May 04, 2004
Posted by Red Herring at May 4, 2004 03:10 PM
As a parent of two small children, I often feel like an anthropologist,
trying to make sense of a little tribe of humans who live in a
fundamentally different universe. We already know that teens are a
serious market for new tech, and are important sources of social
innovations around technologies. But younger kids are also growing up
with some really interesting views of technology and media. Having
studied this tribe at close hand, I'm convinced that they offer clues
about what tomorrow's serious tech consumer is going to want.
So what has the under-age-eight set learned from cell phones and TiVO?
Computers are boxes of fun. Naturally, kids are more familiar with
"Dora the Explorer" than Internet Explorer, but the deep consequence of
this is that they see computers as machines that they can have fun
with. Even typing gibberish on a word processor can be fun, if you use
the right font.
Interaction is entertainment. Clicking on things, getting the computer
to beep, pounding on the keys, are fun in themselves. They'd better
stay fun, if manufacturers want to make sales. This will impact
They're all thumbs. Twenty years ago, computer mice had one or two
buttons at most. Generation Playstation can handle two buttons on the
top of the mouse, a scroll wheel that doubles as another button, and a
fourth button under the thumb. (Thirty years ago, computer pioneer Doug
Engelbart stopped at three buttons because he couldn't figure out how
to get more onto the mouse. It's revealing that he never thought of
putting one under the thumb.) Kids today have far greater thumb
dexterity than their elders: Generation Galaxian got carpal tunnel
syndrome, while Generation Playstation (and SMS) do things with their
thumbs that the rest of us do with our fingers – dial phone numbers,
press elevator buttons, etc.
In Japan (which, when translated into tech-speak, means "that giant
island laboratory of technology-driven social innovation") already
refer to wired teens as "oyayubi soku," or "thumb tribe."
Phones are cellular, and wires are stupid. I can't get my two-year-old
to talk on a landline, and I can't keep him away from my cell phone.
Partly it's because of the superior design values of telephones, but
it's also because they do cooler stuff (No. 2 above). His big sister
was three before she really understood that some phones had cords. Her
response: "That's dumb, Daddy."
Note to telcos: prepare exit strategy from landline business.
So young kids interact differently with technologies than even their
older brothers and sisters. But they also think differently about
I get to choose. At four, my daughter could already parse the
functional difference between broadcast television, videos, and DVDs.
TV was the stuff you have to watch at certain times. Some shows are
good, but as a medium, TV is dumb. (We don't have TiVO. I want the kids
to learn that some things are beyond their control.)
Videos are what you can watch any time. That's better than TV. You can
also skip forwards and backwards.
But DVDs are far and beyond the medium of choice, because you can skip
up to any scene, and watch a movie in any order you want. Of course,
this is a boon to parents (we can skip the shark chase in Finding
Nemo), but for children it's not just an avoidance technology, but one
that gives them total control over the viewing experience. When my
daughter puts in Toy Story 2, she has an elaborate shooting script
mapped out in her head. Who cares what John Lasseter thought? She knows
how it should be edited – today. Tomorrow, it'll be different.
Interestingly, this doesn't mean they treat all media as equally
fungible. They still know that stories are supposed to be read from
beginning to end. But once they realize that they have a little
control, they expect to be completely in charge. This is very bad news
for preprogrammed, scheduled media.
Pictures are experiences. When I grew up, I wasn't allowed to use my
parents' camera: "Do you know how much film costs?" my father would
say. But when you go from film to digital photography, you no longer
have any real limit to the number of pictures you can take. You pay a
tiny cost for each picture, which means that mistakes are no longer
expensive. That in turn means that pictures are basically disposable.
Finally, the results are immediately visible: you can see them on the
LCD on the back.
They also go from being artifacts to save, to artifacts to share. When
my five-year-old borrows my camera, she takes pictures of her friends.
They then look at the pictures and giggle. When cameras are equipped
with Bluetooth, and we can share them instantly, you're going to see
white-hot traffic in photographs taken among friends. If I take a great
picture of my friends, I can beam it to them instantly. In other words,
picture taking becomes an experience, not a commemoration.