Technological Warfare

Tonight I'm teaching a class at The Maker Spot -- Minecraft for Parents.*  It's designed for folks who are wondering why their kids are glued to a game with graphics that were outdated before Emma Watson was born and Queen became popular for the second time.  I'm covering game basics, including a hands-on introduction to game controls, the various modes of play, and the ins and outs of servers and hosting.  That last topic will segue into a general discussion of Internet safety, which I suspect will be of even more interest than Minecraft itself. 

You can download a copy of the handout if you'd like.  It focuses entirely on the Minecraft portion of the class, but for my blog topic today I thought I'd expand on Internet safety and parenting. 

For a typically developing child parenting is pretty simple.  Simply tailor all your activities toward developing skills enabling your child to either advance your empire or avenge your untimely death.  If your kid grows up able to handle these tasks, you win.

Seriously, other parents ask me pretty frequently to give them a list of apps that they should block on their kids' phones, tablets, and laptops.**  That's the strategy of choice: just tell me what programs could be bad for my child.  My response is always the same: if you think you're going to outsmart your kids technologically, you've already lost.

My first computer was a TI-99/4A.  (I actually got to use a Timex Sinclair 1000 at school; feel free to share your reminiscence about ancient tech in the comments.)  My parents knew nothing about personal computers -- my mom was just happy I was doing something other than playing Dungeons and Dragons for a change.  By junior high I was programming in TurboPascal and FORTAN, and playing TradeWars 2000 on the local BBS system.  Shazam.  Me and my 300 baud modem had already outpaced my parents on the tech front.

That's right.  400 words in that speech synthesizer's vocabulary!

That's right.  400 words in that speech synthesizer's vocabulary!

Here's an interesting key to understanding expectations of technological proficiency back then: many high schools were just starting to require that one take typing, as typing "is rapidly becoming a fundamental skill in the workforce."***

Fast forward about thirty years.  Typing as a technology skill?  Please.  Young people are so immersed in technology that they're practically coding JavaScript at birth.  My nine year old (who, keep in mind, is developmentally challenged) has mastered the four-remote setup for the entertainment center, can navigate Netflix versus her DVDs like a champ, and browses the iPad app store to find anything having to do with Zootopia, dinosaurs, or National Geographic specials.  Meanwhile, I know plenty of adults who can't figure out how to connect their laptop to the network printer, or refer to their mouse as a "clicker."****

Here's my theory.  You can refer to it as Usual's Axiom if you like.  The ability to stay knowledgeable on current technology is inversely proportionate to a person's age and the loss of pace increases geometrically as a person ages. 

Supporting evidence is all around you. (That's why it's an axiom and not a postulate, you know.)  People tend to find what works and stick with it.  Even those who enjoy exploring new technologies tend to eventually specialize.  Meanwhile, technology itself gets broader and more complex in its relationships.  My former colleagues probably remember when "solution support" became a concept at Microsoft as opposed to silos like database, platform, and networking. 

The same thing is true on your kids' phone.  There are more apps available than you can possibly keep up with, and the rate at which more come out increases constantly.  And even if you are diligent about keeping up with them, your kid is better at it.  The younger a person is, the more he or she has been immersed in tech and the better she is at dealing with it reflexively.

The solution to this potential technology problem is decidedly non-tech.  Call it ethics, morals, values -- the label doesn't matter.  It all amounts to the same thing.  You can't possibly take away every avenue for bad behavior, so you have to teach your child to act in the way you consider appropriate.  Two years ago a young woman in our middle school sent rated R photos of herself to a couple of boys via SnapChat.  A flurry of SnapChat banning descended upon my daughter's friends.  Problem is, many parents weren't aware of Vine, Instagram, Facebook and about a thousand other photo sharing apps, not to mention texting and email. 

M.D. and I had a long talk about both the local photo incident and stories we'd read of people posting inappropriate comments in public venues.  We talked about the immediate potential for embarrassment.  We talked a lot about the potential for future repercussions and the permanence of whatever you choose to share online -- what if that comment or photo surfaces later when you're applying for a job, interviewing for a scholarship, or running for an office?  What message is that going to convey to someone who's evaluating your judgement, maturity, and character? 

I hope the value conversation is enough for my kids.  I worked for the largest software company in the world longer than my older daughter has been alive, yet I know it won't be long before she's blown past me in tech knowledge.  Character is the constant that ultimately determines the impact of the tools at one's disposal, and it's one of the most useful legacies you can pass on to your kids. 

* Good seats are still available.

** It's because I worked at Microsoft.  Everyone at Microsoft knows everything about technology, you know.  Just like growing up in Michigan means I'm personally acquainted with everyone else from north of Ohio.

*** Straight out of my high school course catalog.  Typing was a great alternative to shop.

**** Sorry Mom!

Maker Space? What's That?

I'm so glad you asked.  I just happen to have an example.

A friend and I designed a tabletop game and reached a distinct milestone -- the game mechanics had been tested and re-tested (and re-tested and re-tested), the rules were solid, and all the card content was created.  Before sending the digital files to a printer for a production quality prototype we had one remaining step: work with a Real Artist to finalize the color scheme, graphics, and layout for the physical elements of the game.  We really wanted a physical copy of our concept board to examine with the artist.

Challenge: how do you print a 30" x 24" board at home?  We could print on standard 8.5" by 11" paper and piece it together, but the pieced-together look is distracting when you're trying to look at design quality, or sharing the board with people at a game design event. 

Welcome to the North Richland Hills Maker Spot.  This Maker space is hosted at the public library and made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, as well as other organizations.  The best short description is "community workshop."  Most Maker spaces I've seen focus on two concepts: make available equipment that might be too expensive or otherwise prohibitive to have individually, and to facilitate the propagation of knowledge.

Case in point, our Maker Spot has an HP large format printer.  It prints on 36" rolls of paper, exactly what we needed for the game board.  It's connected to a Mac that has the full Adobe suite, and current price is $1 per linear foot of printing.  That's it -- copies of the game board for $3.  Considering that our next best offer was $40 with a half-day turnaround at a local print shop, this is more than a bargain.  Of course, I'm also unlikely to have a 36" printer at home -- the best deal I see on one on Amazon is $8,500.

Similar situation with other technologies.  The Maker Spot has 3D printers, a long arm quilting machine, an audio/visual production lab, electronics and woodworking equipment, and all manner of learning kits.  And there are classes.  Sharing of knowledge is a staple activity of all Maker spaces, and ours has a fantastic array of free classes -- you can learn sewing, 3D modeling, Arduino, Adobe, Raspberry Pi...not to mention Internet safety, small business start up, electronic privacy, and more.  My daughter and I have taught a few classes there on building devices in both Minecraft redstone and physical electronics. 

Different Maker spaces offer different equipment and classes, depending on the local need, interest, and availability.  I've seen some with full-scale auto garages, others with more electronics than a Radio Shack warehouse, and some offering pottery and crocheting classes.  Ours is definitely an invaluable community resource, especially if you're printing board game prototypes.