Sunday, June 14,1998
The Straits Times : Sunday Plus Page 4

Beep beep for every kid

Children today are growing up in an IT-driven world. The pager is their first 'low barrier' entry into the world

RECENTLY, I began using my pager as an alarm as well, to wake me up at whatever time I needed to.

I must have made a mistake once setting the alarm, because the pager now beeps punctually at midnight every night.

And I do not know how to kill that setting, despite all my attempts to do so. To search for the instruction manual is just too much of an effort, so I am just going to live with a Cinderella pager.

An average youngster will have no problem resetting the alarm, without referring to the manual. He will tinker with it until he finds the right way to push the three buttons.

I have long since given up on trying to master technological gadgets and digital toys. My pager has lots of functions I do not know of, and do not care to know of. It is enough that it beeps or vibrates when someone pages me, and gives me a wake-up call whenever I need one. The midnight call I can live with.

I would have difficulty storing numbers and scrolling for them, much less deal with word messages in the tiny window.

With my computers -- I have a powerful desktop Mac as well as a Powerbook -- I am happy to be able to do just word-processing, to receive and send e-mail, and to look for information on the Net.

I look longingly at ads for the Palm Pilot and all varieties of digital cameras, but I know that I am simply not adept with these gizmos, and I certainly can do without the stress of coping with them.

I am not a technophobe, I just know my limitations.

In the past, whenever I tried to venture into something that seemed easy to follow on the instruction manual, I would inevitably end up defeated, and utterly frustrated. I don't need to make my life any more complicated, and I am glad I can use my age as one excuse.

Kids grow up these days in a computer world, but we older folks are at best naturalised citizens, as the MIT professor and author Sherry Turkle points out in her book, Life On The Screen (1995).

According to her studies, when exposed to computers early in their childhood, children are very much at ease with them, and do not regard them as machines to be mastered. They are more like friends.

We all know how youngsters are more adept at programming the video recording machine than their parents.

The multimedia guru Nicholas Negroponte relates in his book, Being Digital (1995): "At home I used to have a very intelligent VCR agent with near perfect voice recognition and knowledge of me. I could ask it to record programmes by name and, in some cases, even assume it would do so automatically, without my asking.

"Then, all of a sudden, my son went to college."

He goes on to say how he has not recorded a TV programme for six years. In his case, it is not that he cannot, just that it is needlessly hard, and the value too low for the effort.

His point is that computer designers should make computers that know you, learn your needs, and understand verbal and non-verbal languages. His beef is the poor "interface" design of today's computers.

But many kids have little problem with it. Three years ago, I bought my nephew, then 13, a "Pineapple", a cheap computer set assembled by a shop in Albert Complex.

In no time, he had e-mailed me to give me his URL -- he had actually set up his own home page!

Suitably impressed, I bought him a proper high-end set last December. It will be his tool and ticket to a better life. SO IT was that I was distressed by the recent crop of letters in the Forum Page by parents who complained about the easy access that children have to pagers and cellular phones.

On June 6, Mrs Winnie Woon Kim Wah's letter asked why minors were allowed to have accounts with Singapore Telecom or other service providers without the consent of their parents.

She was shocked to find out that her two children, aged 12 and 15, had, without her husband's and her knowledge, maintained accounts with Singapore Telecom.

On June 9, SingTel Paging wrote in to say that it "does not discriminate its customers based on age, because it recognises that the lifestyle of today's youth has changed.

"They spend more time outside home due to their school curriculum and other extra-curricular activities. Some of them also work part-time. The pager is thus an invaluable and low-cost communications tool for our younger customers".

On the same day, another parent, Mr Lew Sin Hoe, wrote in to chastise Mrs Woon -- "She has either given her children too much pocket money or that she has lost touch with them" -- and at the same time to give praise to himself and his two sons who had accepted his advice against buying a pager and a cellular phone.

"We are very proud to be one of the few remaining families in Singapore who do not own a pager or cellular phone," he said.

Last Thursday, a concerned Mr Wong Sin Hin weighed in with: "What we need now is some social and moral leadership from large corporations like SingTel and M1 to stop targeting young children and understand that firms like themselves cannot hide behind excuses in order to generate more profits."

I am not a parent, so I guess I cannot claim to understand their anxieties. I can only say that in a world that is fast becoming IT-driven, the pager is no longer a status accessory or an "in" group thing, but the first "low barrier" introduction to that wired world, although it is really a wireless tool.

Kids should be allowed to learn to use it and be comfortable with it. To wait till they are "mature", as one of the letter writers said, may be too late.

These days, pagers are already two-way, and Motorola is poised to launch the PageWriter 2000, which is really a miniature computer. A user can receive e-mail, faxes and messages from other pagers and send responses using a tiny keyboard.

Parents must not invest moral values in what is essentially a vital tool for communication. It is like telling their children not to use the ballpoint pen, even though it's cheap, when the pencil will do. Or later on, not to use the cashcard, since coins and dollar notes are easier for the kids to manage and the parents to keep track of.

Instead, they should work out with their children on the hows and whens that they should use it. Be in control, instead of despairing. When both parents are working, and the children spend most of their time outside of the home, the pager is an invaluable aid to stay in touch.

EDB chairman Philip Yeo had said some time back that every child should have access to a computer. I think every kid should have access to a pager too, and as he grows older, a cellular phone.

These communication tools are far cheaper than, say, the Walkman, and a lot more useful. They may eventually become free, and users are charged for their usage only.

More importantly, they will help ease the kids into the IT world which, understandably, still bewilders many parents, especially those in their late 40s and older.

Archive 1

21/11/99 Hit me with the Blues

31/10/99 No chaise longue, just chaise daybed

17/10/99 Tell your tale and watch it take off

03/10/99 Goodness, its been 25 years now

19/09/99 To have a productive day off

27/08/99 Conduct yourself well

08/08/99 Liberalisation and the small man

27/06/99 An ATM at home that knows me

30/05/99 Why fleshy hips and jiggly thighs

16/05/99 A dressing-down for the interns

02/05/99 I've the best seat in the house

04/04/99 I may take China, drop my 'mistress'

21/03/99 When the lens harden

07/03/99 Among dreamers and risk-takers

07/03/99 Lives will be transformed

17/01/99 Look for me at the movies

03/01/99 Hardy, hungry, but a cause for worry?

15/11/98 Goodnight Irin, while I think of New Orleans

01/11/98 'Sexy' and 'Cool' is what sells today

04/10/98 Letter from melancholic anonymous

20/09/98 Men behave like sperm

01/08/98 Global is good, but local matters too

26/07/98 4 books I can't renounce

28/06/98 49 and the genes are calling

14/06/98 Beep beep for every kid

31/05/98 Soft goods, soft power rule

10/05/98 Be still--and be open to constant change

05/04/98 Fight heat at home, then soar the skies

15/03/98 Bond Breakers and my brother and sister

15/02/98 If you love her, set her free

18/01/98 Romancing Cambodia