[Reprinted from my Red Herring blog, 2005]

About fifteen year ago, we began to hear about children who helped their parents with new technologies. They were the ones who knew how to program the VCR, get onto the Internet, and troubleshoot the computer. It was a cliché, but a meaningful one that marked two shifts in the way technology was integrating into our lives. The first is that children were getting their hands on new technologies. Before, they had had intermediaries standing between them and a new device, slapping their hands away and warning them that they’d lose an eye if they touched it. Now, not only were they using computers without grown-ups, they were adapting faster to them than their parents. They could figure out computers more easily, were more flexible in the face of rapid change, and more willing to just play around with a device—and hence really learn how it works.

Kids are big market for technologies today. Adolescents are major consumers of cell phones, users of instant messaging, patrons of Playstation. But their importance goes beyond simple numbers. They’re also fanatical consumers: teen gamers do more research on new games than adults do when buying a new car. They’re harsh critics: visit any game or computer discussion board, and see for yourself just how detailed they can be in their criticism.

Finally and most important, they’re serious social innovators: they’re much less likely to follow the manual, and much more likely to invent new ways of using technologies, or build entire subcultures around them. Teens turned cell phones from business tools into pieces of youth culture. They’ve driven the growth of instant messaging and SMS. And they’ve flocked to blogs. They’re not just early adopters. They’re early adapters, too.

Of course, today’s kids are tomorrow’s consumers. There are new products to be created to serve their preferences; new skills to be exploited by the next generation of devices; and new services to be sold to support their lifestyles. But today, even really small children—the Sesame Street and Disney Princess set—are interacting with technologies, and developing some powerful assumptions about technology and media.

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As a parent of two small children, I often feel like an anthropologist, trying to make sense of a little tribe of humans who live in a fundamentally different universe. We already know that teens are a serious market for new tech, and are important sources social innovations around technologies. But younger kids are also growing up with some really interesting views of technology and media. Having studied this tribe at close hand, I’m convinced that they offer clues about what tomorrow’s serious tech consumer is going to want.

So what has the under-8 set learned from cell phones and TiVO?

Computers are boxes of fun. Naturally, kids are more familiar with “Dora the Explorer” than Internet Explorer, but the deep consequence of this is that they see computers as machines that they can have fun with. Even typing gibberish on a word processor can be fun, if you use the right font.

Interaction is entertainment. Clicking on things, getting the computer to beep, pounding on the keys, are fun in themselves. They’d better stay fun, if manufacturers want to make sales. This will have serious consequences for interaction design, and for peripherals makers.

They’re all thumbs. Twenty years ago, mice had one or two buttons at most. Generation Playstation can handle two buttons on the top of the mouse, a scroll wheel that doubles as another button, and a fourth button under the thumb. (Thirty years ago, computer pioneer Doug Engelbart stopped at three buttons because he couldn’t figure out how to get more onto the mouse. It’s revealing that he never thought of putting one under the thumb.) Kids today have far greater thumb dexterity than their elders: Generation Galaxian got carpal tunnel syndrome, while Generation Playstation (and SMS) do things with their thumbs that the rest of us do with our fingers—dial phone numbers, press elevator buttons, etc..

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In Japan (which, when translated into tech-speak, means “that giant island laboratory of technology-driven social innovation”) already refer to wired teens as “oyayubi soku,” which translates into “thumb tribe.” This is slang that signifies deeply.

Phones are cellular, and wires are stupid. I can’t get my two year-old to talk on a land line, and I can’t keep him away from my cell phone. Partly it’s because of the superior design values of telephones, but it’s also because they do cooler stuff (see #2 above). His big sister was three before she really understood that some phones had cords. Her response: “That’s dumb, Daddy.”

Note to telcos: prepare exit strategy from land line business.

So young kids think interact differently with technologies than even their older brothers and sisters. But they also think differently about media.

I get to choose. At four, my daughter could already parse the functional difference between broadcast television, videos, and DVDs.

TV was the stuff you have to watch at certain times. Some shows are good, but as a medium, TV is dumb. (We don’t have TiVO. I want the kids to learn that some things are beyond their control.)

Videos are what you can watch any time. That’s better than TV. You can also skip forwards and backwards.

But DVDs are far and beyond the medium of choice, because you can skip up to any scene, and watch a movie in any order you want. Of course, this is a boon to parents (we can skip the shark chase in Finding Nemo), but for children it’s not just an avoidance technology, but one that gives them total control over the viewing experience. When my daughter puts in Toy Story 2, she has an elaborate shooting script mapped out in her head. Who cares what John Lasseter thought? She knows how it should be edited—today. Tomorrow, it’ll be different.

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Interestingly, this doesn’t mean they treat all media as equally fungible. They still know that stories are supposed to be read from beginning to end. But once they realize that they have a little control, they expect to be completely in charge. This is very bad news for preprogrammed, scheduled media.

Pictures are experiences. When I grew up, I wasn’t allowed to use my parents’ camera: “Do you how much film costs?” my father would say. But when you go from film to digital photography, you no longer have any real limit to the number of pictures you can take. You pay a tiny cost for each picture, which means that mistakes are no longer expensive. That in turn means that pictures are basically disposable. Finally, the results are immediately visible: you can see them on the LCD on the back.

They also go from being artifacts to save, to artifacts to share. When my five year-old borrows my camera, she takes pictures of her friends. They then look at the pictures and giggle. When cameras are equipped with Bluetooth, and we can share them instantly, you’re going to see a white-hot traffic in photographs taken among friends. If I take a great picture of my friends, I can beam it to them instantly. In other words, picture-taking becomes an experience, not a commemoration.

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