Firstly, a preface. And this breaks all of my own rules about prefaces in books because I believe that an author’s work should support itself. But grant me this one exception. In the New Media Lab, there exists a standing rule. You cannot talk disparagingly of one operating system over another. Neither Windows nor Mac OS is inherently or objectively better for any computing task. Since it’s a mixed OS facility (Linux, too) we encourage respect and acceptance of what boils down to a personal and unquestionable choice.
I’m going to slightly break my own rule for just this one post. Because what many view as one of Apple’s product’s strongest assets (“It Just Works” – see comments) may also be one of their greatest drawbacks,when purchasing a computer for your children.
There is growing evidence that a great many young girls play video games play video games, but sometimes give them up by middle school, the same time they tend to give up science and math as “unfeminine.” This is something we should worry about, since modifying video games (“modding”) appears to be one route boys use to get information technology (IT) skills and careers. (James Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy; bolding is mine, not Gee’s)
I know not everyone is going to have an affinity for repairing that which is broken. For every homeowner that gets on the roof to repair a gutter herself, another one calls a contractor. In important skill building years should we be discouraging children from tinkering and taking apart things? If Gee is correct, then the ability to take things apart is an important part of skill building (and many Engineers use disassembly as part of a program to stimulate children’s interest in the field). Conversely, though not every kid will have an interest in IT, providing tools which do not permit disassembly may deny children an avenue by which they can develop this interest.
I hardly want to call out only Apple here, as many other consumer electronics are unnecessarily restrictive. For example, the Xbox 360 requires specialized tools just to get it open. But I present Apple at the forefront because of the rising popularity of un-modifyable consumer devices such as the Ipad.
On Commiting the Fallacy of Arguing By Anecdote/Experience
Yes, you can open almost anything you purchase (and void your Microsoft Xbox Warranty, your AppleCare contract) but you cannot modify, and uprgrade. You can’t alter and replace. I for one as a kid was given incredible latitude with the family computer. I broke it and rebuilt it nearly every couple of months. For example, do you remember a time when you thought that all of the stuff in the system32 folder was just garbage installed along with some shareware games? I sure do. I got a job as an undergrad as a computer repair person, which was where I learned how to program. So one can say, that this blog entry was seeded the first time I opened up the family’s Packard Bell computer.
I’m not suggesting that modern tools like the Ipad don’t have merit; however I am suggesting that purchasing only unmodifiable electronics for your children may deny them the ability to develop certain skills which are important and not taught classrooms. In a day and age where “shop class” is a nostalgic reverie, and electronics class in high school is more about math and soldering electronic kits, perhaps home becomes the last bastion for developing “do it yourself” sort of skills?
On making ambitious arguments
Although I do not believe that the extreme case is true wherein “if you buy children Apple products they will never grow up to be IT professionals,” I think there’s some merit and consideration for the argument that the ability to repair/modify and otherwise alter the things you own yourself is an important skill. And while there is undeniably a place for things that work whenever you expect them to, or things that look nice, nothing can compare to the satisfaction of having that thing work when you expect it to because you fixed it yourself.
So buy a PC. Better yet, a Linux. Or even a Mac Pro. Or a used Xbox where the warranty is already long expired and it doesn’t matter if it gets torn open, modified or irrevocably destroyed.