Unfiction: Early Learning Digibox


Having been an uncle for all of a year, I now feel qualified to have concerns about babies, toddlers and otherwise young children. These concerns are varied, from “Please don’t poo while I’m holding you” to “How will you perceive the digital world, in a physical space, as you grow up?” The latter is perhaps less immediate. Still it makes for an interesting discussion doesn’t it?

Whilst the internet, as a construct, has been around for a fair bit (most likely longer than you might realise), the world wide web (that is what you think the internet is, simply because the terms have become so interchangeable) came along a few years into my existence on this rock. I grew up alongside one of the most brilliant and fascinating pieces of engineering. Now it’s taken for granted by you and me and everyone else. Our everyday lives are enriched and enhanced by this unbarred level of communication and interactivity, when 20 years ago it was still commonplace to wait your turn to use the landline (which as you know now is only useful as a means of securing an internet connection).

Obviously technological progressions happen all the time, but this one is immense. Actually, I’d go further and say it’s immeasurable. By the time anyone could get through explaining how the internet/www had come to influencing modern day life (on all its levels) the next breakthrough would’ve happened. Alongside this though, we’ve had advancements in other technologies; video games in particular for this thinking. Bear with me here as this isn’t just about me liking games. My point is we’ve come a long way since Pong.

One of the most popular games in the world is one where you take a cube and move it to build something else with other cubes, or any manner of things, with simplistic but obvious graphics. This game constantly makes me think about a certain toy, one of the most popular in the world, where you take a variety of mostly cube-based objects and move it to build something else with other cube-based objects, or any manner of things, with simplistic but obvious colours. Know what they are yet? Well, you should at least know the latter, considering you’ll have played with so much of it when you were younger (or, if you’re like me, still do).

When I see Minecraft I think of it merely as an evolution of Lego. Of course there are certain differences; you can’t walk on Minecraft and scream out in agony and you won’t get worried that a monster is about to blow up your Lego unless, of course, you have a particularly malicious sibling (and you have to be completely heartless to break someone else’s Lego construction). What they share though are two core principles: 1) Imagination and conceptualisation and 2) A story or adventure. The former is perhaps more obvious, but I’d argue both are equally important. I don’t think it’s wrong to say that all of our childhoods are shaped by these in whatever way.


I explicitly remember sitting down in the lounge with my tub of blocks and just building…well, anything. Maybe it was a house, or a crappy space ship (or a ‘telecommunication station’, which young Joel didn’t realise was an actual thing) but it was mine. I created it for whatever purpose. The sky’s the limit? Hardly. The thing with Lego though is that it does fit in with a scale. You don’t get any Lego people a different size, do you? If I am now informed that you can, I may have to pretend I didn’t hear/see evidence. Even as small people, we still know scale. Obviously we don’t have a magnificent grasp on it, but we are aware. Tie these together though and you have an imagination with purpose. I’m building a house/vehicle/whatever for this person.

The same goes for Minecraft, although the sky is the limit there due to the game’s restrictions, of course as it doesn’t exist, nor do certain physics; you can’t find a floating island in Lego, for example. The thing with that though is perhaps there’s more of an ownership over a creation in it as, in the standard mode, you do far more work in moving pieces and building them. The scale, whilst technically existent (I believe 8x the surface area of the Earth) can also prove to be nothing short of awesome. 1:1 (mostly) replica of Middle Earth? Can’t do that with Lego!

Then again I hardly expect a 5 year-old to start reconstructing, whatever the scale, a location that they appreciate. That’s sort of beside the point, really. What is on point though is that between the generation before mine, mine and the one after we have this fascinating cross-section. How many of you have bemused parents (or grandparents) who don’t how to use this weird contraption referred to as the internet? How many have parents who do know what to do on it? Then there’s us. We grew up alongside this tech and it shows; we’ve embraced it and exploited it for all it is worth. We can escape it for only so long. How long did you wait before making your Facebook account? How long could you? To not have something like that makes you an exception that proves the rule. You might as well be ostracised from society for all the good not having a Facebook account will get you.

After us? Well that’s what I’m thinking about. We don’t actually know. My generation straddles the line between the old and the new. We’ve got the best of both worlds. What about newly born children? What will 20 years difference make?  Will Lego be around in 20 years, or will it simply be a digitally distributed package that you pay a small amount for to increase the amount of bricks you have access t…hmm, hang on a minute, might need to shoot off a quick e-mail to Lego.

No. Defiantly no.

Well, yes, that might very well happen, but it’ll be alongside the very real, very blocky, very painful Lego. What makes Lego Lego is the tangible physicality of it. And this is where I start laying on the terms. The difference between the virtual and the physical is the dissonance. Whatever I do in Minecraft is via an avatar. To build things, I have to build it through The_JG_Man. To build something with Lego, I need only be me and have a bucket of bricks by my side. The difference is arguably one of semantics as I am as much The_JG_Man as I am Joel Goodman, but I’d argue otherwise. Despite how involved we are with all things digital, we still place focus on the real. Well, we do.


For under 10s, one of the most requested Christmas presents are smart devices (phones, tablets etc.). This has been the case for the last few years. That’s…pretty amazing, don’t you think? The things you can do and learn as a 5 year-old! With one device! The next generation is being brought up with digital in mind. Why? Well that’s obvious! We’re the generation teaching them. Now to get a bit science fiction on you all of a sudden, one of the popular ideas that you see is that many of the things we do now are just transplanted onto a digital surface. Hell, in the actual Next Generation, Picard and the rest of the crew regularly use a tablet. Paper is now simply digital paper. That said, I don’t think that’ll be the case. Not entirely at least.


After a while, the need for physicality will decrease to a point where services and capabilities will be compressed into the need for simply a digital presence. This has taken form already; lecture-by-Skype, relationship-by-databases/profiling, TV-by, errrm, internet (obviously that’s entertainment as a whole, as books, music, games and video are all procurable through it). There’s still a trend to see in this though. There’s nothing ostensibly new here. All these things are just a different method of obtaining the same thing. The end result is still the same; education, relationships and entertainment.

The main issue then comes in the form of where the emphasis on ownership will lie. There is more and more ‘real’ estate online (which I have to say is a lovely juxtaposition) and just a generally high need for control over its contents. Legal fights over ownership (intellectual properties have boomed in the last two decades) have come into their own, with one of the biggest being over MegaVideo, which was shut down by the US much to the chagrin of many of its users, legitimate or not. It’s a battle between one generation, or at least one guiding idea, and another. Digital production both contends and constructs meaning. This is only going to become more pronounced as the people wielding the ‘old’, physical model eventually die.


So what’s the whole concluding point of this article then? I don’t know. Really, I don’t know! We’re waltzing without a care into completely unknown territory where we’re still getting to grips understanding the implications of technology of now, let alone those after. I wonder what my niece will be like in 20 years engrossed as she invariably will be with the internet she’s grown up in, one inevitably far superior to ours. Will she want to play with Lego or build her own blocks online? How will this impact how she views the world? Will The Great Pyramids still possess the brilliance they have now, considering their scale is limited by the actual world they exist in? So many more questions and the only answers will come in time. I can tell you one thing I do know now though; it’s an interesting discussion, isn’t it?


About thejgman

I am a person and do persony things! Favourite things include Mars bars, video games and, surprisingly, writing. I'm a graduate in Cultural Studies, with a focus towards all things digital and technological.
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