Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Where the computer ends and the entertainment center begins

A little incident with my nine year old son got me to thinking a bit about how we define computers in our lives and how we interact with them on different levels. There has been a lot of scholarly talk about exactly this, and I'm not really adding anything to the discussion except a tidbit of personal experience. Still, perhaps this thought will get you thinking a bit, too.

First, the story:

Yesterday, the aforementioned nine year old boy was playing his favorite online game.* A certain incident inside the game bubbled over, and my boy completely lost his cool. From my work spot in my bedroom I heard him pick up the keyboard and slam it on the desk. So, I told him to get off the computer and then I banned him from the computer for the rest of the day plus all of today.

Now, let me explain something before I go on. I have a theory of discipline which is very clear. Punishments should, whenever possible, be directly related to the deeds that brought them on. So, when he behaved inappropriately with the computer, my response was simple. No more computer for a period of time. The end. That didn't mean that we couldn't go watch a movie last night, or have other fun. But the computer was lost to him.

However, and heres where the story turns into a philosophical discussion about technology, at this very moment he is watching the Nightmare Before Christmas in the living room.

So what, right? I just said that being banned from the computer didn't mean that he was banned from TV. Well... we don't have a TV per se. Well, we do. The big monitor that we watch movies and serial shows on is, in fact, a TV as well as a monitor. But, we don't use it to connect to the airwaves or to cable TV or to satellite TV. The TV is just a monitor, connected to the desktop computer in the living room. So, my son is watching a movie on the computer.

Is that OK?

Yes, I think it is. I wasn't really banning him from watching shows, like I said before. I also wasn't banning him from listening to the radio. (We also get our "radio" from sites like What I really banned him from was using the keyboard and mouse to interact with the computer. I banned him from games and web browsing and story writing on the computer. I set up the movie and hit play, so it's OK.

I wonder if, 20 years from now, I would still have the same approach. I mean, will I still think of the passive forms of entertainment as being different and separate from the computer itself? Will I still think of the computer in terms of its specific uses? Or will I think of it as just being "the computer", whatever I'm doing? I think I know the answer to that.

Despite the fact that devices are converging, mixing multiple, sometimes highly specialized uses into a single gadget, 20 years from now we'll be defining the machines based on their uses not based on the amorphous concept of "computer".

We don't generally think of our cell phones as computers, but they definitely are, and they are becoming more and more PC-like every day. My phone is a camera. It's better than many standalone digital cameras out there with it's 5 megapixel images, automatic or manual focus and zoom, digital video at regular frame rates or 120fps for slow motion video... But my phone is really a computer above all else. If you had any doubt whatsoever, the built in video editing software right on the phone should clue you in.

More and more of us have multiple desktop and/or laptop computers in the house, but far more people have multiple computers in the home and don't even realize it. Whether those computers come in the form of phones or cameras or kitchen gadgets or even computerized heating and air conditioning systems.

In Star Trek, the ship is the computer, and whether you realize it or not, we're there already. Your car is already computerized from bumper to bumper. You may not be talking to your car yet, but that's not for lack of technology. It's so that car companies can keep a certain layer of luxury available for their more expensive cars.

In the 1990's the word "convergence" was a buzzword applied to the idea that we would soon be watching TV over the Internet. As usual, the realities of technology were predicted earlier and much more accurately by Sci-Fi authors than business people.

* I think I ought to write another post soon about parenting in the Internet age, using this game as an example, too. One of the things about this game is that when a kid signs up, their parents are automatically given an account, too, and encouraged to play *with* their kids. That's totally cool but a) I don't have as much free time as my kid and b) when I am involved, I'm not always sure when I should jump in to break up disagreements and when I should let the kids work it out on their own. It's not always as clear as in real life... as I said, another post on that soon.

No comments: