Friday, September 06, 2013

Are kids any better than their parents with computers?

I'm noticing that a myth is slowly being pierced and exposed to show an emerging problem. The myth? The myth is that most kids are better at computers than their parents. The fact is, that most kids don't know how to use a general purpose computer any better than their parents. I found two example articles demonstrating the concerns here and here.

For the last few generations, it seems a given that kids will know the tech better than their parents. I know that for my generation, my family, I know the tech better than my parents. I've lived with computers for all of my adult life. But it wasn't until 1997 that I learned to install an operating system myself, and that is one measure competency with computers. If you don't know how to install an operating system, you are at the mercy of someone else who does, if you want to use computers.

Generation Y and Z appear to be the first generations that don't know general purpose computing better than their parents. A large proportion of the Baby Boomers were in adolescence or adults during the personal computer revolution starting in the 80s. We saw computers come into our homes, mature and grow into very useful devices for personal work.

But most kids these days, don't know how to repair an internet connection. They don't know how to avoid viruses. They use easy passwords. They are in a sense, naive about computers in general and remain that way, often, after suffering a few setbacks with their computers. Even if their computer crashes, won't boot, they lose their data or their computer becomes infected with a virus, few if any, will investigate the problem beyond asking for help from someone else to fix it.

I suspect we have come to this point because the parents really don't know enough about computers to help their own kids. Many parents have made no effort to encourage their kids to learn how to use them. Parents are very busy. They have other priorities. If kids want to learn computers, they are pretty much on their own. I know I was, but somehow I figured it out as an adult.

So today's kids go for the low hanging fruit. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter come to mind. But if they run into a virus, they seek assistance from the nearest geek. Geeks are not really that cool until you need their help to restore your computer to running condition now, are they?

There is another trend emerging that doesn't get much press: The war on general purpose computing, particularly for consumers. Apple and Microsoft have been the biggest promoters of this trend. They don't want you installing your own operating system for you might find that there are alternatives. They don't want you peering inside your computer with the command line to see how it works. You might hack it to do something you that is not supported by Apple or Microsoft. Whatever happens to be supported may have more to do with economics and politics than your sense of curiosity.

It's worth noting that Google seems to take a rather dim view of the attitude promoted by Microsoft and Apple. They understand that consumers own their computers and provide ample tools for re-imaging hardware running Android. Android is open source software. Easy to learn, modify and replace if you want to. I know people who have replaced the original operating system in their Android phone with a free (as in freedom) version of Android called CyanogenMod. You could try to do this with Apple or Microsoft hardware, but it will be a struggle not worth the effort.

I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to take a class where I could learn how to work with computers. Years ago, i learned how to install Windows NT server. That experience opened my eyes to how computers work in a way that most users never see. I began to see computers as commodities rather than delicate devices that must be carefully maintained. The data is delicate. The hardware is pretty tough and can withstand mild to moderate abuse.

We have an amazing legacy to work with here. General purpose computers are a great place to learn how computers work. From programming to installing applications and servers, the current generation needs to know how computers work in order to keep the reigns on the government and the corporations that serve them. If they don't the government and corporations will rule them.
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