Something insidious has been lapping away at the innards of my mind for quite awhile. To be honest I wasn't even consciously aware of it 48 hours ago. So why am I writing about it now? Yesterday at my nephew's 9th birthday party, somebody posited the theory that video games act as a gateway drug for other more productive technology related pursuits. I immediately took offense to that although I didn't fully understand why at the time. Now that I've had some time to think about it, I decided to go ahead and write about why I feel that way.
The long and short of it is: I believe that theory used to be at least somewhat true given the right circumstances. I don't believe it is really true at all now. Why? Well I believe that technology has changed in a fundamental manner. The end result of this change is that there is far less bleed between tech related activities.
When I was a kid, I largely only cared about playing video games on the computer. Everything else was secondary. Chances are that if I was spending time on the family Apple IIe, I was playing "Below the Root" or a lessor game of some sort. Playing games on the Apple IIe was easy enough that I didn't have to learn anything else. Thankfully my parents purchased me some illustrated books aimed at children that started me down the path of writing code. But the truth is, beyond writing BASIC and playing games, I really didn't know a whole lot about that machine.
After the Apple IIe was retired, I spent a lot of time on various PCs running a variant of MS-DOS. This situation persisted from the late eighties until 1996 or 1997 when I finally got a PC capable of running Windows 95. The important thing to note here is that DOS was not easy. It was not friendly. If you wanted to really use DOS for anything, you were kind of forced to learn something about it.
Of course the strength of that force varied based on specifics of your situation. Generally once you decided you wanted to start installing and configuring software in DOS, you had to get your hands dirty. You had to learn more than basic DOS commands. You had to learn about upper memory blocks, XMS and EMS. You had to learn about DMAs, IRQs along with acquiring a good working knowledge of the hardware in your PC. That's where the rubber really hit the road for me. Knowledge and skill became the prerequisite to doing what I wanted to do. I didn't want to wait on my father to come along and install a game on my PC. I wanted to do it myself because I was impatient.
Somewhere along the way we lost that prerequisite but kept the impatience. Today we have consoles and PCs that allow users to manage game and app installs with a single click, tap, or button press. The same goes for photo editing, web browsing, balancing your check book or writing code. Some call this progress and for the most part I agree with that. We should however make an effort to be keenly aware of the fact this increased accessibility and usability has created a situation in which the users no longer have to learn about anything peripheral to their desired use case. This has created what I like to call, "cloistered users". As long as they stick to their prescribed path, they are fine. If they venture outside of that limited area, they find themselves neck deep in shit.
Don't believe me? Lets take a look at some of the top streamers on Twitch. These people make 6 and 7 figures a year streaming video games to a captive audience. Yet a lot of them have no idea how to maintain their own computers, despite the fact its upkeep is required to maintain that revenue stream and the lifestyle that comes with it. They have no idea what to do if their OS needs to be reinstalled or their hardware starts failing. They have to call somebody.
To sum it up: Technology has become much more streamlined and accessible. The unrelated learning opportunities associated with general tech use have largely dwindled as a side effect of this change. It's important to understand this as it effectively means that a lot of us ought to revisit our opinions on how education and technology interact. While they aren't mutually exclusive, they are in no way guaranteed to be mutually inclusive either. As a result I believe we should be encouraging kids and adults alike to take a more balanced and educational approach to their use of technology.