Lugging Their Laptops

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 May 1999

A few students in the cyberculture class I teach at New York University just conducted an interesting survey. They interviewed over 125 children in elementary school about computers – what they are, how much they like them, whether they own them and, most importantly, where and how they use them.

As might be expected, wealthy children – those in an expensive private school – knew the most about computers. Every one of these students were required to purchase and maintain a laptop (a school requirement) on which to do homework.

The poorer children surveyed, on the other hand, who used computers mostly in their after school programs, had a bit less knowledge of how the machines worked. And only about half of them had access to a computer at home. But, most surprisingly, these kids liked computers a whole lot more than their wealthy, cyberliterate counterparts.

Only 52% of the private school students said they like to use computers, compared with 100% of the public school children. While just 60% of private school students believe it is necessary to learn how to use a computer at all, close to 90% of public school children see computer literacy as a necessary life skill.

Why should the kids who have their own computers, better software, and more computer education see them as less important and even like them less than do children who only use them after school? Because the wealthy young laptop owners already experience their computers as encumbrances, while those who use the machines after school still see computers as the portals to more fun and productive lives.

Consider the children’s responses to the simple question of whether they enjoy computers, and why. The public school children said they like computers because they are “smart,” “fun to use,” “they can help you get a job,” “it takes my mind off things.”

The wealthy young laptop owners, however, responded that they hate computers because “they don’t work,” “I have to lug it to school every day,” “it’s slow and weighs a lot,” “they break easily,” “you are constantly losing work from them” and “they generate 300% more work.”

They sound a lot like most of the adults I know who have had to learn how to use computers for their jobs. Once using the machines becomes mandatory, it’s a lot less fun. Rather than holding the promise of a new and improved life, computers simply expose their users to more risks.

The laptop-toting children were charged with maintaining their machines the way we used to have to take care of animals back when I was in school. But the machines don’t reciprocate for this care with love or even cuteness. They are simply the source of more responsibility and more work. The kids were all afraid of losing their data, and nearly everyone recounted an awful personal experience of a crash in which a paper or test was lost. Worse, even when the machines functioned properly they merely allowed teachers to assign more homework.

It’s hard to say who is getting the better computer education. By being burdened with their own computers and made to do their schoolwork through a keyboard, the wealthiest of American students have come to experience their computers as the extension of slave-driving teachers, the source of anxiety, and a maintenance chore. Those who only use the machines more occasionally and absolutely voluntarily, on the other hand, still feel that computers are a way to have fun, get ahead, and increase one’s chances of competing in the future.

My students who conducted this survey - Jody Hankinson and Daniel Marco - concluded that computers are being over-taught in the private school. If these children weren’t given their own computers, the machines might still have held their great allure. By turning these wonderful technologies into the source of labor and responsibility, educators risk killing the joy of computing for the children they hope to enrich.

True enough. Keeping computers separate from the drudgery of regular schoolwork for a few years might be a good idea. If children can be allowed to perceive the computer as a machine with nearly infinite possibilities rather than a homework device, they’ll almost certainly become better and more open-minded programmers as adults.

Still, I can’t help thinking that the sad, computer-hating children of the private school have a more accurate sense of the way computers have affected our lives so far. For the first year or so, each of us is thrilled by the computer’s bells and whistles. But once our employment becomes dependent on these machines - and once we lose an important document to the ether before a big meeting - our perspective abruptly changes.

Computers certainly offer tremendous possibilities for young people to learn a whole lot more about a variety of subjects. But we shouldn’t be surprised if kids depending on these machines end up learning the same lessons that we are about the joys and perils of new technology.