friday-rant
Software & Web Development

Rant: Tech's Future Belongs to the Kids

I've been using computers since 1980, when I first prised a Sinclair ZX80 from my dad's unwilling fingers. He'd bought it hoping to be part of the new computing revolution but its complexity confounded him as soon as he opened the box. Sir Clive's half-baked blue-and-white wedge made perfect sense to me and I soon had it doing things it hadn't even been designed to do (vertically scrolling text animation, if you're interested).

Fast-forward 34 years and I'm the confounded one: confounded by the speed at which my children adapt to, and learn to control, technology. My kids don't have iPads because I'm a curmudgeonly man who refuses to pay the shiny iTax, so they have £30 Linux-based laptops with a wide variety of 'educational' software instead, including lots of free Flash games that involve some clever gameplay and have been lovingly crafted. There's certainly no shortage of high-quality free software to get kids started these days.

And they absorb it like a sponge. It seems children have an innate ability to pick up technology quickly, far faster than their parents. At a friend's house, her five-year-old son has banned her from gaming with him on their tablet because she "keeps losing him [virtual] money" but my seven-year-old daughter was made very welcome because she picked up the game immediately and found new bonus levels for him within minutes.

My four-year-old daughter is keen on (but definitely not addicted to...) the open-source clone of Minecraft, called Minetest. She uses it like a virtual Lego world, building complex houses with three storeys, swimming pools and rolling grounds. If that's where she's expecting to live as an adult, I pity her first three husbands.

It will fade, of course, just as it did for me. I took great delight, 20 years ago, in accepting the challenge of a mouthy child who claimed he was unbeatable at Colin McRae Rally on the PlayStation. He wasn't: a fact that his counsellor is probably still helping him to come to terms with today.

Not my proudest moment, admittedly, as I punched the air and shouted "Yes!" when my Impreza crossed the line two seconds ahead of his Evo, but the point is I only just won. In my mid-20s I was already nearly over the hill in terms of technical adaptability.

These days I'm close to being relegated to the equivalent of my mum failing to program the VCR all those years ago, when its logic was pathetically obvious to me. The brain slows. Karma is cruel.

There's a serious point to all this. There's now a generation of middle- and high-level managers who know how things used to work but don't really understand how they work today – though they think they do. And the rate of change only seems to be increasing.

This can result in missed opportunities as managers fail to understand the full potential of the hardware and software their engineering teams devise. The history of IT is littered with gadgets that should have changed the world but didn't, technology that was ahead of its time but woefully underfunded and under-supported by manufacturers. Often the designers and the users knew what could be achieved, but the board of directors didn't understand and so missed an open goal.

Alternatively, this situation can lead to the tail wagging the dog: incompetent managers who don't fully understand all the options being thrown at them by their developers will give the nod to everything. That leads to bloated, over-featured products that lose market share by being too complex and hard to use without a PhD in IT and manual-reading.

Somewhere in between is a balance, an age at which the more mature technical kids have grown up enough to understand business issues and yet still have a firm grasp of the possibilities offered by the technology they, or their companies, are developing.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg epitomises this balance. Love it or loathe it, it's hard to see how anyone could have led the company to faster growth than he has. A younger person might have got lost in the sheer fun of the code, an older one would have missed key business opportunities. He's done neither. There will be more like him… and in fact there already are.

So where does that leave the rest of us? Those 30-somethings and older, with rusting not-quite-current knowledge and less of a keen edge to push development forwards into new and exciting areas? Ours is an uncertain future: we're the ones who could be over the hill by 30. With retirement ages rising across the globe, actually doing IT might become an ever more precarious career choice. I think I'll stick to just writing about it.

 

Freelance technology journalist Alex Cruickshank grew up in England and migrated to New Zealand several years ago, where he runs his own writing business, Ministry of Prose.

 

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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