6-Year-Old Girl Gives a TED Talk

You can complain about the weather, but few things are more unpredictable than a 6-year-old girl. My daughter Cassandra has earned the nickname “Hurricane Cassie” around our home, both for her passionate mood swings, and for her habit of upending the living room to build increasingly elaborate furniture forts.

Last year, Cassie and i made a video game together, and it struck a chord with many folks. This year, Cassie and i were invited to give a talk at TEDx Toronto about our game Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure, and i took the opportunity to get people thinking about how technology is being taught (or not) to our kids, and at what age.



When it came to the line “My hope is that one day …”, our speaker coach Chris Tindal suggested i add the word “soon”. i couldn’t do it, in good conscience. It feels like we’re light years away from a world in which people are on top of technology to a point where they’re in the driver’s seat, to cop a metaphor from Douglas Rushkoff. It may sound laughable for a grown man to be worrying about the advent of Skynet, the fictional computer network from the Terminator movies that one day suppresses all of humanity, but i really am concerned that we’re headed for a future where we’re controlled by our machines (or, at least, by the corporations that create them).

“Consume” is a Con to U and Me

Forget heady theoretical thinking. Here’s how this stuff plays out in everyday life: just yesterday, our Cisco Linksys router stopped pulling an IP address from our modem, after some repairmen were working on the lines outside. We called Cisco, and after a series of rather invasive and unnecessary questions (eg “At which store did you buy the router?”), the overseas support agent told us the device was too old to troubleshoot (we’d bought it two years ago). He gave us two options: we either buy a new router, or we pay for support – the cost of which is equal to the price of a new router.

Hmm. Sounds like a fair shake to me!

In turn, i gave the Cisco support agent two options: he can take ten minutes to troubleshoot the perfectly functional device and prevent it from going into a landfill, or i could mention the incident to my thousands of Twitter followers and blog readers. He said there was nothing he could do. i asked him to escalate my support request to his supervisor. He put me on hold. The call disconnected.

And here we are.

This poor customer service anecdote has been about Cisco. Please shop accordingly.

The Geeks Shall Inherit

What does Cisco’s lousy customer support have to do with helping kids to become creators, not consumers? While many are predicting the collapse of the middle class well within our lifetime, not much is being said about the emergence of a new class – a technological elite class. This is a class of people who are wise to the machinations of corporations and their methods of control. These aren’t people who know how to use software -these are people who know how to write software. They aren’t people who buy hardware. They’re people who build hardware. They’re the programmers, hackers, makers and NERDS who can see the Matrix for what it is, and the world could use a lot more of them.

Whoa.

The way we increase this class of people is by teaching kids how to control computers. Not how to use computers – how to control them.

Think back to the pre-1990′s, if you’re of sufficient years. When you bought a car, you used to be tasked with the care and maintenance of that machine. Keep it gassed up, well-oiled and clean. And if a part broke down, you could either bring the car into the shop, or buy the part and replace it yourself.

Cars today are black boxes. Many of their systems are computer-controlled, and without the expensive diagnostic equipment and know-how, people are at a loss as to how to repair them. We have no choice but to bring our cars back to the dealership. Auto repair used to be a common hobby, like gardening. Today, modern cars can’t be easily tinkered with. By and large, the corporations that design and build the machines are the only people who have access to their guts.

Far From the Tree

The first six drafts of our TEDx talk were far more critical of Apple. i’ve owned many gadgets in my life, but with Apple, never before had i paid so much for a device that died so quickly. Two years into owning a 2nd generation iPod touch, which ran me close to $500, the battery died. The device was built so that i could not simply open it and replace the battery myself (as i’ve done with every other piece of battery-powered technology i had owned throughout my lifetime).

Dead man walking.

When i brought the device back to an Apple Store (as i was programmed by them to do), the “genius” there said in a very patronizing tone “Well, the batteries in these devices ARE consumable.” Since the warranty had expired, they said i could pay them eighty dollars for a new one. i said there was nothing wrong with the original device – it just needed a new battery. Could they just charge me eighty bucks for a battery replacement, and give me my original device back?

Nyope.

My perfectly functional Nintendo Entertainment System, purchased in 1987.

Gotta Fix ‘Em All

Cassie has been playing an iPad game called Mino Monsters, which is heavily inspired by Pokémon. It’s a freemium game, and a bad implementation of the model. That means that Cassie has to wait a prescribed number of hours to heal her monsters after battling. So i thought “nuts to that”, and charged up an old GameBoy Advance so that she could play an actual Pokémon game. i described it to her like Wilford Brimley describes the alien planet in Cocoon: “You can collect HUNDREDS of monsters, you don’t have to wait to heal them, you never get old, and you never die.”

Unfortunately, the battery in the game cartridge had died. Cassie could still play Pokémon Ruby, but the special timed events would no longer run.

A drained Pokémon Ruby cartridge, manufactured sixteen years after the NES pictured above. The NES’s battery-reliant cartridges still function.

i could easily have saved time and money by throwing the game cartridge in the garbage. But don’t you see? THAT’S HOW THEY WIN. A little more consumption, a little more waste, until one day we’re scavenging for food and supplies in the landfills we created while the slave-master machines soak up their energy from an exploded sun.

Today, i throw out a functional game cartridge. Tomorrow, Skynet.

So instead, i damn well got a tiny screwdriver capable of loosening the proprietary tri-head screw that Nintendo doesn’t want me to open, and i used a soldering iron to melt off the metal strips that metallurgically (and unnecessarily) bonded the battery to the circuit board. Then i bought a replacement battery at an electronics supply store and used electrician’s tape to hook it up to the game. i hammered it all back together with thumbtacks and spit, and when i turned the game came on, the “depleted battery” message was gone.

When i was finished, i stood dominant over the device with my fists raised to the sky and bellowed my terrifying man-ape alpha male father-of-the-year YAWP. Machines may one day rule my life, but i’ll be God-damned if i’m going to lose the first skirmish to Pokémon.

10 thoughts on “6-Year-Old Girl Gives a TED Talk

  1. axcho

    Awesome talk! :D I just started reading Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms yesterday, after Bret Victor recommended it so strongly in his recent article Learnable Programming, so this stuff is totally on my mind right now.

    I’m tempted to try getting the six-year-old next door started on Logo now… :p

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

      Papert is amazing. i keep trying to read Mindstorms, but the Toronto library system’s multiple copies are either damaged, or holed up in the reference library.

      i’m currently reading Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed (the one i mention in the talk), which is all along the same lines.

      Logo is AWESOME. That’s where i got my start. You might also consider Scratch, which comes from the same MIT group that Papert started. And DID U TOTALLY KNOW that the guy who created Actionscript came out of the same group?

      Reply
  2. Rob Metras

    Pretty soon Cassie will be teaching the stuff herself Ryan in a Geeks for Girls or Ladies learning Code class.. A very self assured 6 year old. Remarkable parenting

    Reply
  3. Joseph Cassano

    Congratz to both you and your daughter; it was a good talk. I especially loved the ending.

    In fact, I watched it with my brother and it sparked a discussion. Specifically, about the part where you say programming needs to be taught earlier. I heartily agree (biased, since I program in my job). My brother (who doesn’t program) agreed, but was concerned about what grade was appropriate (3rd grade seemed early to him). I see his point; I showed him some simple programs in pseudocode, and he brought up how you at least need some base understanding of logic and algebra to get started. However, I still think that the method of teaching is what matters most, and 3rd grade kids could at least get the base ideas of programming as a “list of instructions” if framed properly. But again, we both agreed that it should be taught earlier than it is now. In other words, you aren’t alone on this front.

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

      Thanks, Joseph. One of the misconceptions about programming is that it’s a series of mathematical statements you issue to a computer. That may have been the case back in the 70′s and early 80′s, but we’ve come a long way since then. Programming is more a series of LOGICAL statements you issue to a computer. And logical thinking is actually covered on the Ministry of Ontario curriculum for kids beginning in the first grade, not the third.

      Check out Scratch, by the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT. No math skills required, although you can certainly put them to use if you have them. Putting a piece of code together is more about sequentially linking instructions and understanding cause and effect than it is about knowing algebra. If your brother considers variables to be perhaps too advanced for third-graders, he should consider looking at MadLibs! No math or algebra required, but the concept of variable substitution can be taught using MadLibs and kids totally get it.

      Reply
      1. Tabby

        In the Web programming course I just taught, the first JavaScript assignment the kids had was programming a MadLibs story so that you could enter strings into a form and then place them in the story. It’s a really easy and elegant exercise for early programming, in my opinion.

        Reply
  4. Tabby

    I watched a the talk awhile back and I think my favourite bit was the “1-button” line wrt iThings – I’ve found myself repeating it in conversation a lot lately, talking about how “kids-these-days” are so used to/pampered by nice GUIs that they don’t understand anything about how computers operate or how programming works at all. Jeff had classmates in Game Programming who I think honestly thought coming in that programming was going to consist of clicking buttons and checkboxes.

    Then we realized that unlike 70s/80s kids, they didn’t grow up using DOS or even IRC and being forced to learn a little bit about issuing terminal commands to play Carmen Sandiego or whatever.

    Being an interface designer, I love well-designed GUIs, but it does have its downsides. The antidote being teaching programming (and I would add something akin to shop class for computers) to children. Thanks for an inspiring talk :)

    Reply

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