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Are We Raising Only Content Consumers?

I had lunch this week with a good friend of mine, at a local sushi restaurant (granted, food details are irrelevant but I think this paints a better picture of the scene and I would have been unlikely to add this detail if I were composing this story on a tablet--read on to better understand). My friend had recently read an article about an unexpected conversation in a Portland coffee shop with Russell Kirsch, the man who in the 1950s led the team that created the first internally programmed computer. According to the article, Kirsch commented, "when people use iPads they end up just using technology to consume things instead of making things. With a computer you can make things." This resonated with my friend; and, over our sushi lunch discussions, it began to resonate with me.

Are we predisposing our children to be only content consumers?

Clearly those who control the content, which is becoming increasingly concentrated in a fewer number of owners (telcos, mobile carriers and the like), would be more than happy with a new generation of rabid content consumers. Increasing online content consumption brings with it increased opportunity to monetize the content through ad revenue. If content is king then profits abound for both the distributors of content and the producers of unique content.

So while there are organizations that benefit from increasing media consumption, the question remains, is Russell Kirsch correct when he asserts that tablets, and by logical extension smartphones, predispose users to consume content rather than create content?

Standard PCs and laptops are equally balanced for content consumption and content creation. On the other end of the spectrum, e-book readers--really simplified tablets--are content consumers only. Tablets are excellent content consumption devices and do allow for content creation; however, complex content creation on a tablet can be time-consuming and frustrating.

On a recent UC Strategies podcast, I argued that mobile devices were being used for content creation, citing pictures, mobile video and instant messaging as examples. While my examples were technically correct, they were used to suggest mobile devices needed local intelligence. The truth is, on a tablet or smartphone, single-stream content creation, such as taking a picture or recording a video, is possible. Also possible is creating brief content such as a text message, Facebook update, tweet or quick email reply.

In fact, mobile devices and typical on-screen keyboards promote short answers, even to the point of abandoning proper spelling; u no wht I mean?

Aside from this assault on proper spelling--a spell-checker does not make spelling competency obsolete!--mobile devices also promote brevity in the dangerous extreme. Conciseness, a good thing, is expressing much in a few words, brief in form but comprehensive in scope. Brevity emphasizes shortness over completeness of meaning.

It is dangerous to assume that complex issues, complex emotions, or complex situations can be summarized or responded to with a "one liner".

The accelerating pace of the world, combined with the "always on", "always present" nature of mobile devices, encourages us to consume and then discharge incoming messages with such rapidity that timeliness is favored over completeness. If as Marshall McLuhan famously suggested, the medium is the message, then the message often sent from tablet and smartphone devices is primarily, "I read your message". It is becoming more about acknowledging message receipt and less about spending the time to understand and compose a well-reasoned or complete reply. Countless times I have sent messages that involved three distinct queries to simply receive a response such as "Yes" or "I agree" or "Proceed".

A month ago my 11-year-old son finally had saved enough to purchase a laptop (Mom and Dad contributed 50%). Since getting his laptop he has written 10,000+ words in a story and finished developing a Windows Phone game.

In the same period of time, his older siblings have written virtually no complete sentences, although they have sent thousands of text messages. This is certainly not a scientific study; however, even the most dedicated author would be hard pressed to compose a 10,000 word story using a mobile phone or tablet with on-screen keyboard.

Please don’t get me wrong. I love the two iPads that live in our kitchen. They are windows into a world of knowledge (Wikipedia, Khan Academy, FlipBoard, etc.) and entertainment (YouTube, NetFlix, etc.) But as much as I love them, I realize that reading a story on a tablet means I am far less likely to provide a comment as compared to when I read the same story on my laptop.

Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, once said, if the only tool you have is a hammer it is tempting to treat everything as a nail. Perhaps then, if the only tool we give our children is a tablet or a smartphone they will be tempted, and learn, to solve all problems by a web search, relying on others to create the content that powers search results but contributing little content or feedback themselves.

And beyond shaping our children, as organizations contemplate providing tablets instead of laptops for their employees, they would do well to consider whether their company can succeed with primarily content consumers. Or maybe soon we will not need to choose? Could the Microsoft Surface tablet with its (yet untested) cover keyboard provide a tablet that is equally suited to consumption and creation? Or can the Lenovo Yoga can serve as both a notebook and tablet device? I would welcome your comments on these questions.

If you are using a tablet or mobile device to read this story, prove me wrong and comment (using proper spelling and complete sentences). If you are reading this article on your laptop or desktop, compose a few paragraphs in response and prove me correct.

In either case, feel free to follow me on twitter @kkieller where I post tweets from my laptop, tablet and smartphone.

In either case, feel free to follow me on twitter @kkieller where I post tweets from my laptop, tablet and smartphone.