Sarah Fallon writes in the current issue of Wired about how her two young sons navigate their identities as digital natives. One of her boys, age seven, plays with a obsolete but functional digital camera; the other, age three, does so with a brightly-colored, whizzing and beeping toy version of the same. The three-year-old edits his pictures with little electronic stickers and overlays, as silly as they are superfluous, a training for the filters and geo-tags he will affix to his Snapchats and Instagram posts in a few more years.
Fallon marshals the testimony of some academic behavioralists to convince herself of the deleterious effects of her younger son’s over-stimulating toy. Harvard’s Michael Rich tells parents, “Boredom is where creativity is born. Boredom is not the enemy. Boredom is the friend.” Barnard College’s Tovah P. Klein warns Fallon that the toy camera’s superfluous add-ons are stunting her boy’s natural exploratory tendencies, turning the camera, naturally a tool for kids to engage with the world around them, into a distraction focused in on itself. “The more simple the toy [kids] are given, the more they discover for themselves,” Klein tells Fallon.
You can guess the rest. The toy camera inevitably breaks and Fallon declines to fix it, replacing it with a “boring” point-and-shoot one. She winds up feeling pretty good about this.
But her constructive misadventures in parenting raise an interesting question regarding how the next generation will relate to its technology. Do children like Fallon’s three-year-old understand the difference between a boring camera and a hyperactive one? Will they need to? Regardless of whether or not Fallon chose to let her son keep the flashy toy, he will grow up utterly at ease with the fast-moving, digitally-integrated, cross-platform gadgets that now make up so much of daily life.
The Apple Watch, for instance, an idea which would have seemed totally impenetrable to most people fifty years ago (a watch and a phone and a calendar and a computer and …) now simply seems merely intuitive.
This native ease with technology will affect our civil society in all sorts of novel ways. Conventional staples of civic interaction—sports leagues, enthusiast societies, and amateur associations of all sorts—will more and more come to organize and carry out their activities with the help of this or that new technology. And they’ll do so not unwillingly, but because digital multitasking just makes sense to millennials and their younger counterparts. Eventually the digital world will come to constitute the substance of, and not just the supplement to, civic interactions, as is the case now with, for example, competitive video game leagues.
And there’s no reason to assume that this sort of techno-integration will stifle civil camaraderie or creativity as such. Despite the warnings of Harvard’s Michael Rich, groundbreaking technologies are prone to suggest new and better groundbreaking technologies. (The much-touted squeeze on Silicon Valley “unicorns” over the last year—i.e. tech startups valued at more than $1 billion—has more to do with financing than with a lack of actual ideas.)
Boredom surely is a building block to prompt inquisitive young minds to explore their world, but it is not really what lies at the heart of a thriving civil society. Digital natives are less and less satisfied with their boredom; harnessing their natural impulse to drag, drop, poke, snap, send, and share moments and ideas with each other remains the great possibility of the next generation.