As we look down the barrel of an uncertain future, it’s natural to do some thinking about the past. Indeed that’s what I’ve been doing a fair bit of recently. As I look at my two kids, I’ve been thinking about the technology I used in my youth and contrast it to the gizmos they are growing up with.
I’m reluctant to overhype how different technology is for kids ‘these days’. For all its differences there are many similarities: desktop and laptop computers remain essential tools; effective use of technology requires knowledge and skill; Microsoft Word is still a piece of shit.
What has changed is the pervasiveness of technology. When my family bought our first PC in the mid-90s, it sat on a purpose-built desk in a room we called the ‘computer room’. It was a dedicated space where my parents could monitor both the content and time spent on the computer. For me, that time was spent mainly playing LucasArts adventure games or Duke Nukem 3D (yeah, I don’t think my parents monitored the content that closely). The computer wasn’t ‘portable’, except in the most extreme of circumstances (like moving house—tried lugging a 14″ CRT lately?) and every night, it would be shut down, the monitor glowing with the orange text ‘It’s now safe to turn off your computer’.
Then there was the software. You couldn’t just surreptitiously open up the App Store and download whatever you wanted using your parents’ credit card, you instead had to pester them for at least six months, explain to them why Dark Forces is different from TIE Fighter and why they had to spend $70 on it at Video Games Heaven. This would often coincide with one of the two significant gift-giving events of the year: my birthday and Christmas.
Contrast this with our normal existence these days which is technology everywhere, all the time. No longer does one make the active decision to ‘sit down at the computer’ like one might ‘curl up with a book’, rather the smartphone is always just there; the laptop just on the table; the smart TV always watching what we’re watching; the notifications always tolling. And not only is it everywhere, all the time, it’s insanely addictive.
And the risk isn’t just to kids these days, it’s just as hazardous to us adults, except we don’t have the luxury of a parent telling us to ‘get off the computer!’. The pervasiveness of technology has broken down the formerly impermeable barriers of work/play/sleep. We are expected to be available to everyone everywhere, all of the time. The pandemic, for many of us, has only exacerbated these pre-existing imbalances.
Which is why I thought it was high time to bring a new computer into the house.
Okay, when I say ‘new’, it’s new to the household, but it’s old—very old—to the rest of the world. Meet the IBM ThinkPad 380ED. This ‘multi-media’ mega machine packs a ‘high performance’ Intel Pentium 166MHz (with MMX technology, no less), a 20x CD-ROM drive AND a 3½ floppy drive, 16MB RAM and a whopping 12.1-inch 800x600 screen. Wow!
These specifications, while lowly today, are perfect for my goals. You see, looking back on my childhood computer use, I realised that, in addition to my many mindless games, ‘edutainment’ software dominated my early technology experiences. Like many computers of the day, our first home PC came bundled with CD-ROMs to show off the ‘multi-media’ capabilities of these new machines. One of those titles was Microsoft Encarta, the iconic digital encyclopedia that preseaged the Wikipedia age.
This revolutionary product combined text, audio and FULL MOTION VIDEO to give users an experience unlike anything that had come before it. I whiled away hours finding the articles with videos, discovering orbital mechanics, or being trapped in a medieval castle with the only means of escape being answering trivia questions. It was wholesome good fun and I even learnt a bit while using it (zOMG how exciting is that Berlin Wall!).
Looking at today’s technology landscape, I came to the realisation that this sort of product no longer exists. Sure, you can find articles—and so much more—across Wikipedia, and there is literally more video and audio uploaded to YouTube in a single day than the average person would be able to watch in a lifetime, but none of these is a curated experience. Only a minority is verified and—most importantly for me at the moment—little of it is guaranteed to be kid-friendly. Ask any parent in 2020—YouTube is the bane of our existence.
Edutainment titles, such as Encarta and other Microsoft Home titles such as Dangerous Creatures, Dinosaurs or The Magic School Bus series were ideal products for kids and families to give the young ones a taste of technology with none of the risk.
To that end, I downloaded an ISO of Microsoft Dinosaurs and gave it a spin (in the 20x CD-ROM drive!) on the ThinkPad. My older son, Archer, waited patiently through the installation process. It had been a long time since I’d seen the blue Microsoft software setup screen. After it was installed, I double-clicked the 32x32 pixel dinosaur icon on the desktop and *FLASH!* up jumped the Microsoft Dinosaurs splash screen. The CD-ROM spun up and away we went. As we navigated through the content with the TrackPoint, listening and watching, Archer was … underwhelmed.
Dinosaurs was an early multimedia title—circa 1993. Although it featured text, video and audio, it’s not as flashy as later titles would be. It acts more like a hyperlinked print book (not surprising given its content was licenced from Dorling Kindersley) with the only audio being article narration and an ambient jungle background loop. Perhaps, most important for any dinosaur aficionado, Microsoft Dinosaurs pre-dates Jurassic Park. This is evident from the dinosaur illustrations, which look closer to the 19th century Crystal Palace sculptures than the terrifying creatures we know and love today.
Archer had much more fun with The Magic School Bus in the Time of the Dinosaurs, which I picked up on eBay for a very small sum of money. This is another CD-ROM I remember playing extensively. Although it was released only a few years after Dinosaurs, The Magic School Bus makes better use of the multimedia capabilities of the day, with wall-to-wall animation, voice acting, music and interactivity. It does everything a book can’t do.
Ultimately, Archer’s not quite old enough to while away hours on this software yet, but I’m glad to know when he is, I have a kid-friendly alternative to the questionable content of YouTube available. It’s a shame that in the era of App Stores and unlimited downloads we have relatively limited options available for learning and entertainment, at least like the edutainment titles of the past. There’s actually no shortage of apps in the ‘kids’ category in any of the app stores, but they’re very different from what’s come before.
So here’s to technology that doesn’t expect an always-on internet connection. That requires only a few MB of hard disk space and nothing flashier than a 640x480 display. That costs almost nothing today and doesn’t require a credit card to play.