The Wired Child

Do you really think kid spends much time playing on swings and slides?

NOTE: I wrote this in 1997 and everything I predicted has happened.

Talking to today’s parents about their children is a little like trying to explain frogs to fish.  Most of us are unaware that we swim in the “sea” of the Information Age, so explaining is difficult.  We think nothing about eating a “Pop Tart,” which contains dozens of ingredients derived from sources throughout the world, which we can only vaguely recognize.  What in the heck is Sodium Hexametaphosphate anyway? 

We live in the result of materials and production sciences that have produced a world of plenty and specialization.  We vaguely recognize that we have “lost touch” with nature but don’t even really understand what that means.  Out total immersion in this materialistic wonderland makes it hard to see that our children are moving into yet another world, the world of information.

To begin with, as soon as I say “the Information Age,” you think “computers.”  But computers are only the most concentrated form of information.  Computers are information creating itself.  In our industrial age, the equivalent is the mass production of the means of mass production.  But equating computers with misses the point and does nothing to help us understand today’s child. Consider the preschooler coming home from her birthday party where she and her friends had just seen Hundred and One Dalmatians.  She loved the movie.  I stopped at Burger King, and all the kids got a free action toy from one of the characters … yes, they actually had 101 different toy puppies!  She can’t wait to play the interactive game on CD that Grandma sent, knowing she would see the show.  Later she will log on to http://www.101dalmatians.com and play and chat with other kids from across the world about the next film.

In most of its elements, this is very real and a very common scenario that makes most adults uncomfortable. Grown-ups see it as exploitative and manipulative and long for the days of simpler play.  But is it?  How different is this from a “native peoples” life in the “village” where mythic stories are told, dances act out the scenes, and toys are crafted that embody the protagonists’ magic qualities. 

No, the multimedia experience of today’s child is experientially not too different from that of our long-lost tribal upbringing except in one very important way.  The stories of the tribe are not the same as the stories of Hollywood.  Adults feel out of control of the content of the movie storyline and thus disconnected from their child’s developing psyche.  The deeper the child connects to this “invader” world, the more uncomfortable we become.

What giving Hollywood control over our communal myths means to the long-term health of modern society would require considerable thought and research and is far beyond the scope of this paper.  Here we will explore the aspects of the modern “wired” experience that bear on what the child needs and expects from their play experience.

Most people think they know what the “information age” is all about.  How wrong they are.  We are just at the edges of the transformation and can see the future about as clearly as those who saw the first steam-driven boat.  Today the fruits of the industrial age sit side by side with those of the information age.  We can easily see today’s automobile as a pinnacle of mass production and the desktop computer as the embodiment of the future.  But in fact, it will be the combining of these two that will truly transform the world. 

When mass production merges with global information, the world, as we know it, gets turned upside down. In the past, economies of scale dictated uniform products.  You can go into Hertz and rent any car in complete confidence that they will operate nearly identically.  The differences between products are so small that it requires constant consumer training to detect the subtle differences in brands. 

(Note: I suspect that TV commercials impart more “environmental” education to children than any other source.  Kid’s ability to distinguish between breakfast cereals compares well with the Eskimo’s 16 different words for snow.  American children as the most sophisticated consumers in the world.)

As information merges with production, products will (and are) become personalized and adapted to the user rather than the user adapting to the mass-produced product.  A corollary to this is that as production is made smarter, they become smaller and decentralized.  Consider the following existing examples:

  • Jeans are custom-made for your body.
  • One-hour photo processing in the drug store.
  • A Saturn car made to your order with your name on it.

“If you went to Coke’s headquarters, would people there be fussing about bottling?  Or about media and media buys?  See, really, what Coke is selling is media, a picture of itself.  Coke is really a media company – it just hangs its revenues off bottles of Coca-Cola.”  Joey Anuff, founder of Suck! – a critical guide web sites by Wired Magazine.

Increasingly products in which the normal channels of distribution are also turned on their heads will surround us.  Already you need not go to the store to buy software; your new PC comes with a compact disk on which there are many programs.  You need only to make a call to “buy” the software, and a code is provided that locks access.  Newer PCs are shipping with advanced hardware that you can upgrade by software. Again, this “new” capability is already in your machine and just needs to be unlocked.

Within a decade, you will be able to buy an electric vehicle that is unique to you and your personality.  Yet, it will be able to reconfigure itself to suit the needs of the “typical” driver or another unique driver instantaneously. Cars already have some of this capability with memory settings on seats.

Intelligence is rapidly becoming “embedded” in nearly all everyday products. We already have smart brakes on our cars, smart ovens, etc.  This intelligence will become smaller, and in the near future, they will be completely linked together.  Our environment will be “encrusted” with information, and we will swim in its web.  Much as today’s child swims in the multimedia world of the Lion King.  For her, this new “wired age” will seem totally natural.  For those of us who still live in the industrial age, it will be a weird world…one which we do not understand and which is largely invisible to us.

“The Web Dream is what smart kids across America – smart kids across the world – are dreaming.  They might not trust in God or Family, and they sure as hell don’t believe in Country; they believe in Themselves and in the power of their cleverly customizable, infinitely scaleable, robust and ubiquitous, interactive, pull-down-menu Dreams.” Josh Quittner, Web Dreams, Wired Nov. ’96

So what does a playground for a “wired child” look like?  Well, it does NOT look like a big computer.  Some conceptual characteristics are “natural” for the wired child has come (and will increasingly come) to expect.  A few of these are:

  1. Layered – think about the hidden levels in the game called Doom.
  2. Linked – one thing leads to another, the Net/web.
  3. Non-linear – envision the child exploring information like a dog on the beach.
  4. Configurable – car seats with memory profiles taken a thousandfold.
  5. Virtual – I am “me” except when I’m online, then I’m Doctor Play.
  6. Interactive – when physical constraints and consequences disappear in the virtual world, I experience unlimited behaviors and come to expect a very high level of responsiveness from my environment.
  7. Recordable – The sense of time begins to change when I can record the weekend football game for later replay, or record my actions and then return to a point in the process and take a different direction.
  8. Embedded; intelligence leaves the computer and enters the environment. Consider the “information” packed into the McDonald’s Logo.
  9. Real-time – waiting will increasingly become obsolete.  Entertainment increasing becomes live (sports) or interactive (movies with various endings). As kids increasingly live virtual lives, they will consequentially also seek more “real-time” direct experiences.
  10. Operating Systems – the surrounding intelligence will be controlled by various operating systems, the control of which will be power and status.
  11. High tech, high touch – when I am in my virtual self I am out of Body. When I am in the physical world, I am intensely in my senses.

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