According to The Los Angeles Times, the first tablet computer designed specifically for babies will be hitting the market this month – and it’s no toy, either. Despite the soft edges and baby-proof packaging, the toddler-targeted Vinci tablet boasts a state-of-the-art operating system. As the company’s website claims, “The Vinci is not an imitation – it is a real touch-screen Android-based product, bringing the most advanced technology to the benefit of our youngest citizens."
So what is the “benefit”? Well, depending on how you look at it, the Vinci could just be another manifestation of our society’s unrelenting preoccupation with technology and connectivity; or, just maybe, such products might be considered a potential boon to what one NYU professor has deemed a “cognitive surplus.”
In Clay Shirky’s 2010 book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, he proposed treating the free time of the world’s educated people as an aggregate, a “cognitive surplus.” With advances in technology, Shirky insists a positive thing is happening, as people are less inclined to be passive consumers of media in their free time. As Shirky points out, “Several population studies – of high school students, broadband, users, YouTube users – have noticed the change, and their basic observation is always the same: young populations with access to fast, interactive media are shifting their behavior away from media that presupposes pure consumption. Even when they watch video online, seemingly a pure analog to TV, they have opportunities to comment on the material, to share it with their friends, to label, rate, or rank it, and of course, to discuss it with other viewers around the world.”
Hence, the surplus. Shirky believes that the time is ripe for people to apply their surplus to socially dynamic, hopefully generous enterprises, and he contends that it will actually return our society to the ways of collaboration that were natural up through the 20th century. What do you think? Would you consider a tablet for your toddler, knowing that some believe stemming passivity might lead to a greater good? Or is it better for kids to walk first and learn the ins-and-outs of touch screens later?
(A portion of this story was previously published as “Reading List: ‘Cognitive Surplus’” on The Responsibility Project on 8/25/10)