Make it a Summer Without Stuff
By DAVID GELERNTER,
The Wall Street Journal
May 10, 2012
The school year ends in a few weeks and children will be swarming over the landscape with time on their hands. Many will settle down with the latest iStuff, each like a happy dog with a big bone—and all those pads, pods, smartphones, video game machines and computers look like good, useful fun.
But look again. We ought to group these machines with alcohol and adult movies. They’re fine for grown-ups but no good for children under 13, except for online learning when they’re at home and simple cellphones when they go out.
Minds need rest and work. They rest when you let them wander freely—go where they please, perch where they like. They work when there is a dangling mental rope for them to grasp hard and climb. But the iWorld fails to supply the child-mind with either of these basic needs. These fancy digital toys create a new kind of mental purgatory instead.
Consider Web browsing, which is like flipping the pages of an endless picture book or watching million-channel TV. The Web is the perfect anti-concentration weapon. The instant you get bored, just click or tap and you are someplace else.
Of course your postmodern child also spends lots of time on the cellphone, texting, Skyping, social networking and so forth. Digital communication is even better than the Web at turning a child’s life into a comedy of interruptions. Children are always alert for the ringtone and the latest message, always eager to be interrupted so they can waste time in as many different ways as possible.
Videogames do teach things—for example, every twist and turn of a racetrack in China (although you don’t know how to drive); or how to position your tanks to beat the enemy (although you don’t know how to aim, shoot, command, obey or put your boots on). They may teach where monsters are apt to be hiding in imaginary landscapes; or they may teach nothing at all, in the case of such trivia as Angry Birds (which ought to be called Angry Parents, except that parents play it too). In short, videogames teach children how to play videogames.
Adults do learn from job-training software simulators. Yet without a basis of real-world knowledge, without some feel for the heft and grunt of real hardware, even a simulator is just another toy.
We knew all this long before the first iThing cast its virtuous-seeming light on childhood. We know that water flows downhill and that children don’t automatically choose to work or think hard or study. Given an easier alternative, they will not opt to learn tricky topics or master difficult skills. Did you ever do that as a child?
In ancient times, you could at least count on children to prefer tearing around outside to sitting still. But ever since television made passive, thought-free entertainment as cheap and plentiful as low-grade gin, running around has been losing ground.
In fact, the whole point of modern iToys is to increase irresistibly the appeal of sitting inside by yourself and doing nothing. Not reading a book, not studying or listening to music or drawing with crayons or practicing the piano; not playing checkers or chess or Monopoly face-to-face with a real human being. Not doing anything except turning into a click-vegetable.
Children do need to play and have fun. But the best, most refreshing and valuable sort of play and fun unleashes the mind to wander and roam. For many creative thinkers-to-be, classroom hours are torture. In school, child-minds are forced to trot behind the teacher and never (or rarely) stop to think, or go off by themselves. Remember? Roaming around outside or reading a book comes as a huge relief: Your mind floats weightless, or pokes along at its own pace, turning aside whenever it likes—which is just what creative minds desperately want and need to do.
The Web and videogames and online gossip, with their endless servings of colorful and seductive mental mush, never make children grip hard, pull hard, and climb a dangling mental rope. The ability to click themselves clear of all obstacles turns children with computers into little digital Henry VIIIs, sending plates clattering to the palace floor the moment their majesties are displeased.
And so, yes to the Internet, yes to the cybersphere! Yes to modern iMachines and pads, pods, smartphones—and to liquor, fast cars and sleeping pills when you need them. But not for children.
Mr. Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale and chief design officer of Lifestreams Inc.