It’s recently occurred to me, during my efforts to make my upcoming educational game, “Codemancer,” as flawless as possible, that in some cases it’s better to expose children to flawed technology. My reasons are these:
- Children using flawed technology products can understand the humanity of the creator(s).
- They may be inspired to fix, or to exploit, the flaws they find.
- Using flawed technology builds up resilience.
Understanding the humanity of the product’s creator doesn’t seem like a big deal to most adults. We understand that these things we interact with were designed and built by people. Children don’t necessarily have that kind of awareness. Even if kids know a device or a piece of software is made by a human being, they might not consider that person relate-able. On the other hand, if their creation is flawed, children may reason, perhaps the creator is flawed, too — and perhaps I, a flawed person, could become a creator myself. There is also evidence to suggest that understanding an influential person as a person helps kids to understand their influence as well.
To certain personalities, a mistake in design or development can seem like a thorn in one’s mind. We may try to ignore it, but the discomfort will, over time, force us to take action. Lots of normally developed kids fall into this category. These are kids with a developed sense of taste. They know how technology ought to be. There are more of them all the time as children’s relationship with technology grows.
There are two impulses that may spring from this kind of personality: the impulse to Fix It and the impulse to Exploit It. Both can be constructive or destructive, but are always educational. The urge to fix a flaw may cause a child to learn the inner workings of a system, or to build an entirely new one. The urge to exploit a flaw might push a child to use an old system in a new way. Any one might be the seed of an innovation (or a lawsuit) (or both).
When something doesn’t work as expected it can cause a great deal of frustration. As a child grows up it’s important that they be able to deal with frustration and move forward. The only way I know to foster the right kinds of coping mechanisms is by exposure. Flawed technology can, and does, offer that kind of exposure to frustration — usually in a low-stakes environment. As I observe people learning computer programming the hardest lesson for them is almost never the syntax or the reasoning. The hardest lesson is this: “nothing ever works the first time.”
In contrast, perfect technology products (and I think there effectively are such things) create the illusion that they were divinely inspired or created by alien geniuses. There is no chink through which to see beyond the armor and into the works. The more kids use them, the more frustrated they are with everything else.
Note that I don’t advocate that we give children broken technology. Broken tech is unusable. Flawed tech is just a bit tricky. Broken tech gives creators a bad name. Flawed tech gives creators a personality. Broken tech is just garbage — not worth fixing. Flawed tech is almost right if only I changed XYZ.
So perhaps we should think about giving children the second-best phone, or the second-best software, and know that they will be inspired by its faults.