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. It’s not under mammals, so they look under fishes-but again find nothing. After 15 minutes, they discover an image under the category “things in the sea.” 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. “Why don’t you just draw your own dolphin?” I ask. They glare at me incredulously: “No way! We want it to look nice!”
On their desk, 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, it’s OK for a ten-year-old’s art to look like it was done by a kid. On the computer, that’s 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 they’re 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 friend’s 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. It’s no wonder that kids don’t like to use the mouse as a pen. But that’s 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 doesn’t measure up.
It’s 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 aren’t 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.