Teaching kids to be curious about technology
This interview is from A Kids Book About: The Podcast, with host Matthew Winner and author of A Kids Book About Technology, Amber Case. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
What is technology?
Technology is anything that you use in relation to yourself to do something else.
Today, the word “technology” is most often used to describe electronic devices, but as you heard, technology encompasses all the tools that we use in order to do something else.
So for instance, a hammer you use to put a nail into a wall—you can also use it to open up a walnut. You use a pencil to write in a book and a notebook to take notes. You use a pair of shoes to take a walk or run outside or to climb a tree. And you use your eyes, if you have glasses or contact lenses, that's the technology that helps you to see.
But in reality, all of our tools are technology. So it's not just the computer or your phone. That's a piece of technology that helps you to see lots of different media types and read things online and helps you to connect to other people's information. And sometimes if you use it well, it can help you connect to other people.
Speaking, words, that's also technology. The words on the page, the words that we're using on this podcast to get to you. These are all technologies that humans have invented to do new things.
There's some technologies that, you know, just looking into somebody else's eyes or running and jumping and playing—these are things that we don't need a lot of technology to do.
But we've become used to growing up alongside technology, and sometimes our technology uses us and sometimes we use our technology. But I'd like to see a world in which we work alongside our technology. Kind of like how we hang out with a favorite pet, a dog or a cat.
When you start to train yourself to notice technologies in your home and your school and the world around you, you’ll see that technology is and has always been all around us.
I think most people think of computers or maybe the Terminator or Robocop or something on TV, or like a super epic car, or like a BattleBot like something that's like a lot more in your face and like really intense.
Or some people are like, “Ah! Technology is changing so much! It's intense! I don't understand it!
Or, “I totally am into technology. And like, all of technology.”
It's like a big thought and has lots of images and it's associated with speed and intensity or like super fun or connective or friends.
But I don't think a lot of people think of a light switch as a piece of technology, even though we use it every day and it's just in our environment. And that's just as much of a successful technology as an app on our phone, except it's been around for even longer. So I would say it's even more successful than a social networking app, for instance. So it's kind of an interesting thing.
Like, take a whole day of your life and just like, look at all the different pieces of technology that you use.
Some of them you look at when you're using some of them, you don't even know. Try to really think about all the tech that you use that isn't really noticeable, like a faucet on a sink or like a toilet or your shoes or in the car—like the foot pedal—all the different pieces in your life that have been designed.
Most of them have been designed by humans and a lot of them have also been designed by nature. Think about your favorite climbing trees and none of them are perfect.
Like, I think the thing about when I was growing up, I was like, “Oh, okay. So this is how the world is.”
But, in reality, you can design an alternative to a sink. You can design an alternative to a car, a bicycle. And it's up to us in our imaginations and our creativity to not just say, “Okay. This is what the world is.”
How could it be different? What does that mean? How could it be slightly better? Um, and just use your imagination more because it seems like everything is exactly what it is, but in reality, all over the world, tons of different cultures have their own technologies and exploring how they work alongside their environment is just as exciting as, just exploring your own environment.
We all have different relationships to the technology in our life, and these relationships can change and shift based on what technology we’re using, how we’re using it, and how much we’re using it.
What’s your relationship with technology?
Well, I really like paint and pencils and notebooks. Uh, and I do like my phone, but I find that when I wake up in the morning and I use my phone and I use social networks, sometimes I just have really sad thoughts.
I would say that I have problems with being addicted to my phone, which is funny because, you know, I wrote another book called Calm Technology—which is how you can not be as addicted to your phone, but it's still, I have to remember, there are different kinds of time. The kind of Kronos time, which is that kind of industrial time where it goes by really fast when you're on your computer, it goes by really slow when you're bored.
And then the Kairos time, like watching a sunset, going on a walk, playing with friends, that's a special type of time and that's the more human time. And so when I'm on my phone a lot, either thinking that I'm not good enough or getting excited about something, like in my emotions are just all over the place [I have to] remember, wait, how do I get more Kairos time in my life?
How do I step away? Do something that I want to do? And sometimes I have to put my phone in the other room and say, “Okay, for half of each day, I'm not going to do things on this phone. It's too complicated. You know, it's too much.” And, it's really hard because there's so much stuff on the phone.
What I want to think about today, what I want to do today? I feel like everyone should have that choice and the phone shouldn't choose that for you. The phone shouldn't be choosing how you feel about yourself and the phone shouldn't be choosing whether you feel happy or sad or excited or depressed during the day.
Like, you should be determining what you want to feel like.
Mid-way through our interview, Amber shared a term with me that I’d never heard before: “supernormal stimuli”. Can you break that apart? Can you try to determine what it means?
Because this next part? This next part really blew me away.
In nature, things are not so bright.
I mean, if you're in a tropical rainforest, everything is really amazing and really bright. But this term is called a supernormal stimuli.
So our brains get really excited about shiny objects and bright colors, and we get really distracted. And so, what the phone does with all of its colors is, it brings us all of this social media with bright colors and extremes—like an extreme story about something bad that happened, an extremely cute kitten, an extremely exciting, colorful picture, you know, or really cool clothing we can get online. And we start adding our imagination to it and, oh my gosh, oh my gosh, after a while, 30 minutes later, we're wrapped up in it.
So that supernormal stimuli, once you see it, once you understand what it is like, you know you could go through the rest of today and you could say, okay, where's the supernormal stimuli?
Whether you want to immerse yourself in that or not. And your whole day could be made up of totally different things. Like sometimes that stuff is really fun. Like having a birthday party is full of supernormal stimuli—you've got a crazy cake and you have crazy hats and insane music. And you might do some fun thing, like indoor skydiving or something, but that can't be every day.
And when you're in moments where there aren't a lot of supernormal stimuli and you're depressed, it's important to be able to make your own happy chemicals like dopamine, serotonin.
These are things within your head that you should be able to kind of make.
So if you are finding yourself depressed or scared or any of these big emotions and you want to get out of them, you can just sit there having that deep breathing. Just focus on your breath and just kind of watch the thoughts go through your head as if you're flipping pages in a magazine. Read the articles of your thoughts, you know, you can get into a thought and just like, let it take you over, but like just kind of zoom out of your thoughts and your brain and just kind of watch slipping by and breathe.
And that secretly is meditation.
You have more superpowers than you think, and the biggest superpower is your breathing, ironically.
Knowing when something gives you energy, when something makes you feel more alive and more connected to what you’re doing? That’s a bit of a superpower in and of itself. And I love that Amber brought that up.
Technologies are tools, but not all tools are right for the job. And not all tools are helpful, depending on the circumstances.
Kid Question: I guess my question is why don’t we learn about having the process of thinking of these things that make our lives easier. Why are we learning how to make these things that people have already made instead?
This is the best question I've ever heard. I think I'm going to cry.
You don't get taught how to build a thing. You get taught how to use a programming language, but you don't get taught how people come up with a programming language. And we don't ever learn about the process of thinking that to make these things that make our lives easier. Very rarely do you have a program that does that unless you go to grad school, unless you go to like MIT media lab and the lifelong kindergarten group, that's a place where you can learn it.
You can go to school. Oftentimes it's the intersection of somebody who has an architecture degree plus a computer science degree, or is a philosophy major like Stewart Butterfield who built Slack.
People don't talk about these things. So as an anthropologist, I decided to get a degree in anthropology because I was really into technology as a kid, but I wanted to know where it came from and how it was made. And there aren't a lot of stories.
It's more about asking questions. Like you can ask people where did this come from? And for people who [have] asked, in my opinion, the most important question in computer science today in terms of computer science education, is that—how do we learn about patterns and history versus just what's there?
And I think that was what I was trying to get at with the previous thing I was saying, which is, consider that almost all the things that we use are built by humans. And some of them are built by nature. But to say this isn't how it's always going to be, to try to build something different. It's very hard because a lot of people don't want to see change.
They're really used to a thing how it is. And when we do make something new, maybe the thing isn't 30 years old, that we've made; it's brand new. So it has issues. And so how do you make something and then improve it over time? How do you know which design direction to go? How do you know how to make it stable? How do you know how to make it delightful?
And to do this? You can have principles, but very few people have made principles of design. Um, I made one called calm technology, which actually took principles from 30 years ago that were really ahead of their time. And you can go to calmtech.com and you can see all these principles, you could design a new product or company based on these principles, a bunch of people have.
And I was on tour with that book for five years and I flew all over the world. I even got to speak with the king and queen of Spain and the president of Chile. And I got to go to Antarctica because I wrote this book because I asked a question, “How about having principles and patterns for making good things, instead of just saying what is and learning what's already been?”
And the people that dare to ask those questions and the people that make new things and say, oh, HTML has a problem. I'm going to make this new thing called CSS. The people that think laterally, the people that aren't afraid to learn about biology and technology and something else—those are the people that make almost all of the new systems in the world.
As technology innovations continue to be introduced into the world, and as the world you’re growing into continues to change, I’ll leave you with this final message from Amber.
As a kid, you know, you can create your own worlds. Uh, you know, Miyazaki who makes lots and lots of anime films, creates his own worlds all the time. He's tapped into his childlike self constantly.
And sure I can put on a very formal business suit and go up on stage and talk in front of 5,000 people and seem very authoritarian. But I don't think people learn from that as much as they do from someone going on stage and sharing their excitement for knowledge and what they've learned alongside you.
And I think that's the future of learning. And I think, you know, when you have teachers and parents who do. I'm sure you find yourself going like, “Heck yeah, this is a really good teacher. Like, I'm inspired.” Versus somebody telling you something.
You should be discovering with people. And that discovery is fun.
Each week on A Kids Book About: The Podcast, we talk about the big things going on in your world with a different author from our A Kids Book About series. This week we spoke with Amber Case, the author of A Kids Book About Technology.