Photo via WoCinTechChat used under Creative Commons


I was talking with Kishau Rogers this week at a Hackathon we were helping with at The White House for ThinkOfUs. (See how I dropped The White House in there like it was nothing? It was everything. More on that later.)

You’ll remember Kishau from her excellent podcast where she proposed that we should NOT teach kids how to code…but rather we need to teach kids (and people) how to think about systems. Folks just don’t know how stuff works. Maybe we’re old(er) but we found ourselves asking, is tech killing curiosity? This post has more questions than answers, so I hope you sound off in the comments!

I have this glorious pocket super computer with me now. It connects to all the world’s collected knowledge, has an advanced battery, radio transmitter, and so much more. But most people have no idea how it works? Yes, technically you don’t have to know how it works, but aren’t you curious?

We can make lists about how “there’s two kinds of people in the world” and split them up into techie and non-techie, or computer literate or non-computer literate…but I’m thinking it’s simpler. There’s the curious and the not-curious.

I took apart my toaster, my remote control, and a clock-radio telephone before I was 10. Didn’t you? What’s the difference between the people that take toasters apart and the folks that just want toast? At what point do kids or young adults stop asking “how does it work?”

As each new layer of abstraction becomes indistinguishable from magic we may be quietly killing curiosity. Or shifting its focus. Is the stack so deep now that we can’t know everything?

There’s a great interview question I love to give. “When you type into a browser, what happens? Then what happens? Then what happens?” I ask this question not because I care how deep you can go; I ask because I care how deep you care to go. Where does your interest stop? How do you THINK it works? Where does technology end and where does the magic (for you) begin? HTTP? TCP? DNS? Voltage on a wire? Registers in chips? Quantum effects?

I do an Exploring Engineering class at local colleges each year. I love to open up a text file, type the alphabet, then open that text file in a hex editor and go “hey, the letter ‘a’ is 61 in ASCII, why?” Then I add a carriage return/line feed (13/10) and ask a room of confused 18 year olds “what’s a carriage and why does it need to return?” I take a record player in and talk about the similarities between how it works versus how a hard drive or blue ray works. I see where the conversation takes the class. Inevitably the most engaged kids (regardless of their actual knowledge) will end up being great engineering candidates. But where did their curiosity come from?

Perhaps curiosity is an innate thing, perhaps it’s taught and encouraged, but more likely it’s a little of both. I hope that you’re stretching yourself and others to ask more questions and explore the how and why of the world around you.

What do you think? Is 21st century technology making it too easy? Are iPhones so magical sitting atop the last millennium of technology that it’s not worth teaching – or even wondering – how it all fits together?