Technology and Attention Spans

By Kersley Fitzgerald

This article is completely composed of uneducated musings. Don't expect any hard and fast conclusions that will save the world.

So, Dev, JT, and I went on a mini-vacation this weekend to some friends' cabin. Yeah, that didn't turn out so well. While Dev and I would have been happy to spend the weekend sleeping and reading, the tiny cabin wasn't big enough for a 12-yo boy recently released from daily bouts of 4-hour homework sessions.

I recognize he was just being normal. His day is filled with attention-grabbers, whether it's his friends in class or the spelling words I'm trying to get him to copy down. I don't believe he has ADHD. One of his teachers suggested we get him tested, but I was pretty sure he had sleep apnea. After having his tonsils and adenoids taken out, he was a completely different kid with a much better mood and attention span.

This new school he's in is tough. And after a week of homework until 8 or 9 every night, we feel obliged to let him watch movies and play video games over much of the weekend. The question being, will all this lead to a crippling short attention span?

Some say yes. That video games and TV will not allow a young brain to develop properly. But some say that a short attention span — "distractability" — isn't the terrible great tragedy we make it out to be.

For JT's birthday, I got him the X-Box version of Minecraft. I don't let him connect to the internet, which drives him nuts, but he still has fun putting blocks in various places. It occurs to me that it isn't too different from my second, part-time job. I work for a kitchen design firm, customizing their CADD program. I build computerized catalogues based on the paper versions the cabinet companies send out. My boss can draw a wall, then click and drag any of several thousand cabinets into place. When she's done with cabinets, countertops, wall and flooring color, and lighting, she can click a button and see a 3d version of the completed kitchen. Although, unlike Minecraft, there's no lava. Or pigs.

But that's just a picture.

I've vaguely followed the progress of 3D printers ever since I first saw a printed table in Dwell magazine. Recently I saw an article about how prices are coming down. Something clicked. It reminded me of the computerized machining tool we had in the aircraft maintenance backshop in the Air Force. With that machine, the technicians would draw an image of the part they wanted carved out of a block of metal, and the grinder would automatically make it so. It's like the inside-out version of 3d printers — instead of laying down material according to a plan, you're carving it away.

3d printing is laying down materials onto a surface until the shape is fully developed. Which is a lot like Minecraft.

JT's prowess with a strange little video game with blocks and wolves and lava will directly translate, one day, into 3d printing design.

And this is no less a valuable skill than those he learned when we built his fort and he put down the floorboard joists himself.

The thought opened up some things for me. He's had a really tough time with science this year. First quarter was on cellular biology; this quarter's starting with amoebae and plankton. Because, you know, kids in Colorado have so much experience with plankton. Anyway. Last quarter, we tried going over the book. We tried flashcards. Finally, I thought, why not play to his interests? First, we watched several Youtube videos on mitosis and meiosis. Then I found a site where you can create your own multiple-choice tests. That helped, but he still found the tests frustrating. So for the second, I added goofier answers.

That really helped. Humor plus technology. Fairly tame technology, granted, but I have yet to get training in app design.

This isn't a new concept. The movie Ender's Game, based on a short story written in 1977, is coming out soon. In it, kids are subjected to a wide array of computer and real-life games designed to train them for war. I think that's where we're headed — not battling aliens, but the place where games and occupational technology will run parallel. Troops who grew up on flight simulators will have an easy cross-over to flying drones. Kids who grew up on maze-and-treasure video games will become laproscopic surgeons.

It could be that attention-span-eroding video games will prepare our kids for their future jobs.

JT's attention span issues had a more immediate effect this weekend. Between the wall-bouncing and some other issues, we decided to leave Saturday morning. But, in the spirit of the family vacation, we decided to find something that we could all enjoy together. So we went to the zoo. His spazziness made us recognize that he doesn't need a quiet, relaxing trip to a cabin after a long, hard week. He needs monkeys and penguins and elephants and outdoors-running-around-look-a-peacock. And he really needs our attention, which he'd be much less likely to get if he were a bookworm.

I have a friend who has a rarely-used TV, DVD player, and a Wii she'd rather not have. And she has four kids with one on the way. That's fine. And it's okay that JT plays video games occasionally. I think we need to find the balance — not only with our own kids, but within their generation. They will need some who can whip out a 3d-printed suspension bridge as well as some who can actually get through War and Peace.

As it turns out, I'm late to the party. People have been 3d printing Minecraft creations since at least last year. It may be that for Dev and my 25th anniversary, JT will print us our own, much larger, cabin.

Or, maybe he'll just learn quantum physics.

Update: "Looks like JT can print us that cabin.

Minecraft model of a cell by Brenden Watson.

TagsChristian-Life  | Family-Life  | Personal-Life

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Published 10-25-13