My 10 year-old granddaughter, Skye, sent me a video that she made not long ago that she told me was “Epic.” She provided very little other explanation, so I had to ask her father, my son, to explain this black thing with blinking lights on it. He told me that she was trying to recreate the partial eclipse of the sun that they had seen recently. He said that Skye was really excited by seeing the eclipse, so she took a black t-shirt, sewed some LED lights in a circle using conductive thread. Then she programmed a computer chip so that it would turn the lights on sequentially. She sewed the computer chip onto the shirt and attached it to the conductive thread. When the lights glowed around the circle, the display did actually look sort of like the partial eclipse of the sun.
I am not writing this to highlight my granddaughter’s ability, but rather to think about ways that our grandchildren, even more than our children are using and will be using technology. Lots of people talk about the dangers of people too attached to their screens, or so attached to screens that they forget how to interact with real people, but I think that while these fears have some merit, they limit our thinking about children and computers. We clearly are not going to put this genie back in the bottle. Computers are here, and will get more and more powerful and sophisticated. Our children and grandchildren will need to learn computer coding because these skills will be critical to helping them make many of the decisions they will have to make to help both preserve and protect the beauty and diversity of our planet.
We live on a planet filled with wonders, and a planet that is changing dramatically and it is my grandchildren’s generation that will have to deal with those changes in one way or another. My granddaughter, like many children of her generation, are well aware of pending extinctions, and the effects of climate change. Skye is lucky to have an uncle who has taken a lot of time to introduce her to the wonders of nature. Young people like Skye will need all the tools they can find to figure out ways for creatures, including humans, to survive. These young people will, first of all, need to develop an appreciation of the diverse and beautiful world. This appreciation comes from spending time outside, from spending time watching ants, or breathing in the fragrance of fir trees. All people need to feel fresh air against their skin, need to go walking in a field. We need to make sure that these things happen because only when people deeply experience the world in a sensory way, can they see that the world is worth caring for.
The human brain has difficulty grasping big stuff. We have difficulty understanding ecological patterns that take place over many generations. One of the reasons, I think, for example, that many people have difficulty accepting human evolution is that is an extremely slow process, and even though we can understand development over several generations, we cannot understand development over thousands of generations, but computers can do these calculations. As computers become more and more powerful, they will be able to show us models of what the world will look like under many different kinds of conditions. Computers will be able (in fact already are) to develop models of what the long-term ramifications of certain kinds of decisions will be in a much more nimble way than the human brain can. Computers can help humans make decisions that will benefit the ants and the fir trees and their human relatives.
Skye’s eclipse project makes me think about this because she started with an experience in the world. She watched a partial eclipse of the sun, through a pin-hole camera. She experienced the wonder of the universe (or at least our solar system). Once she had had that experience, she translated it into an EPIC technology/art/ project. (And art is always experience filtered through the sensibility of the artist). Skye’s project is wonderful, but more importantly she is learning to integrate technology with her experience of the world around her. She doesn’t see a disconnect between technology and the rest of her world, but sees them as connected to each other. As she continues to develop these skills, she, and other young people like her, will be able to make long-term predictions, develop long-term solutions and ultimately, create and value a world that continues to be filled with wonders.