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When I was a kid, my mother and father handed me an Atari computer. When I opened the box, plugged it into the TV, and fired it up, well.. it didn’t do anything.  As I quickly realized, I had to make it do something.  The first thing I set out to do with this awful-to-use beast (yes, it had a membrane keyboard — horrifying) was compose music.  As I was a musician, treble clef was the first programming language I had ever learned, and so transposing music onto the computer was the perfect way to learn Atari BASIC.  Of course, it wasn’t long before I exhausted the capabilities of the Atari and moved on to a Vic 20, then to a Commodore 64C.

It was with the C64 that my understanding and exploration of technology bloomed in two directions: first, in messing around with video games; second, in messing around with this crazy modem thing that I purchased one day at Woolco.  I tried and failed to author a boat racing video game (physics eluded me as a tween), but found more traction in [ahem] ripping video games made by others.  I entered the BBS world and built/modified my own systems, then messed around with ASCII graphics.  While at high school I designed a billing system and almost an entire BBS using, of all things, dBase III+ and its onboard language — a project which I would be loath to advise anyone undertaking.

Still, this progression through various computers, idle when fresh out of the box, is what led me to my present career.  The fact that the technology was a tool, and not just a medium, was for me the key to this.  The fact that I needed to do a little extra work to get things done gave me a progressively more challenging learning curve, and a fairly unrestricted freedom of movement.  In the 1980s, but particularly in the 1970s, personal computers really didn’t do anything.

And that was the point.  PCs were modelling clay.

Thanks largely to the iPad, today Apple officially became the biggest PC maker in the world.  MG Siegler revived the debate about whether the iPad is a PC or not.

I wonder what kids think when they’re handed an iPad today?  It does amazing things, if you download the right app.  You can compose music, write a blog post, even edit a video.  These are truly creative tasks.  There are nearly a million apps in the App Store today which do all kinds of things, so it’s hard to argue that the app ecosystem limits the imagination.  Still, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

Today an acquaintance jogged my memory of Neil Postman‘s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” in which he argues that “form excludes the content,” — that is, a particular medium can only sustain a particular level of ideas.  In the book he holds both Orwellian and Huxleyan world views in some balance.  For instance, Orwell feared those who would deprive and manipulate information to the masses; on the other hand Huxley feared that we would be so deluged with information that we would become passive and self-centered.

While for some people a computer that does nothing can sustain zero ideas, for others it is a gatekeeper to infinity.  These days, every computer that ships still does next to nothing, but it is connected to the internet — by far the best conduit for ideas imaginable.  And computers still ship with programming languages today — only now they have APIs, SDKs, and much more to work with… not to mention github.  There are few delimiters on what we can make a personal computer do today.

With an iPad the Operating System, the means of production of new apps, and the means of distribution of apps are all off-limits.  Whereas I learned about code and hacking assembler by trying to circumnavigate copy protection, that is not possible in today’s iPad.  You cannot get under the hood of an iPad in any way (it doesn’t even have a filesystem), therefore you are highly unlikely to ever learn about computing from it.

When I look at Apple’s latest commercial for the iPad, I see many people making great use of works created by software engineers..

The iPad product line are incredible devices for consuming information or for creativity within the walled garden.  For his part Neil Postman (were he still alive) would likely fear two things about the device and the way in which it handles media:

  1. Despite all of the hype, the iPad favours consumption over creation and negatively decreases the ratio
  2. The iPad, coupled with the internet to which it absolutely must be connected, buries truth and beauty with irrelevance

I believe that this argument can be extended to the device’s pedagogy in helping kids, and therefore humanity, explore the possibilities of computing.  My concern is simply this:

When all of these wonderful apps and ideas we enjoy today were spawned from a generation of pimple-faced teens unboxing a gray, largely amorphic, hunk of silicon that would do whatever they told it to do… what happens when the next generation’s first experience with computing is with a hermetically-packaged inescapable walled garden that tells them what they can use it to do?

What happens when you replace modelling clay with a Mr. Potato Head?