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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

I’m a geek. Let me throw the bias out there for you straight up. However, in the last few months, I’ve been debating and discussing what constitutes a “gadget” with a lot of people. The news has also been discussing the evils of technology on families and children. The issue that I have been debating in my head is what technology actually rises above “gadget” to become useful and thus empowering to present and future geeks (and the population as a whole).

A few years ago, I bought myself the iPhone 3G. I love my iPhone. I mostly used it as a conglomeration of calendar/music/email. Once MonsterĀ  started seeing me on it, he wanted to play with it more and more. When the iPhone 4 came out, Mr. A and I jumped on that bandwagon like a pack of wolves staring down an Omaha Steaks truck. With that, we decided to try downloading a few apps for Monster. This is where the discussion of gadget versus geekery comes in.

The tantrums. Oh, the tantrums. This child would see one of our phones and start shouting “CHOOCHOO! CHOOCHOO!!” so that he could play his Thomas the Tank Engine game. The first game he loved was a “tilt the phone” game to move the train. However, since this seemed to amuse him when we played it, we started downloading other apps. We downloaded a small piano app. We downloaded a Thomas puzzle and matching game. Monster started to figure out what to do to make the games work. He began to…learn. After a few months, we finally decided that, as long as we monitor what apps he has on his “phone”, we would retool my old iPhone so that he could play games on it without bothering us.

A lot of news articles, recently, have discussed the evils of using phones to entertain children. The media loves sharing how children spend more time playing games than learning how to tie their shoes (of course, if kids were still using velcro sneakers like we did in the 1980’s, maybe this would be surprising). Studies have been coming out in the last six months focusing on young children and smartphone use. Debates have been springing up with mothers about what is an appropriate gadget for their children.

People’s decisions for their own families are their business. However, the term “gadget” has been bothering me. Recently, on my mothers’ discussion board, a debate sprung up about a 6 year old and an iTouch. A lot of mothers, not all but many, argued that these phones and machines are gadgets. Others stepped into the debate discussing how a smartphone has more technology than a desktop computer in the 1980’s. The discussion got me thinking, “at what point is a cell phone or a tablet no longer a gadget but a useful piece of technology that will overtake what we adults currently consider to be necessary technology for our lives?”

Before we retooled Monster’s phone, we thought long and hard about the goals we had for him. Yes, the phone is a magical tantrum remover. Yes, in a restaurant, it can keep him entertained long enough for us to finish eating. Yes, we love that he’ll play a game for twenty or so minutes at a time. However, while these are useful tools for us, what do they do for him? We thought carefully about what we wanted Monster to “get” from having his own “phone.”

1) Education. All right. I’ll start with the one that most parents care the most about. Monster loves doing puzzles and memory games on the phone. He will sit and do puzzles for twenty or more minutes moving the pieces across the screen. This is a child who, if he doesn’t fall off a table by the age of three, is most likely going to still end up having a concussion countdown, a la Varsity Blues. He’s never still. I can tell when he’s fallen asleep because that is the point at which his fingers finally stop fluttering and he is absolutely.immobile. Doing normal, non-digital puzzles normally involves throwing the board and watching the pieces bounce around my hardwood floors, in a rather noisy manner. This is a child who would never be able to control himself from overturning every card in a traditional memory card game. The digital versions of these learning games has enabled Monster to focus his attention on the mental skill without the distraction of the “OHMIGODTHERE’SSTUFFTOTHROW!” aspect of the traditional games.

2) Experience. For me, this is the number one goal. As technology progresses, it will continue to become smaller. What we consider microtechnological “gadgets” now may one day become the essence of an adult workforce. When I was in elementary school, people worried that playing games like Oregon Trail were going to dumb us down. “Tech ed” in my middle school days involved programming a lathe to make a keychain. It involved learning basic Logo. As computers became more prevalent, I found myself woefully unaware of the impact they would have on my future. I had an email account as early as 11th grade. However, I did not fully understand the educational value of the internet until I was 18 and in college. Today’s world revolves around understanding and effectively using technology. Businesspeople use smartphones to stay in contact or to work remotely while commuting on a train or bus. Tablet computers are rapidly becoming the new way to conduct business and be effective in a global market. The technology that our children learn on will be far outdated by the time they are adults. Understanding how to use and evolve with technology will better prepare them for their futures. To me, this is the key. As technology continues to simplify user interface and miniaturize, it will become even further integrated into the workforce on that level. In twenty years, the workforce may have flattened such that you never truly see the people with whom you work. To deny my son the experience of being comfortable with technology is to inhibit his potential in the long run.

3) Independence. We have uploaded different apps, music, and video to Monster’s phone. I love that he wants to play puzzle games. I don’t mind that he wants to listen to Yo Gabba Gabba music ad infinitum. I’m mostly ok with him watching the two Gabba episodes that we uploaded to the phone when he does not like what we’re doing around the house. However, he also has the option of playing some video games (we have a Lego app that basically involves tapping the farm characters to make them talk) or listening to the other music (music from his music class, Linkin Park, They Might be Giants). He has the opportunity, within the boundaries we have set, to make his own decisions. The fact that he feels he is making his own decisions gives him an element of control over his life. Yes, I have warned him on the fifteenth view of his Yo Gabba Gabba “Talent” episode in a row that the phone will be taken away if that is all he does with it. The phone isn’t available at all times. I take it out and put it away (surreptitiously of course) throughout the day. However, he does not realize, yet, that I still have control. In fact, he very often will play quietly for a while and then go play imaginary games with his trains. This is not inhibiting his creative play. It is supplementing.

4) Exploration. The three points above lead to this one. Exploration, to me, is the heart of intellectual curiosity. Allowing Monster to have the freedom to explore certain technologies and within those contexts different music, ideas, and languages (yes, we have a Spanish app on there and a math app too!) allows him to choose his interests. This exploration, to me, is the heart of learning to be a curious human. He is trying new things. There are apps or music or videos that he will try and decide he does not like. There are others that he keeps going back to explore further. He is learning that he can try something and decide whether he wants to continue to explore it further. He is exploring math, reading, music, and imagery. These explorations may seem minimal given their format. However, as someone who spends hours a week with young people, the exploration is the key, more so than the format. He is learning that following his interests will give him greater opportunities. To me, this is one of the most valuable aspects of letting him have a “phone.”

5) Sense of connectivity to the adult world. I do a lot of work on my mobile devices. I teach online classes. I stay connected to my students throughout the day. I send and receive business emails on my iPhone and iPad. Monster sees this throughout the day and wants to be like mommy. For him, having his own “phone”, even if it has none of the actual connectivity of mine, gives him a sense that he is like the adults. He is far more gentle with his phone than with any of his other toys. He does not throw it (normally…) and is careful to put it down gently. Rarely does it end up hidden or on the floor. He already understands that treating it poorly will make it go away. While we have taught him this, his desire to model adult behavior has made this lesson easier. He is far from an adult. However, all children wish to model adult behavior and this allows him to do it.

For us, and I do not deride others for their decisions, allowing Monster to have a “phone” has fulfilled various different objectives. We discussed whether this was being “indulgent” and decided that the overall benefits outweighed the spoil factor. Besides, the old phone was sitting around gathering dust for three months before we even entertained the thought. For us, this is something that was not done to alleviate tantrums (although, I won’t lie, it does help quell the screaming). It was not done so that he could “keep up with the Joneses.” It was done so that we could give him various options that he may not otherwise have.

Many adults – my age and older – do not understand technology. They find that the new technology is nothing more than a “gadget.” To that I say, no. Regardless of decisions made for children, I argue that much of the technology that people see as gadgetry is the future. In the late 1980’s, cell phones were considered gadgets. Today, people feel that they are indispensable. Twenty years ago, computers were viewed differently than they are today. Twenty years from now, smartphones or tablet computers will be viewed differently than they are today. As the workforce moves towards a service society and as people find that they can connect using digital media, a societal shift has begun, and will continue, to occur. People will always feel the need to connect face to face on some level. However, as more cost cuts take place and as technology continues to evolve, society and business will continue to evolve with them. I feel that I would be remiss in educating my child if I did not acquaint him with his future world. I teach him letters, numbers, and colors. However, to ignore the world that he will enter as an adult would be to do him, in my mind, a disservice. To those who say “pfffft” to smartphones and tablet computers, I counter, “what did your parents say about laptops, the Internet, and email?” As technology evolves, so will the world. Today’s “gadgets” are tomorrow’s indispensable technology.

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Way all the way back in September, the first CT Forum of the year was all about the internet. Since then, this post has been kicking around and mocking me. It was started in September. That being said, it sat here partially written festering and gestating over the last few months. Finally, it can be born in a way that does the thoughts justice.

The most interesting aspect of the evening, given my uses of myspace, facebook, and Ravelry, was the discussion by danah boyd . The discussion of social networking online by teens created more questions than answers. One of the statements she made essentially said that teens are doing today the same things that the rest of us did when we were there age, just on the internet instead of the mall. She also talked about how friending works for teens online. She said that there’s three basic levels. First, people whose friends network is in the 10 -20 range. These people keep their connections intimate. After that, the numbers jump to 200-350. These are the people who basically friend their entire high school, analagous, per the moderator, to giving Valentines to everyone in your class in elementary school. After this group, the numbers again jump substantially to somewhere in the 500+ range. Then the discussion turned briefly to the idea of “Top Friends” on myspace and how the drama that ensues over who are your bestest friends tends to be similar to all other teenage dramas. Finally, in a discussion of what these kids will expect in the workforce, Ms. boyd discussed how teens today are connected to each other 24-7 via email, social networking sites, and text messaging.

This then, in turn, brings up the question as to how adults use social networking sites. Recently, a friend determined that he was doing a great job at work when his new boss invited him to his linkedin profile. Obviously, adults are using the internet to network socially. LinkedIn is like a professional myspace. Adults use it to make work connections. This seems the most pure use of adult social networking sites. Grown ups create profiles and add people to help themselves network in their professional careers. This acts as a myspace for the working world. Ok, so they are not adding bands and actors and movies, but the same basic concept applies.

However, even more interesting, are websites in which social networking is a component of the overall purpose of the website. For example, Ravelry assembles knitters, crocheters, and other fiber hounds together in one place. Currently, in its beta form, users must have an account. Mainly this requirement is so that the servers do not crash from over use prior to being fully functional. The effect of this, however, has been that the boards are rampant with users talking, sharing, and creating friendships. Topics of discussion include such things as patterns, yarns, religion, politics, other hobbies, pets, and kids. Indeed, several in real life friendships have been cultivated using the groups dedicated to location and, ironically, tattoos. As with myspace and facebook, membership is free.

In addition, Fertility Friend is a website dedicated to helping women work through the process of trying to conceive a child. The main thrust of this website is a charting program that aids in helping women chart their little ways to the joys of motherhood. Charting, essentially, involves taking a temperature every day and watching for other signs of fertility in an attempt to knock a home run out of the ball park of the bed. The website, however, is not free. The VIP membership involves additional charting capabilities, but also a chat function, a posting board function, and an ability to add friends. This allows women struggling with issues surrounding conception to come together, share their experiences, and talk. Because, really, aren’t women all about the talking?

Are adults essentially doing the same thing as teens in these online communities? The hypothesis, using only personal experience, is yes and no. Aside from uses of myspace and facebook by adults in their 20’s and 30’s, most of the websites through which adults are networking have an interest or some overarching theme that brings them together in the first place. Ravelry brings together fiber enthusiasts. LinkedIn brings together career minded folk. Fertility Friend brings together women going through the trying to conceive experience. The common denominator for many adults seems to be the urge to share a common interest or experience. Even websites like harmony.com and match.com have a common interest or experience – one of wanting to meet other people to cultivate a romantic relationship. Interestingly, more and more adults are using social networking websites in new ways in their lives. People are coming together, but they have a common starting point – a goal, an interest. Social networking websites are rapidly becoming the new church socials or town halls.

The friendships people are cultivating are of two types. Some are ones that transfer over into the real world. Others remain, due to geographical constraints, firmly rooted in the online world. The question that much research has begged is whether people are becoming more or less emotionally connected because of the rise of these internet connections. Ms. boyd, in some of her research, indicates that due to teens not having truly private spaces available to them, the internet is a place where they can be themselves, find their identities, and experiment without having adults constantly overseeing their activities. Meanwhile, what are adults doing? They are essentially doing the same thing. For adults, the social networking often appears to be an attempt to continue to find one’s identity within an emerging world. For example, Ravelry is specifically for fiber enthusiasts, mainly because no one else would want to be there. People are finding that they can leave their limited social segment behind – socioeconomic, religious, and physical -to reach out to other people. People who feel isolated are looking to social networking websites, even if that is not the website’s main intent, as ways to connect. Fiber enthusiasts are not the largest community in the world. Many people have no one around who can understand their obsession. Thus, coming together online allows them to feel more connected to other people. Even if that connection is one that lives only in the pixels and electronic buzzing that is the internet.

The same is true with a website such as Fertility friend. Trying to conceive a child can be difficult. One’s friends, family and even spouse may not understand wholly. Women coming together to discuss their triumphs and tribulations gives them a chance to share their thoughts and feelings, realizing they are not alone. Moreover, in the course of these most intimate of discussions, the whole of their lives become spread open for all to see. The intimacy is one based not just on a common interest but on the most intimate details of a person’s life. These women are negotiating a new identity as women trying to become mothers.
So, without statistical analysis and without in depth research, what do these observations mean? What they mean, it can be supposed, is that adults and teens are not that different. These social connections fulfill, whether they extend to real life or remain on the internet, new frontiers in the ever evolving world of self-identification. Connections made through the internet can be as real as those made in person. Sometimes, since people can find a bit of comfort in detail sharing anonymously, they can become stronger than those in person. It is possible to know more about the history of someone an individual meets on the internet than about a person one has been friends with in real life for years. Sharing of uncomfortable details is easier when eye contact can be avoided. Sharing of feelings is often easier when body language cannot be seen or voice cannot be heard since the fear of implied rejection can be avoided. These friendships can involve just as much support and caring as those made through eye contact and body language.

So, as adults continue to negotiate the world of the internet, perhaps they will be able to renegotiate their identities in an evolving world. Perhaps, even for the oldest of the old school, the ‘net will provide a a social safety net, a place to be oneself and to find oneself without having to up and drive cross country in a 1960’s VW van.

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