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Appification of Kids Today

As adults experiencing a technological problem with some gadget, we've probably all heard the cliche to "just ask a ten year old" to fix it. It's true that kids are remarkable little machines when it comes to learning new things that might confound their parents. But that doesn't mean they really understand the gadget you are having trouble with.

The majority of kids today -- the so-called digital natives -- and adults too for that matter, are citizens of the "app economy". In other words, kids may know how to install and run an app, but they have little to no understanding of the device itself (phone, tablet, computer, etc.), what makes it tick, or anything else about the device that doesn't make itself visible or known within the bounds of the device or apps being used.

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The early days


Back in the 70s and into the early 80s, these new-fangled micro computers were used mainly by hobbyists, like myself. We could tear them apart, reload operating systems, repair or replace anything that went wrong, and make them do anything we wanted including experimenting in ways not envisioned by the manufacturer.

What few users -- people that used a computer as a tool to get things done and not an end unto itself -- that existed were generally pretty savvy in their own right. Although not experimenters nor ones to enjoy pure tinkering, users could still do their jobs without asking for much help. They had to learn and figure out for themselves, for help was scarce and there was no Google to turn to.

Things started changing in the early 90s as computers made their way into many more offices and even a few homes. They were still very manual in that one had to understand a number of things not directly related to the task at hand in order to use the thing. e.g. Users were offered a set of tools and they needed to understand how each tool worked and how its proper use contributed to the overall thing that needed to be accomplished. But users of the 90s generally could not diagnose problems on their own or fix any kind of hardware problem like their 70s and 80s brethren could. In other words, they could operate the thing all day long with little help even if they could actually fix or repair very little.

Age of the Internet

The Internet really started taking-off in the mid to late 90s (I know, right? Has it been that long ago?) and that's what really kick-started the PC revolution. As more people bought computers and the operating systems became more polished and sophisticated, people didn't become as well-versed and well-rounded in even using their computers.

I mean, it makes sense, right? Early adopters to an idea are generally the most ardent practitioners of that idea. People that come later do so because they recognize the utility but aren't usually interested in how it all works.

The automobile saw a similar evolutionary arc with its "users". Early adopters had to be skilled mechanics and be prepared to perform roadside repairs at any time and even carried a toolbox with them. Today, there's a fair number of people that could not even replace a flat tire, let alone perform any other maintenance or repair. How many people do you know that checks the tire's air pressure, let alone adding air? Do you?

Mind you, this is not to say that people have become stupider. It's to say there's a sharp correlation between mass-adoption and product or idea maturity. As a product or idea's maturity expands, the occasion by more people to delve into deeper understanding wanes. But an unfortunate side-effect is the reduced ability of a product's user base to use said product in any way not specifically envisioned by the manufacturer or to fix it in any way whatsoever.

Computers and devices are literally everywhere. Our personal and business lives depend on these computers and devices and the internet they can access. Yet most of us are clueless to how it all (even roughly) works internally or how to get the most benefit from an operational standpoint.

People continue to fall prey to malware, online scams, don't backup or even understand why it's necessary, do not understand the file system, don't really know what a browser is or does, have no clue what the various hardware bits of their devices are for (CPU, RAM, storage, PSU, LAN, USB, etc.), and have absolutely no sense about security, passwords, phishing schemes, and data compromise. Yet being at least passively familiar with all these things are critical to living in the 21st century.


Today's smartphones have only accelerated the appification of the populace, further reducing people's understanding of technology. I define "appification" differently than most accepted definitions. I define it as a phenomenon whereby people are unable to operate a device or program outside of its narrow and specifically intended use and are lost when faced with any exception to the status quo. Apple's once tag line "There's an app for that" just demonstrates this idea even more. In other words, doing only what the app or device allows from the outset with no curiosity or drive to push the boundaries or to learn how it works.

This doesn't just mean using a smartphone although this is the genesis of the term. It could apply, for example, to someone incapable of using a printed map because they've only ever used a turn-by-turn GPS in the car. Or someone who's never been to a library and would not know how to find a book therein using the card catalog (which is mostly dead today anyway). Or could not add air to a tire because they always called AAA for help.

The future

Believe me, I'm not trying to be an elitist snob here. I am discussing real concerns regarding the disconnect between people and their understanding of critical and ubiquitous technology. Concerns voiced by many experts on the matter.

There's a chronic and growing shortage of technically savvy young people -- tomorrow's engineers -- to design and create these modern tech marvels. Too many youngsters today only know how to stab an icon on a screen and operate within the boundaries of the chosen app. They have absolutely no idea how the app or device itself was designed and, worse, aren't interested in learning. They don't know how to actually build or fix anything. This bodes poorly for a future where society will need ever more designers and creators to keep advancing. This is why Silicon Valley whiz kids are making millions -- there are too few of them so they are in extremely high demand.

There are, of course, exceptions to the foregoing. There are brilliant kids today with STEM interest that will develop tomorrow's technology. My son is one of them, earning his EE degree and with that he'll have many specialities he could pursue. Right now, he's interested in robotics for crop harvesting automation and interning with a company that builds such robots. Problem is there's just not enough to meet the increasing demand.

What can you do to help? Parents would do well to involve their kids thus...

  • Buy your kids a garage sale computer and buy whatever parts they need, ask them to load Linux, and set up a family media server from scratch.

  • Ask your kids to write a short paper explaining why it's dangerous to connect to public, open wireless networks. Have them cite references but write detailed reasons in their own words.

  • Create a web page on a free hosting site using raw HTML using only Notepad.exe as an editor.

  • Talk their grandparent over the phone how to create a Gmail account and add two-factor authentication to it and explain why two-factor is important. Have them find and figure out a remote control tool to help them.

  • Hand your kids a hopelessly malware-infected computer and ask them to fix it.

  • Buy them a smartphone and ask them to "pay for it" (in terms of the education they'll receive) by developing one useful app or game every two months for a year, and publish that app in the phone's public app store. If it's good enough to charge a little bit of money, a buck or two, then even better.

There's probably 37 more things you could do to kickstart your kids interest in learning how and why things work rather than how to navigate Kim Kardashian's latest app or killing virtual pigs with pissed-off birds.

Need help on how to proceed? Google is your friend!

Here's some well-written articles on the sad state of computer savviness today.

Marc Scott: Kids can't use computers... and this is why it should worry you
Dave Echols: Many People Can’t Use Computers And Why It Should Worry You

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