A Tale of Two Screen Generations

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, October 6, 2019

I believe growing up with the television screen made me different from my parents and grandparents. I wonder if kids growing up with smartphone screens will be even more different?

The education you get before starting school is the bedrock of your soul. For most of human history, kids grew up listening to family stories while acquiring their beliefs in religion, economics, and politics. Books, magazines, and newspapers didn’t affect those early years, but when radio came along, a new source of influence competed to program our early childhood. This escalated with television and accelerated even faster with computers, networks, tablets, and smartphones.

In those early years before we learn to read we acquire all kinds of concepts that become the cognitive bricks to our psychological foundation. For example, I didn’t acquire religion during those years, but a belief in science fiction. Aliens replaced gods and angels, heavens replaced heaven, and space exploration replaced theology. And because kids are learning to read at an earlier age today, more concepts are compressed into those formative years. I assume kids today are smarter than we were in the 1950s.

Isn’t this why traditional religious beliefs and family history is less important to people growing up today? Sociologists have long talked about peer pressure influencing teens, but didn’t television shaped the toddlers of my generation? Doesn’t everyone agree that social media pressure is shaping the early childhood of today?

A more descriptive name for Baby Boomers is The Television Generation. We got our name because so many of us showed up all at once after WWII. But more importantly, we were also the first generation to grow up with the television screen. We were raised with three new network eyes on the world. We’re now seeing a generation growing up with mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, and these kids have countless extra inputs.

I was born in 1951 and it seemed perfectly natural to suckle at the glass teat. Even now I have a hard time comprehending how my parents’ generation grew up without it. And I can’t conceive of what it’s like growing up today playing with mobile devices in the crib. Mobile devices are so much more intelligent than televisions, especially television programming in the 1950s.

Before radio, children acquired limited mythology from their parents, but also from large extended families that crossed generations, and the church. Whatever creation story you were told you accepted. There wasn’t a lot of skepticism back then. Starting with the radio, it was easy for kids to encounter competing creation myths at an earlier age. But it was television that made a quantum leap in providing alternative explanations about reality.

My earliest extensive memories begin around age four. I don’t remember what my parents told me, or what I heard in church. I do remember the television shows I  watched. I remember exactly where I came from – Romper Room, Captain Kangeroo, The Mickey Mouse Club, Howdy Doody, LassieTopper, Love That Bob, Gunsmoke, The Twilight Zone.  Television ignited my imagination. I remember being four and trying to communicate the ideas I got from television with my parents, but they seemed clueless. It’s like we spoke a different language and lived on different planets. They’d tell me about growing up on farms, or the depression, and I just couldn’t imagine what they were talking about. I’d eventually learned about their upbringing from television.

Once I started school I bonded with other kids over the television shows we loved. Television provided a shared language and mythology. However, I think growing up in the 1950s and 1960s is definitely different from today. We had three television networks, and two Top 40 radio stations, and limited access to a small number of popular movies. Among my generation, everyone pretty much watched and listened to the same shows and music. Sure we arranged our top ten favorites a little differently, but everyone pretty much knew about what everyone else liked.

Growing up today the TV screen now brings kids hundreds of cable channels, and a variety of streaming channels with thousands of different choices, and Spotify lets people listening to tens of millions of different songs. Every week countless new movies show up. But more than that, mobile devices let you choose what feels like an infinity of rabbit holes to fall into. I can understand why social media is so popular, it allows people to share their discoveries and make common connections. And I can see why movie franchises are so popular, it’s another way to bond over a limited selection. We really don’t want more shows, we want more shows we all love the same.

I’m writing this over six decades after I grew up. I wonder what people growing up today will say about their early education sixty years from now? In my generation, it was easy to share because we pretty much shared the same content. Now kids need powerful computers to find friends that like the same stuff they do.

I believe the appeal of the church today is not theology but communion. Not the communion of wine and wafers but being with other people sharing a common experience. However, I do believe television in my generation undermined the hold church had on programming our young minds.

Bible stories no longer provided our ontology. The TV screen widened our epistemology. Mobile devices are the fentanyl of screens. I imagine in another generation or two, cyborg-like devices will inject data into kiddies at an even faster rate. However, I believe there’s a limit to what our brains can handle. I’m not sure if smartphones and tablets aren’t exceeding that limit now. But that might be old fogie thinking, and we’ll have future technology that will match our wildest science fiction.

Yet, I also see signs of a backlash movement. Why are record players and LPs making a comeback? Why are there so many Top Ten lists on the web? Aren’t those signs that people want a smaller selection of inputs, ones that have a commonality with other people? Sure, everyone wants to be famous on YouTube, but 75 million kids can’t all have 75 million followers. What we want are five friends that love the same five shows and songs.

When I was growing up we often watched TV with other people. Our parents, our siblings, our friends, our neighbors. When I was little, I’d have friends over and we’d watch Saturday morning TV under tents built of blankets. As teenagers, we’d get high and watch TV together. At college, we’d watch TV in the student union together. Watching TV on a smartphone or tablet is as solitary as masturbation.

Since around 2000 I’ve stopped keeping up with hit songs and albums. I no longer know what new shows begin in the fall. As a kid, my parents used me as a walking TV guide. When I see the magazines at the grocery store checkout line, I don’t know the famous faces on their covers. Movie stars have to be in their fifties before I can remember their names. There’s a limit to how much pop culture I can absorb. I feel pop music peaked in 1965, although I struggled to keep up with it through the 1980s.

I have to wonder if kids growing up playing with smartphones can handle more data than my generation. Can they drink more from the fire hose of the internet longer? I can only chug so much data before I start spewing. Is that my age showing, or does it reveal my limitations shaped by my training watching television in the 1950s? Are those babies growing up playing with smartphones becoming like that little robot Number Five in the film Short Circuit that kept demanding, “More data, more data!”

Is growing up with a mobile device screen wiring kids differently from how we were wired by our television screens? Does Greta Thunberg represent a new stage of consciousness? I hope so. The Television Generation threw a fit in the 1960s. I feel the Smartphone Generation is about to throw a fit in the 2020s. Good for them. Don’t assume you know more than they do – you don’t!


p.s. That’s me above with my mother and sister when I was four, and my cyclopic guru.

If Screens Are Bad for Kids Are They Also Bad for Adults Too?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 29, 2018

While reading the Sunday The New York Times yesterday on my iPhone, 3 of the 8 stories in the Trending Section dealt with the dangers of computer screens and kids. They were:

The first story opens:

SAN FRANCISCO — The people who are closest to a thing are often the most wary of it. Technologists know how phones really work, and many have decided they don’t want their own children anywhere near them.

A wariness that has been slowly brewing is turning into a regionwide consensus: The benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high. The debate in Silicon Valley now is about how much exposure to phones is O.K.

“Doing no screen time is almost easier than doing a little,” said Kristin Stecher, a former social computing researcher married to a Facebook engineer. “If my kids do get it at all, they just want it more.”

The gist of these stories is: If the creators of screens won’t let their kids use them, why should we? If the Luddites are also the Technophiles, shouldn’t we worry? Or is this just elitism, like those intellectuals who sneer at watching television? Or is this a genuine back-to-analog-reality movement?  Ever since science and technology began integrating into society there have been those who want to stop its progress. There have been protests against trains, industrialization, cars, television, computers, automation, robots, and now joining the hive mind via our smartphones.


On one hand, society teaches using and understanding technology is an important part of education, on the other hand, people question if using technology constantly is a good thing? Both children and adults are spending a larger percentage of their time staring at screens – phones, tablets, laptops, computer, and televisions. That means a significant portion of reality is viewed through a flat surface. Are the critics of screens saying we should have more 3D reality-time?

I’m not actually sure where the basis of the criticism lies. If they mean kids are spending too much time playing games or watching videos, then is the danger they fear escapism? If you spend ten hours a day in AutoCAD designing NASA space probes are you spending too much time using a screen? What about an author writing the great American novel? Or a heart surgeon using five screens at once in their surgery? If your kid spends five hours a day on a screen becoming a mathematical genius would you object?

If I wasn’t using a screen to read I’d be using a book to read. Is spending hours a day on pages instead of screens a more valuable experience? What if I gave up writing and spent those hours outside gardening? Would that make my life more rewarding?

Kids love toys. Evidently, screens are preferable to other toys. Does that make them unhealthy toys? My guess is the Silicon Valley types know about getting ahead in life, becoming a success, making money, inventing products. They want their kids to have an advantage over other kids, so they’d prefer their kids not waste time playing with screens but learning what it takes to be the next generation of billionaires.

Then the question becomes: What are the best activities for children if you want them to get ahead in life? Maybe we don’t worry about adults using screens so much because we’re not worried about them succeeding in life. Either they’ve made it or not, so wasting time on screens won’t change our fate. But with kids, they have this huge potential and we don’t want them to blow it.

Or have we reached a stage where we’re worrying about becoming cyborgs? Should kids be reading instead, or playing baseball outside, or Monopoly inside? Maybe seeing so many kids mesmerized by screens is making us think about what it means? But, then shouldn’t we wonder about our own screen use?

I like writing. Would using a typewriter and submitting my essays to magazines be more fulfilling than writing for my blog? Would it be even more rewarding if I wrote longhand on paper? What if I gave up television? Is reading really a better use of my time? If I didn’t read or watch television, I think my next choice would be building and programming computers, developing databases, teaching myself AI and machine learning, and constructing robots. I don’t think I’d be happy if I gave up technology altogether. I could take up gardening and woodworking, two very down-to-Earth activities, but I don’t think I’d find them as rewarding as what I’m doing now.

If I counted all the hours I spend with my HDTV, 4K computer monitor, Kindle Paperwhite, iPad Mini, and iPhone, it would be a lot. Certainly, the majority of my day. Should I really wonder if that’s unhealthy?



Zite versus RSS

Up until recently RSS was the best technology for taming the Internet.  You selected a RSS reader, like Google Reader, and subscribed to all the sites you thought valuable.  The trouble is most sites send too many posts, so you get way more feeds than you want to read.

What I dreamed about was software that would look at what’s being published on the Internet while being able to read my mind and select just the stories I would love to read.  Zite isn’t that software, but it’s pretty damn close.  It does all the hard work of surfing the net far and wide to find what I might like to read, and then slowly learns from what I really like.  It becomes a customized magazine.

When I got my iPad I started out with the popular Flipboard app that supposedly sent me the stories I wanted to read, but not really.  I then discovered Zite, and within days, nearly every story they send to the main section is one I want to read.  I get stories from The New York Times, The Economist, and from blogs I never heard of, as well as hundreds of other sources famous or obscure, but they all produce great essays and articles I want to read.  Of course those same sites might produce dozens of other articles too, ones other people want to read but not me, but Zite doesn’t send me those.  This is how Zite beats RSS.

As I read I thumbs up or thumbs down what I like, just like with Pandora and music, and the Zite engine pays attention.  Whatever kinds of algorithms Zite uses, they are very smart.

Sadly, Zite is only for the iPad.  I wished they had a desktop version.  Zite has made me love my iPad, but I spend most of my time at my desk.

I really look forward to reading Zite every day, or even twice a day.  I’m thrilled by the content it finds for me.  It is the best of the best of the internet, suited for my tastes.

There are some obstacles to overcome.  Are there stories I’d also like to read that Zite misses?  For instance Zite introduced me to the website The Millions, a site for book lovers, with two great articles, “(Re)Imagining True Lives: On Historical Fiction” and “The Million Basic Plots.”  While in Zite and reading the article, there’s a button for the Web.  I pushed it and it takes me to The Millions home page where I can read other articles.  And if I find another one I like, I can click the Options button and thumbs up that article too.

Yet, with all the great reading Zite provides I still wonder what I’m missing.  But Zite provided an answer to that too, with “Why keeping up with RSS is poisonous to Productivity, sanity” by Jacqui Cheng at ARS Technica.  Cheng makes a good point about living with ignorance.  The reason why RSS is flawed is because it gives me too much to read.  And thinking about all the stuff I might be wanting to read is just as flawed.  Cheng said she went without RSS and just read a few good sites and felt just as informed.  I’ve always wondered if I could pick just one news site, or newspaper, or news magazine, or even news television show, and get all the news I really needed.  But when I think about doing that, I start fearing what I would be missing again.

Zite seems to be a great compromise.  My experiment now will be to see if Zite can be my only source of news by being the best news aggregator.  Zite was recently bought by CNN which is putting a huge scare in us Zite fans, but owners of Zite and CNN swear they will not allow Zite to become a conduit for CNN News.

When I read Zite I use several built-in tools.  It has buttons for Instapaper, Twitter, Facebook, Email and other social functions.  I have a Twitter account that I use like Instapaper.  Most web sites now have icons for tweeting all their articles.  To remember what I’ve read, or want to read, I just tweet it to myself.  But I’m also using Instapaper to compare the two.  I email articles to friends I think would like them, and on rare occasions I’ll send an article to Facebook.

Zite begs for the synergy of all these programs, and it would be cool if Zite eventually incorporated their functionality into Zite.  Zite needs to be incorporated into the browser so it will work from desktops including PC, Mac, and Linux, and it needs to work with smartphones and all tablets.  Instead of saving to Instapaper or Twitter, it should let me mark the articles I want to save to call up within Zite.  And it should allow people to share their Zite reading with other people.  Wouldn’t it be fun to see what your friends or famous people like to read?

Zite has a lot of possibilities, but it needs to get away from the iPad only platform.  Zite is the first app that I feel makes my iPad worth owning.

Now there are some storm clouds on the horizon for apps like Zite, Flipboard, Pulse and others.  They take content from other sites, often removing their ads, and presenting them to you in a reformatted, easy to read format.  This undermines the financial foundation of the original news sites, but it’s well within the link sharing paradigm of the world wide web.

The Internet is killing paper newspapers and magazines.  And paper newspapers and magazines are having a hard time transitioning to the internet and find new financial models of support.  These news aggregators are a threat to them, but if both sides work together it could be a big win-win situation.  Newspapers and magazines have always had the same problem as RSS feeds, they present you will more stories than you want to read.  In our fast paced world that’s only going faster and faster, that’s too much of a time waster.

To see what all these apps look like:

JWH – 9/7/11

12 Ways for the Kindle to Compete with iPad

The Kindle is clunky!  As a paperback book replacement, the Kindle is superior to the iPad because of size and weight.  However, as a magazine, newspaper, television and computer replacement, it fails miserable by contrasting it with the iPad.

Robert L. Mitchell, over at Computerworld writes “Why iPads will beat e-readers,” and he makes some very good points.  Basically he asks why have two devices when one will do, especially one that does so much more.  For most people this will be very true, but not all, and the not-alls can still be millions of bookworms.  Not everyone is ready to spend $500 for a reading gadget, but some people are ready to spend $139, and millions more would get into the game if the Kindle was $49.95, one tenth the price of the iPad.  The real question is:  Is the Kindle good enough in the long run?  If you could buy an iPad for $139 how many people would even think of purchasing a Kindle?

My biggest gripe with my Kindle 3 is not the e-ink display but the user interface – the Kindle is clunky at best, compared to the uber-elegant iPad.  How can Amazon fix the Kindle so its users would no longer feel iPad envy?  Can the Kindle be marketed as a single task device in such a way that it doesn’t psychologically compete with the iPad at all?

The problem is the iPad can be a universal ebook reader and that’s why people see the iPad as competition to the Kindle.  Plus the iPad can host thousands of dazzling programs on a beautiful and elegant screen.

The iPad proves that a touch screen is the perfect user interface (UI) for tablet size devices!  The Kindle 3’s buttons and UI is a major leap forward over previous models, but it’s nowhere near the quantum leap of touch screen tablets.  My biggest gripe against the iPad is it’s way too heavy to be a book.  If you’re the kind of person that reads for less than an hour a few times a week, the iPad is fine.  But if you read hours a day, seven days a week then the iPad is clunky and chunky.  This leaves room for Amazon to compete.

Amazon can go in two major directions.  First, it can continue to be just a book replacement device or second, it can go into the tablet competition arena.  And since Kindle software is already on all the major tablets, it’s doubtful that Amazon needs to market its own general purpose device unless it wants to compete with the Color Nook, which is essentially a half-ass Android tablet, and B&N’s attempt to beat E-ink technology.  But at $250, it’s too expensive for most people wanting to get into the ebook reading.

Does Amazon really need to make money in hardware sales?  Does it really matter what platform Amazon’s customers read their books on?  Now that the ebook market has exploded, and readers are accepting the idea of buying ebooks, does Amazon even need to sell Kindles?  Does it even need to sell ebooks in the Kindle format exclusively?  Amazon’s real competition is not the iPad, but Apple.  Apple now sells music, movies, audio books, ebooks, television shows – much of the same content that Amazon is pushing, and a reason to want Android tablets to succeed.  And how does Amazon compete when Apple takes in a 30% profit margin on anything Amazon sells on Apple devices.

Amazon needs to beat Apple, not the iPad, and the best way for that to happen is if Android phones and tablets outsell iPhones and iPads.  Or if Amazon has a device that its loyal customers love more than an iPad.  For the Kindle device to succeed it must be the ultimate ebook reader – and it wouldn’t hurt if it was $49.95 or less.

Here are a number of ways the Kindle could be improved.

  1. E-ink technology limits what Amazon can do with the design of the Kindle.  If Amazon could meld touch screen technology with the e-ink display it could simplify the device by jettison most of the buttons, and vastly improving the user interface.
  2. Add support for EPUB standard – that way EPUB could become the web standard for free ebooks and that would actually help the Kindle.  It would also let Kindle users get library books from Overdrive and NetLibrary, also helping sales.
  3. Make a deal with B&N to support each other’s book formats, so Kindle users could buy from B&N, and Nook users could buy from Amazon.  Hey, the competition is with Apple.
  4. Work extremely hard on the ergonomics of the device so it’s easier to hold and read than any mass market paperback, trade paper or hardback book.
  5. Make the device indestructible so people feel its safe to take their Kindle anywhere something you won’t do with an expensive iPad or Android tablet.
  6. Make the price cheap enough so people will want one for every family member, nor feel kicked in the gut if they loose one.
  7. Work out a scheme for family and friends to share books.  If I owned two Kindles so my wife and I can read the same book, we’d have to have both devices on one account name just to keep us from having to buy two copies.  Being forced to share an account means we can’t have separate libraries.  And if we’re reading the same book at the same time the auto book marking feature would get messed up.
  8. Develop a home page that’s a metaphor for a personal library system.  A Kindle can hold thousands of books theoretically, but not practically.  Amazon needs to make an app like iTunes to manage all the content on the Kindle – but it needs to be far better than iTunes.
  9. Improve the way magazines and newspapers are presented and stored on the Kindle – and aim for cheaper subscription costs than what people have to pay on the iPad.
  10. Most books, especially fiction, do not have photos and illustrations, so it’s easier for E-ink to compete with LCD displays.  It might be better to concede multimedia to the tablet competition, and make the Kindle the absolute best text to brain interface that bookworms can buy.
  11. Make it a snap to transfer text from the Internet and the computer to and from the Kindle.   Getting text to and from the iPhone/iPad/iPod touch can be annoying because of all the security and restrictions Apple uses to protect the user.  It would be fantastic to have a plugin for my browsers that would scrape a web page and put the text content into my Kindle for reading later in the comfort of my recliner.  But just getting .txt, .pdf, and .doc files to and from the Kindle is still cumbersome, and it can’t handle .epub at all.  This would be supported by #8.
  12. Find a software solution to make the Kindle a lifetime library of reading – right now I feel compelled to delete books and docs from the Kindle to keep thing clean and easy, but if the UI was better my Kindle could be a portable library of lifetime reading.  One solution is to provide a lifetime library in the cloud for your loyal users.

I use my Kindle most for reading free stuff off the Internet.  There are short stories and essays on the Internet that are too long to read sitting at the desk so I like to put on the Kindle, plus there are thousand and thousands of free novels, especially classics.  I do buy Kindle books, especially when they are cheaper than buying printed books, but the prices for ebooks have shot up which makes them less appealing.  If I see a reprint of an old science fiction book for $7.99 or $9.99 I just say no.  If it’s $4.99 I think hard about it.  If it’s $2.99 I jump.  $4.99-$7.99 competes with buying used hardbacks for collecting and sharing.  I’d rather buy a used hardback and give it to a friend than buy a Kindle book at the same price.  Sorry Amazon, but sharing books is a factor. 

If the Kindle book is cheaper than a used hardback I think, cool, I’m building an electronic library.  But even that desire is limited because the current UI makes collecting books a chore because of clutter and harder navigation.  I seldom reread books, but sometimes I’d like them for reference, so it’s a toss-up for whether or not to keep them.  I’d love to have a system for building an electronic library of everything I’ve read.  If the Kindle offered such software I’d be more likely to buy Kindle books to keep in my lifetime library.

Right now when I power up my Kindle I see a long list of books, magazines and other documents waiting to be read.  If I want I can archive stuff to an even longer list.  That’s a mess.  What’s needed is a library system for e-readers, something that’s probably only possible with a touch screen UI.

Amazon needs to get some savvy librarians to work on this task.  I can picture the opening screen having the following buttons:

  • Read [it remembers where I left off]
  • Bookmarks/Search
  • Novels
  • Nonfiction
  • Magazines
  • Short Stories
  • Poems
  • Essays
  • Newspapers
  • Documents
  • Notes

What I want is a way to organize my digital book collection and help me find stuff.  And this points to a major flaw of the iPad as an ebook reader.  If you have books in Kindle, Stanza, iBooks, Nook, and other readers on the iPad, and you subscribe to magazines and newspapers, each in their own app, and you collect documents in all kinds of apps, finding stuff will be tricky because it’s all over the place.

I wish my Kindle had a detachable handle, like a church fan handle, but with a trigger to page forward.  Even though it’s much lighter than the iPad, it gets tiring to hold.

But the biggest trouble Amazon will have when competing with tablets is whether or not people start carrying tablets around with them like cell phones.  If everyone gets that addicted to their tablet, then people won’t want a Kindle.  Thus, if Amazon wants to stay in the ebook device business they will have to come out with a tablet that competes with the iPad, or join forces with Android tablet makers.  However, I don’t think people will carry tablets everywhere.  Smartphones will be it, so having a smartphone that can connect with a lifetime library in the cloud could be another big selling point.

I think the Kindle can compete if it becomes a super-book and doesn’t try to be anything else.  A tablet is really a computer without a keyboard, it’s a general purpose device, and as long as it’s heavier and more expensive than a single purpose ebook reader, ereaders have a chance to compete.

JWH – 3/26/11 (Mine and Susan’s 33rd anniversary)

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