objects completely free to see what mummy bloggers can do with gadgets!

mothership said...

make suer you get smacktalk (app) my two sit around the phone (and adults too) laughing themselves sick at the 'talking' hamster/kitten/chihuahua. Stupid but endlessly amusing.
Also. re the leapster. We never use it except for long plane/car trips with headphones and on that 27 hour flight to Africa it saved my butt.

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