My son Aidan has become rather interested in computers. Both my wife Chris and I work a lot from home, so he sees us plucking away at our computers quite often. He loves to play like us, so we’ve often found him plopped in front of Chris’ computer typing randomly into the login box, saying that he was busy working on his “computer system” and sending e-mails to his “students” or to his “girlfriend” (whom we’ve yet to meet, by the way). So, we finally decided to give Aidan a login of his own. Here’s a screenshot of his the desktop I set up for him:

I should also note that we’ve just completed full migration in our home away from Windows and Microsoft to Ubuntu Linux and open source software. This has been wonderful, liberating in so many ways, and for some reason it just feels good. Both Chris and I are able to fully engage in our work (including full and easy interaction with our Windows and Mac co-workers and students). This move, which started out of mere curiosity on my part, really got me thinking about the power of corporate branding through computers–especially the power of this branding upon children who are inculcated with this through their school experiences and in the name of education.

My 11-year-old niece recently completed a major “PowerPoint” project for her 5th grade class. It was a nice project, certainly; she’s a smart kid. However, everyone’s focus as I heard them discuss and later praise her on the project was regarding her use of PowerPoint–equating this with computer skill. Having talked to a number of elementary school teachers, I’ve seen this equating of computer skill with Microsoft product know-how time and time again. Despite the philanthropic efforts of Mr. Gates and his empire, the cynic in me can’t help but wonder if Microsoft’s (and Mac’s) coziness with the education sector is less about meeting students’ needs and more about breeding a lifelong loyal consumer. That kind of insidious tactic gets me in the way that bright blue and red Pepsi machines in the school cafeteria get me. The power of mass media is everywhere, but to disguise it as honest (versus corporate) education is disturbing. To target elementary school kids who have yet to develop the necessary critical thinking skills to deal with these influences is damn-near unconscionable. Perhaps this is yet another argument for homeschooling–where education can be about learning to live a good life and not about learning to be a lifelong consumer. Anyway, I’ve digressed.

There is hope on the computer front in the open-source movement. Many folks out in the blogosphere have written on the merits of Linux for kids. One such blogger at FanaticAttack.com hits the point well as he writes:

The idea in technology (and education for that matter), is to teach concepts so the whole underrated independent thinking mode can kick in when little Johnny is tinkering with different programs. Then true exploring and true creating can occur and the operating system or program is of little consequence.

I am confident that Aidan can learn such creative tinkering and independent thinking through corporate-free, community-based software and generalize these technology skills to any platform. He’ll have plenty of time to fend off corporate influences a little later in life. At four, he should be able to play free of such things. Actually, shouldn’t we all be allowed to play free of such things?