During my years at school, I was surrounded by adults telling me how I was wasting my time. Every time my mother looked in on my bedroom, I was typing a BASIC programme into my tiny computer. Or playing a game. Or reading about how to write games. I spent a whole summer creating a computer animated ‘movie’ of King Kong in my ZX81, which ran out of memory before I was half finished.
I now know that these hours were the most educational of my childhood. The only ‘use’ my parents could imagine for all this activity was helping me down the road to becoming a computer programmer, which my Maths scores suggested was an unlikely direction. They could not imagine a world where almost every job required a computer.
What it means in my job now, is that when I am confronted with a mass of confusing data that I need to understand, I start a spreadsheet, or a database. Many of my slightly older contemporaries reach for a calculator or start an alphabetised lever arch file.
Today, adults everywhere are telling kids that they are wasting their time. When they should be learning skills that will help them get a job, they are using facebook. Let’s leave aside the fact that having a wide circle of friends is the best way yet discovered to get a job, and ask another question: Which are likely to be the most important skills in the coming century? It’s only a guess, but I would be willing to bet that a list would look something like this:
• Being able to maintain positive relationships with a very large groups of people – predominantly through the written word.
• Managing the time shifting of communications, to keep people in the loop regardless of their availability.
• Keeping a close control on which group of friends knows what, and personal privacy.
• Doing all this without ever having physically met most of the people you communicate with.
As the world economy goes global, and the physical workplace becomes less and less important, isn’t this inevitable?
So, how is a mastery of facebook a waste of time? I have a theory that kids have a knack of spotting what is really the most important skill for them to learn, and they home in on it like guided missiles. Reading novels was the Nineteenth Century equivalent; all the opinion formers of the day considered the reading of novels to be morally dangerous. But the explosion of literacy brought enormous benefits to individuals and the wider economy.
Maybe the kids know what they are doing.