If you are among the 141 million people who shopped online on Cyber Monday or participated in the brawl that was Black Friday, and if you put any technology in your cart, I encourage you to take a minute to think about how much human brilliance went into creating a world where a $200 tablet is possible. And when shopping for your kids, I suggest you think about the role you can play in nurturing that sort of brilliance.
You might know that much of the amazing innovation we have seen in our lives started with a famous statement by John F. Kennedy that began the commitment to go to the moon. But it is a statement made by Bill Gates much more recently (in his 2008 testimony before the House Committee on Science and Technology) that worries me. He is one of the people who contributed to creating a world where you can wrap that sweet tech gear and put it under the tree for your kids. And he's concerned about the future. “The United States’ preeminence in science and technology," he says, "has long been the source of our global economic leadership...But that position is at risk." Why? Because there is a "severe shortfall of scientists and engineers with the expertise to develop the next generation of breakthroughs.”
Take a minute to stop and think about the innovation that went into that smartphone or tablet. Twenty years ago a machine that could process that much information or display that quality of graphics was the stuff of science fiction. According to the Computer History Museum’s time line of computer history, Apple introduced the Lisa in 1983. This was the first personal computer with a graphical user interface...and it wasn't much of one. The Lisa's sloth and price ($10,000) led to its failure.
The Internet you intend to connect to with the $200 tablet you tossed into your cart for the kids? In 1983 it was in such a state of infancy that there was nothing to connect to. Then called ARPANET, it was a way for universities and the military to collaborate, and would not be renamed the Internet until 1995. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web (which is what essentially made the Internet usable for the rest of us) in 1989, but no one really noticed until 1990.
Do the math: Technology transformed the world in my 17-year-old son’s lifetime.
My point? If you are raising kids, help them understand that people accomplished all this in a very short time, and not because someone taught them exactly what to do in school. For the most part, those people were once children who liked to play with toys that let them build stuff. Steve Wozniak, for example, liked to build things as a kid. So his father took the time to explain electronics to him. Woz sites that as a major reason for the path he took toward building the first personal computer and thereby changing the world.
I’m all for buying the tablet, smartphone or computer and putting it under the tree. But would you teach your kids to read and not teach them to write? Why not also take a minute to help your kids envision themselves as creators of the future of technology, the people who will develop the next generation of breakthroughs? It might not take that much effort.
Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.