How-Not-To: This Holiday Season, Show Your Parents How to Break Their Computers

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A 2013 resolution: I'm going to demonstrate how to screw up technologies safely.

computerbroken.jpg

Not like this (flickr/binarydreams).

It is a well-recognized feature of the holiday pilgrimage: We children pay homage and respect to our parents by fixing the problems we see in their information technology. We buy them new gizmos, too, and require them to learn how to 'Facetime' with grandkids or to get on Facebook to see pictures of the family. Point being, we ask our parents to figure out how to do new things all the time. And in many of those cases, we actually teach them how to do it: we lead the cursor around the screen and dictate hows and wherefores, while Bing Crosby plays in the background. 


My own parents are quite technologically savvy. My mom might be the most prolific blogger I know and runs databases at work. My dad has a sweet Apple rig and has been using computers since Compaq's portables came in a little suitcase. They got our first computer when I was five (that'd be the mid 80s) and the Internet when I was 11 (that'd be the early 90s). Both are avid social media users. In other words, they're early adopters who are not afraid of technology.

And yet, when I go home sometimes, I realize that while my parents are good at doing the right things on their computers, they are terrible at doing the wrong things. 

Let me explain. 

It's hard to do something irreparable to your computer when you're messing around with a browser or iPhoto. Things are correctable. Settings can be reset. Problems can be fixed. So, it makes sense to simply try stuff. Click here, click there. Is the menu in this tab or that one? What happens if I change this radio button? What's this view look like? 

In the argot of videogaming, you button mash until you find what works. And if you watch almost any kid with a digital device, this is how they work. Swipe, tap, click, shake, spin. They try it all until they've exhausted the interaction possibilities and understand what's supposed to happen. 

Yet whenever my parents see me engaging in this time-honored learning practice, they get anxious. My dad peers over my shoulder, asking me what I'm doing. My mom asks me to slow down. 

But I don't know what I'm doing until I've done it. So it doesn't make sense for me to narrate or for them to try to duplicate my actions. Because I'm not going to the right spot; I'm running a process of elimination on the wrong spots.

This methodology has served me well for decades now. But only with computers. When it comes to mechanical things, I find that I have the same problem that my parents do on the digital side. If you ask me to put together a piece of furniture or replace a headlight on a car or add a new wire to our electrical system, I worry that I'm going to break something. Permanently. The physical world is not the digital world and it is definitely possible to do permanent damage to things, your own body included. (And let's be honest: I was a big strong kid and I broke a lot of stuff trying to figure it out. I had an uncountable number of interactions with products that ended with the thing in one hand and a shard of plastic in the other.)

And yet I know that not everyone feels this way with physical systems. The atomic materials of the world make intuitive sense to a lot of people. People who feels this way know where they can poke and prod and push and pry and what they should leave alone. That frees them up to experiment with solutions in the white space between the DO NOT TOUCH lines of the mind. 

So, from this observation spring two resolutions for 2013: 1) I want to learn how to make the right kinds of mistakes in the physical world. 2) When teaching, I'm going to show my parents (and others) how to screw up their technologies safely. I'll demonstrate how to break, not only how to fix.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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