The Wired Child

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Tony Centicola – The New York Times

I wrote the first draft of this article in 1997 and later updated it to apply to the BOLDR climbing systems I designed.  Two decades later the predictions are uncanny and yet to be realized on today’s playspaces.

Jay Beckwith

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Talking to today’s parents about their children is a little like trying to explain frogs to fish.  Most of us are unaware that we swim in the “sea” of the Information Age so explaining is difficult.  We think nothing about eating a “Pop Tart” which contains dozens of ingredients derived from sources throughout the world, which we can only vaguely recognize.  What in the heck is Sodium Hexametphosphate anyway?

We are the supreme result of materials and production sciences that have produced a world of plenty and specialization.  We vaguely recognize that we have “lost touch” with nature but don’t even really understand what that means.  Our total immersion in this materialistic wonderland makes it hard to see that our children are moving into yet another world, the world of information.

To begin with, as soon as I say, “the Information Age” you think “computers.”  But computers are only the most concentrated form of information.  Computers are information creating itself.  In our industrial age, the equivalent is the mass production of the means of mass production.  But equating computers with information misses the point and does nothing to help us really understand today’s child.

Consider the preschooler coming home from her birthday party where she and her friends had just seen Hundred and One Dalmatians.  She loved the movie.  Stopped off at Burger King and all the kids got a free action toy of one of the characters … yes, they actually had 101 different toy puppies!  She can’t wait to play the interactive game on CD that Grandma sent knowing she was going to see the show.  Later, she will log on to http://www.101dalmatians.com and play and chat with other kids from across the world about the neat film.

This is a very real and, in most of its elements, a very common scenario that makes most adults uncomfortable. Grown-ups see it as exploitative and manipulative and long for the days of simpler play.  But is it?  How different is this than a “native peoples” life in the “village” where mythic stories are told, dances act out the scenes, and toys are crafted which embody the magic qualities of the protagonists.

No, the multi-media experience of today’s child is experientially not too different from that of our long lost tribal upbringing … except in one very important way.  The stories of the tribe are not the same as the stories of Hollywood.  Adults feel out of control of the content of the movie storyline and thus disconnected from our child’s developing psyche.  The deeper the child connects to this “invader” world the more uncomfortable we become.

What giving Hollywood control over our communal myths means to the long-term health of modern society would require considerable thought and research and is far beyond the scope of this paper.  Here we will only explore the aspects of the modern “wired” experience that bear on what the child needs and expects from their play experience.

Most people think they know what the “information age” is all about.  How wrong they are.  We are just at the edges of the transformation and can see the future about as clearly as those who saw the first steam driven boat.  Today the fruits of the industrial age sit side by side with those of the information age.  We can easily see the today’s automobile as a pinnacle of mass production, and the desktop computer as the embodiment of the future.  But in fact, it will be the combining of these two that will truly transform the world.

When mass production merges with global information the world, as we know it gets turned upside down.  In the past economies of scale dictated uniform products.  You can go into Hertz and rent any car in complete confidence that they will operate nearly identically.  The differences between products are so small that it requires constant consumer training to be able to detect the subtle differences in brands.

(Note: I suspect that TV commercials impart more “environmental” education to children than any other source.  Kid’s ability to distinguish between breakfast cereals compares well with the Eskimo’s 16 different words for snow.  American children are the most sophisticated consumers in the world.)

As information merges with production, products will become personalized and adapted to the user rather than the user adapting to the mass-produced product.  A corollary to this is that as the means of production and made smarter they become smaller and decentralized.  Consider the following existing examples:

  • Jeans custom made to your body.
  • One-hour photo processing in the drug store.
  • A Saturn car made to your order with your name on it.

“If you went to Coke’s headquarters, would people there be fussing about bottling?  Or about media and media buys?  See, really, what Coke is selling is media, a picture of itself.  Coke is really a media company – it just hangs its revenues off bottles of Coca-Cola.”  Joey Anuff, founder of Suck! – a critical guide websites by Wired Magazine.

Increasingly products in which the normal channels of distribution are also turned on their heads will surround us.  Already you need not go to the store to buy software, your new PC comes with a compact disk on which there are many programs.  You need only to make a call to “buy” the software and a code is provided that locks access.  Newer PCs are shipping with advanced hardware that you can upgrade by software. Again, this “new” capability is already on your machine and just needs to be unlocked.

Within a decade you will be able to buy an electric vehicle that is absolutely unique to you and your personality.  Yet it will be able to reconfigure itself to suit the needs of the “typical” driver or another unique driver instantaneously. Cars already have some of this capability with memory settings on seats.

Intelligence is rapidly becoming “embedded” in nearly all everyday products. We already have smart brakes on our cars, smart ovens, etc.  This intelligence will become smaller and in the near future, they will be completely linked together.  Our environment will be “encrusted” with information and we will swim in its web.  Much as today’s child swims in the multimedia world of the Lion King.  For her, this new “wired age” will seem totally natural.  For those of us who still live in the industrial age, it will be a weird world…one which we do not understand, and which is largely invisible to us.

“The Web Dream is what smart kids across America – smart kids across the world – are dreaming.  They might not trust in God or Family and they sure as hell don’t believe in Country; they believe in themselves, and in the power of their cleverly customizable, infinitely scalable, robust and ubiquitous, interactive, pull-down-menu Dreams.” Josh Quittner, Web Dreams, Wired Nov. ‘96

So, what does a playground for a “wired child” look like?  Well, it does NOT look like a big computer.  There are some conceptual characteristics that are “natural” for the wired child has come (and will increasingly come) to expect.  A few of these are:

  1. Layered – think about the hidden levels in the game called Doom.
  2. Linked – one thing leads to another, the Net/web.
  3. Non-linear – envision the child exploring information like a dog on the beach.
  4. Configurable – car seats with memory profiles taken a thousand-fold.
  5. Virtual – I am “me” except when I’m online, then I’m Doctor Play.
  6. Interactive – when physical constraints and consequences disappear in the virtual world I experience unlimited behaviors and come to expect a very high level of responsiveness to my environment.
  7. Recordable – The sense of time begins to change when I can record the weekend football game for later replay or record my actions and then return to a point in the process and take a different direction.
  8. Embedded; intelligence leaves the computer and enters the environment. Consider the “information” packed into the McDonald’s Logo.
  9. Real-time – waiting will increasingly become obsolete. Entertainment increasing becomes live (sports) or interactive (movies with various endings). As kids increasingly, live virtual lives they will consequentially also seek more “real time” direct experiences.
  10. Operating Systems – the surrounding intelligence will be controlled by various operating systems, the control of which will be power and status.
  11. High-tech, high-touch – when I am in my virtual self I am out of body. When I am in the physical world I am intensely in my senses.

In the Renaissance, a strange worldview was adopted.  We began to perceive the world as separate from ourselves, and the self as separate from our body.  This worldview gave rise to the objectification of nature and to the scientific method. All this is very different from the ancestral or tribal perspective in which we are an indivisible part of the world.  The “new” wired child’s consciousness is closer to the tribal than it is the Renaissance man. For example, it is very popular to develop our human potential by learning to focus on our sense of self as a global and undifferentiated state of “being.”  Not a very Renaissance way of thinking … much more like the tribal mind.

What do these insights tell us about the design of a playground for the wired child of today and tomorrow?  Here are some logical conclusions that can be drawn from these ideas and as the can be manifest on the playground.

  1. Layered – the physical playground should only be a small part of the total play experience; it should contain elements within elements. The BOLDR sign linking to the website does this
  2. Linked – there should be elements on the playground that connect to the “real” world. BOLDR connects to real climbing and climbers not plastic fake rock.
  3. Non-linear – most play is non-linear, but more can be done with designs to support this idea. There is no “direction” in BOLDR climbing
  4. Configurable – can’t do much better than a sandbox. BOLDR allows the changing of holds.
  5. Virtual – there are obvious applications of electronic games but there are also some less obvious things that can be done with both the design and presentation of the equipment. BOLDR now has a sound effect option for the holds.
  6. Interactive – again play is intrinsically interactive, but my thought here is that by tying these ideas together we can make a compelling story why users preferentially choose equipment that is interactive as opposed to “stimulating” high slides. Users of BOLDR create small groups that work on “problems.”
  7. Recordable – here’s an area ripe for development. With climbing the “routes” are graded and recorded so they can challenge others. BOLD allows this as well.
  8. Embedded – BOLDR is thick with all sorts of symbols that link to stories, that allow myth to return to the child culture.
  9. Real-time – you don’t get more real-time than on BOLDR.
  10. Operating Systems – BOLDR climbing follows sport climbing rules and techniques and as such is the start of an operating system. A use manual is provided.
  11. High tech, high touch – when not linked to the web (playing Lion King) kids will want the most intimate and direct experience possible. BOLDR provides this.

There are some clear advantages to BOLDR over typical play structures because it uses the principles listed above:

  • BOLDR is a sport not just play. It is part of the whole new wave of “X-Games” types of athletics. This is not just “kid’s stuff.”
  • BOLDR challenges across a much wider range of ages and abilities.
  • BOLDR is layered with rich detail in both its surface and the attached holds and it has “realness” about it that plastic/metal can’t match.
  • BOLDR is unique – and “unique” will increasingly become a highly prized quality when more and more playgrounds are just the same old thing.
  • BOLDR embodies an intelligence, savvy, and vision that steps into the future and understands what the wired child will respond to and what they need to stay healthy.

In conclusion, we should not be afraid of the “wired” world and the children who inhabit it.  As McLuhan pointed out, the information revolution is creating the Global Village.  Instead, we should try to understand this inevitable change and prepare children to live in it.  One of the central issues is to look at the moral tales as presented in the media to ensure that the “lesions” they teach are ones we support.  We must be proactive.  We should begin to reclaim our right to acculturate our children with the values we believe are appropriate.  We cannot leave it to Disney or Hollywood to tell the stories of the Tribe.

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