Digitial Perfection

This article appeared in Technology Review, Jan/Feb 1998.
Computer-using kids are extraordinarily self-critical of their own handiwork, holding themselves to impossibly high standards.
by Amy Bruckman

"Computer class is definitely the best!" says Keith. The 10-year-old and his classmates are making interactive storybooks. Keith wants to make a story about Bart Simpson, and starts surfing the Web for a suitable picture.

At the next computer, Myracle and Kim are browsing through a collection of clip art, looking for a dolphin. ItUs not under mammals, so they look under fishes -- but again finding nothing. After 15 minutes, they find an image under the category Rthings in the sea.S The picture is too big. They try to scale it to size, but that makes the lines look fuzzy. Another 20 minutes pass, and the end of class draws near. RWhy donUt you just draw your own dolphin?S I ask. They glare at me incredulously: RNo way! We want it to look nice!S

Next to their computer, Myracle and Kim have a small stack of crayon drawings. Their teacher has asked them to plan the storybooks on paper before sitting down at the computer. Their drawings are messy but expressive: the dolphin is going to overcome her shyness to make friends with a giant clam. On paper, it seems, itUs OK for a ten-year-oldUs art to look like it was done by a kid. On the computer, thatUs another story. They want their interactive storybook to look like the flashy commercial software they see.

What is it about the computer that makes these kids so critical of their own work? They see professional-quality art on paper all the time, yet theyUre not shy of drawing with crayons. Exactly why is unclear, but on the computer, the cultural permission for a ten-year-old to be a ten-year-old erodes. Children hold themselves to impossibly high standards.

A year ago I gave my friendUs daughter, Lisa, some drawing software for her eighth birthday. The program came with a great collection of stamps -- professionally drawn little pictures that you can put all over your page. There are dozens of kinds of birds and flowers. And there are bricks, roofing tiles, and window panes so you can stamp out a house from premade pieces. Lisa uses a flurry of stamps, all over the screen. She rotates them, stretches them, and scrambles them around -- but she never draws anything of her own. When I suggest that she try, she gives me the same disbelieving look I got from Myracle and Kim.

The computer is not a very good tool for freehand drawing. ItUs no wonder that kids donUt like to use the mouse as a pen. But thatUs not the whole story. Working on the computer, kids tend to compare their drawings to those they see in professional software, and their own work usually doesnUt measure up.

ItUs a shame the computer seems to discourage the development of drawing skills. But I have a larger concern. Children nowadays are under constant pressure to excel, as they are whisked by their parents from one after-school activity to another -- most of them competitive in nature. Kids struggle to make the gymnastics team, to score that soccer goal, to earn the next merit badge. Myracle and Kim feel that no drawing they could do on the computer could possibly live up to their own standards, so they arenUt even willing to try. Could the computer be intensifying this pressure -- fostering a generation of people who will never be able to live up to their own expectations for themselves?

MIT professor Sherry Turkle has written that the computer often functions as a kind of mirror -- or, more precisely, as a Rorschach test: what we see in it tells us something about ourselves. TodayUs overstressed children look in that mirror and see themselves as lacking. Their own work isnUt good enough and never could be.

If the computer is functioning as a mirror, then the solution is not to get different software, nor to get rid of computers. Rather, the solution is to put less pressure on our kids. To give them time just to hang out. To encourage their interests, but not expect them to be perfect. To let them get less-than-perfect grades without being labeled Rlearning disabled.S

For children having difficulty learning to write, the computerUs perfection can be a great relief. Many kids look at their own handwritten letters and grimace -- RI canUt do this!S Typed on a computer, their writing looks more real. This helps some kids to relax and decide to give it a try. If they can make letters that look neat and adult-like on the computer, then theyUre willing to begin to learn to write. Their handwriting may never improve, but that matters less and less; even elementary school students now often type assignments. Indeed, while the computer tends to cramp studentsU ability to draw, it gives many of them a tremendous boost in their ability to express themselves in words.

Computers donUt just make us do things faster. They change what we do, how we do it, what we want to do, and how we feel about what weUre doing. Ultimately, they change who we are.

Class ends. Myracle and Kim throw away their dolphin. Despite their attempts to mold the pre-made digital image into something suitable for their storybook, the result still just doesnUt look right. Keith still hasnUt found the perfect Bart Simpson. TheyUll all have to start over next week.

AMY BRUCKMAN is an assistant professor at Georgia TechUs College of Computing, where she studies virtual communities and education.