the analog kid meets the digital man (or, get off my lawn)

m13_PRO20_blk_6.1369408863(N.B. – This is going to be sloppy, but it’s a blog, not a paper, and I will continue to use it to work out stuff that’s not-ready-for-prime-time, with your indulgence. Also, if you read this through Facebook, you’ve probably noted that I am on a Facebook sabbatical these days! Which is serving me well. But I would still love to hear from you about this – or anything – through the comment section or email, osmond (at) appstate (dot) edu.)

So titled because I fear that’s the tone I am going to strike here: the crotchety old fart fussing about kids, and how back in the day … but that is not my intent.

What I want to do is figure out, really, what is going on with the way kids learn in the generation I am teaching and, further down, parenting, and what the role of pleasure is in that learning. Some of my colleagues are super excited about what kids’ interactions with computer games can help us understand about curriculum, and I think they are on to something – but that something feels like curiously less than what they say it is, or maybe more.

I think that the way we make and enjoy art has something to say here, because art is the thing we do that we don’t have to do: engage with beauty, balance, aesthetic satisfactions. Unless you are a filmmaker or rock star under studio/label contract trying to grind something out on deadline, art’s not work – yet we find time to be with it no matter what, even at the expense of other things. There is always time to do what we really want to.

Shouldn’t we want desperately to figure out how to bottle that genuine desire to engage and sprinkle it over the things we THINK kids should be engaging in as well?

And then at the core of the whole perplex is how kids nowadays don’t ride bikes the way we did when we were kids, and how that bothers me, and how I don’t understand why. Maybe that’s where I should start.

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When I was a kid I loved my bikes, and still remember each of them with pretty amazing clarity.

Eighth birthday: a yard sale find with outdated (now vintage) frame curlicues and additional struts gets macked out for me with a banana seat and a light that runs on the power of the spinning wheel and an odometer. Dad tries to explain the value of an odometer, and I am unconvinced. I do not want to know how far I have gone: I want to know how fast I am. I want to see a needle move, and the glacial pace of the odometer wheels turning does not satisfy, at all. “How far I was allowed to go” was the obsession: in the street, or just the sidewalk? To the end of the street? to the High’s, to Gillette’s Market, to buy Marathon bars and baseball cards at first, then litre-bottles of orange and grape Nehi? You could carry two on a bike, one in a bag slung over each handlebar; four empties (two and two) when returning them for the deposit. But it was tricky going: no turning to speak of, really, just balance and grit to get you there.

I am twelve: a friend agrees to sell me a bike he no longer needs. It is painted matte black, but has the characteristic piece of sheet metal in the front frame angle with a perfectly round hole in it that I associate with the coveted Mongoose brand. Mongoose and Diamondback: these were the only two brands that were worth spit in Rome, New York’s bicycle hierarchy, and I had neither. The banana seat frankenbike was now passé: I needed to trade up, and this is was my ticket in.

It came rideable, with second-rate parts, and I set to figuring out how to make the thing what I wanted it to be. I had a bike repair manual and learned how the gears worked, how to make the action smoother and change the tires. I got some more appropriate handlebars, but the front fork looked all wrong: it had a graceful bend to it, not the sawed-off shotgun stubbiness that the cool kids’ bikes boasted. I couldn’t work out how to fix that – or the single handlebar joint that looked so puny next to my friends’ beefy double ones – but the Mongoose-brand pads I put on the thing made it pass, so I could join my friend at the vacant lot where they had cut jumps and banked turns into the dirt.

It was incredible to be out there tear-assing around that track – getting (what felt like) crazy air, the occasional fall leading to scuffs and ripped pants and a little blood but never head trauma (it hadn’t been invented yet, maybe, and neither had helmets). I bent the cranks from landing on them too hard, learned to fix them. I do not want to exaggerate my handiness, but in that year I was probably the most mechanically savvy I have ever been in my life. Not because I really cared about it but because I needed it to work and only I could do what needed to be done. Coming home when the sun went down, hot and dirty and thoroughly blissed-out.

That bike became my ride to school, too – about a mile each way (just Google-Mapped it – sure felt like longer), and to friends’ houses, and to the woods behind the park (where I did NOT join in BB gun wars, but desperately wished to). With the bike and a little stamina and a modicum of geography, I could pace almost the entire ambit of my world under my own power, and largely on my own schedule, years before a car was even a possibility. My bike was power. I locked it up and took care of it, kept it out of the rain and the tires full.

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So why my bike reverie here? Why does it chap me that under all the porches of our kids’ friends sit beautiful bikes (Mongooses and Diamondbacks, real ones sometimes) and no one ever rides them?

Many of us in the High Country live at the top of pretty steep hills, and dropping down to the main road and pressing further afield would inevitably mean a ten-minute climb with / walking of one’s bike back up the hill, and apparently that’s sufficiently prohibitive. But what’s at most two miles away from anyone’s house seems so worth it to me: the General Store (much cooler than the High’s), the school, the gorgeous park, each others’ houses. All these kids could have any of that whenever they want, on their own schedule, free of their parents’ willingness to drive, in exchange for a mildly rough five-minute walk at the end. But it does not seem a good trade-off to any of them. No one ever rides anywhere.

It’s on us too, on all the parents. We are all concerned about the narrowness of the country two-lane, the dramatic blind turns, snakes and bears, drunks in pickup trucks: who knows what could happen out there. This from a generation of grown-ups who routinely remember being turned loose in the evening by their parents sans cell phone or even flight plan, told only to be back (this is universal) “when the street lights came on.” What gives? What has changed?

Please know that my kids, and their friends, do not want for adventurous spirit. They are bolder than I was, from one POV. As I drove a bunch of them home last night from a birthday celebration (at a contained fun pavilion – laser tag, video games, bowling, no sharp corners anywhere, secure perimeter, natch) I had the precious opportunity to be invisible and hear them revel with each other in the rich history of their shared virtual exploits, while each simultaneously played a “casual game” on their Apple device of choice and offered periodic updates on their progress. Most of the talk was about Minecraft, the low-res MMORPG that even I know about.

Or thought I did (digital Legos, right)? I had no idea. The detailed strategy and passionately-remembered victories were Homeric, as was the pathos of battles remembered, won, lost. If I can remember – apologies if they ever read this for mangling the specificity and detail, I am a stranger in a strange land here:

  • So I was in a boat in the middle of the ocean, no land as far as I could see in any direction – it was impossible to get to land from there, from the island that Jim and I built out there for that very reason, so no-one could find it – and I had built a defensive bulwark on the island shaped like my head, made out of wool – I had nothing else to do so I just did it (So did I! offers another (???)), and my eyes were gun nests and the mouth was a cave – so I am out in the middle of the ocean in my boat, trying to get to land, and suddenly here comes this other boat, floating along completely empty, and it just drifts by me and disappears.
  • Kyle, when I got to our outpost you had finished building the stairs, but they looked completely wrong! The wood was completely the wrong color, it doesn’t match any of the rest of the house. (But that’s the only wood I had, protests Kyle weakly. No matter: aesthetic foul committed, ten points from Hufflepuff.)
  • And then I found this amazing sniper perch in the original world, from back in the day? (I think he actually said “back in the day.”) And this was when you could get rank just by saying “oh, I am not a noob don’t-know-what-I-am-doing guy, really,” and they would just give it to you? Anyway, I would just sit there and pick off all these Diamond warriors, and they wouldn’t know what was going on. It was awesome until one day this whole troop of Diamonds came and one looked up and saw me; he had a platinum bow with darkness AND invincibility AND roundhouse kick, and with one shot I was dead.
  • For a few days we built underwater tunnels out of glass, just because we had the time, out in the middle of the ocean, and no one could find us, it was awesome – and then I went back after a few days and (my sister) had built…a PIRATE SHIP on the surface, right above it! (Everyone DYING laughing, who could be so stupid?) So of course we got found right away: the Ninjaz came in through the bottom of the ship, and everything got looted and destroyed. (Round of murmured commiseration: the Ninjaz, poor man, they are some tough customers.)

Do you hear it? A spirit of adventure and curiosity and industry and ambition that puts my remembered exploits to shame with its detail, its intrigue, its strategy, its confidence and power. The stories were already lore, becoming more so in the telling as the sun set out the Honda’s windows and we labored up the mountain.

These are the moments that will define these kids in affiliation and differentiation with the people around them; these are their Mongooses, their dirt tracks, their BB gun fights. And it is all in their heads, and on screens, mediated by invisible servers and experienced alone in darkened bedrooms.

I do not mean to suggest their whole world is digital or imaginary. These same guys play hours of soccer together and Ripstik around the park on Friday nights and still clobber each other with Nerf swords. But the seamless flow between the real and the virtual is stunning: the passionate commitment to the unreal as much as to the real, to the created 3D hideaway as much as the contested goal on Saturday morning.

None of my students get my Neuromancer references any more: William Gibson perhaps losing his SF credibility as the world actually becomes a place where we are “jacked in” to virtual connection as seriously as we are real ones, or more. I’ll check it anyway: but for a bristling nest of memory sticks under their right ear, my lost boys are become digital men, making their own Pleasure Islands and Skull Rocks out there, somewhere, in the interwebbed ether.

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So what I am saying here? That I think there is something awry with the sublimation of childhood’s ambition and energy and wanderlust into digital exploits. That I think something has been lost when our kids stay in and log on instead of going out. Yeah, I do.

I have a suspicion that what is lost is somehow imbricated with the abundance of what is “accessible,” sort of, online. That the rampant lack of curiosity about the way the actual world works that my colleagues and I perceive among our students is connected with their native knowledge that they’ll be able to access the Youtube video that tells them about it when they need it, and so don’t need to concern themselves with it prior. In one way, this is the promised dream of technology in education: when the propositional knowledge base is immediately accessible online, students will be freed up from having to learn it and, therefore, will be able to spend their curricular time on developing the process and conceptual chops: the “critical thinking” that everyone crows about. But that’s not what seems to be happening. In fact, quite the opposite: lack of need to know seems to be turning into lack of curiosity. And lack of urge to get up and go do something about it. Really, why bike the hill when I can get what I would be looking for right here?

Gaming offers so many opportunities to tap into the energy of doing what we want to do in the service of doing what we need to do. It offers chances to make mistakes in low-risk, high-rep situations – trial and error, an intrinsic part of artmaking and puzzle-solving. Games offer built-in reward that incentivizes perseverance, and the networked ones offer social affirmation and the benefits of propinquity and joint mutual activity that we have known matter for decades but can’t seem to make curricular priorities. Maybe games are a way in for those important aspects of teaching.

But is what has been lost worth what has been gained? And does virtual adventure do for our kids what real-life adventure does?

This is way bigger than what I have started to think through here. It’s not just about computers and bikes. It’s connected with overprotection of our kids by my generation’s parenting – though, in our defense, we also protect more because we are the first generation to live consciously with the legacy of abuse that we were not protected from. The world was never safe, and we wish our kids a more nurturing passage through childhood than many of us had. It’s connected with an exponentially greater role in our childrens’ lives of a broadly-advertised version of childhood to which they conform their expectations – and we ours, of them and of ourselves.

So: how do we take advantage of technology to help our kids cultivate confidence, self-efficacy, intrepidness, self-sufficiency, while saving them the pain of the mistakes visited upon us? That’s all I am trying to figure out. That’s all. What do you think?

Thanks to Mongoose for most excellent image of most excellent bike. 

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