Badger, Bulbasaur, or Blockchain?

In a recent Cambridge study, a group of British children was shown picture cards, each depicting a common species of plant or wildlife. The researchers also showed the kids a second set of cards, each featuring a species of Pokémon character.

Overwhelmingly, the children aged eight and over were better at identifying Pokémon species like Beedrill, Weedle, or Bulbasaur than natural organisms such as oak trees, weasels, or badgers.

In his essay, Badger or Bulbasaur — have children lost touch with nature?British writer Robert Mcfarlane expresses concern over what is happening to British children’s knowledge of nature. Their accuracy score for Pokémon was around 80 per cent, yet less than 50 per cent for real species. Mcfarlane is right in being anxious about a world where we lose our ability to express what is happening around us. We need language and vocabulary to understand who we are.

But I think the problem goes beyond Weedles and weasels. The same lack of understanding and ownership is also pervasive in the realm of technology. Nature and technology are not the opposites here. It’s our own curiosity and wonder that is at stake.

Contemporary life is filled with technology. We turn on our phones hundreds of times a day, and technology is sneaking into every split-second of our lives. But how many of us can actually describe what happens in a DDOS attack, what a bubble-sort algorithm does, or how the blockchain works? The vocabulary of technology is full of “suitcase words” — they hold a lot inside but let very little out. They are easy to pass around but rarely opened.

Computers are chameleons: They can be passive and foreign or alternatively allow for endless building and creativity. Our society’s competitive advantage depends not on how well our children consume technology, but how fearless, creative, and imaginative they learn to be in creating with it.

All of this requires curiosity, vocabulary, and understanding. “I believe that names matter and that the ways we address the natural world can actively form our imaginative and ethical relations with it,” says Mcfarlane. I believe the same is true for technology. It’s the difference between understanding a hashtag and understanding hardware.

So the next time you hear someone in a meeting using technology jargon, raise your hand and bravely ask: could you please explain

This column first appeared in Finnair in-flight magazine Blue Wings 5/2018.