A Richer Life
by Dan Vilter

Our family rests comfortably in the arms of technology. It always has. We have two televisions, seven computers, and four gaming consoles. We also have books and magazines, pencils and paper, board games and card games, music and art. It is all there with the same purpose: to enrich our lives.
We can go anywhere we want to go. Ready access to books, television and the Internet allow all of us a view of the world that previous generations did not have. We can get a photo or description of practically any place on earth within seconds. Television has illustrated how subatomic particles interact, how crystals grow, and how skyscrapers are built. We have seen thoughtful expression of culture through art, dance and music. We have also seen the ravages of war. We don’t have to guess how the Polynesian cultures developed, the ways in which naked mole rat communities are structured, or how a Predatory Tunicate feeds; we can look it up in an instant. We can see the warmth in the face of a long ago grown girl lighting a lantern in a John Singer Sargent painting, or how P type material and N type material line up to allow transistors to function. We are twenty seconds away from information about anything. From there, the active road to deeper understanding, of knowledge and even wisdom, is just a click or page turn away. Being nestled in this technology is exciting. The possibilities are limitless.

Television is a social activity for us. We often come together to watch programs or a movie. A nice aspect of watching at home is the physical closeness. You're in the same room together. It’s hard to beat being on a comfortable sofa, child in your lap, or snuggled next to you enjoying a program together, laughing, crying, and questioning. It can be a physical activity as well, particularly with young kids. Have you ever seen a child role play while watching? When they pretend along with Mr. Rogers who is pretending to be in the opera? Watching a movie or TV program in our home is not a passive pursuit. These programs and movies have often been catalysts for questions and discussions. Regardless of what the subject or viewpoint is, everything about and in the programming is open to deliberation. Diverse beliefs and values can be examined. Television provides a nearly limitless supply of subjects for child and parent to discuss, often on topics that might not have come up as naturally on their own (for example, how women were treated in I Love Lucy vs. Mary Tyler Moore vs. The Gilmore Girls). It can give us a time and reason to talk about apartheid, or the corporation as an entity, or global warming. These discussions can go amazing places. While watching one particular movie our family had conversations on what pi is and how to calculate it; what numerology is and how words can be interpreted as numbers while sustaining relationships; how ant colonies function; classic man-and-machine imagery expressed in art; fractal patterning and modeling forms in nature; the use of sound as texture; collusion; trust; religious zeal and “the greater good”; and the value of information.
There is a clear understanding in our home that the primary purpose of broadcast television is to deliver an audience to its advertisers and that this goal seldom is aligned with our family goals. So we again embrace technology. We use a device from our satellite company called a Personal Video Recorder, or PVR. It allows us to set programs to record easily. The device allows skipping about in recorded programs at the touch of the remote. Not “fast forwarding” but skipping. One push of a button and we are instantly past a thirty second commercial. A two-minute commercial break is reduced to about four seconds of flashing images. It has allowed us to take the programming bait off the hook of commercial television. The PVR also allows us to stop anywhere at anytime for discussion or anything else more interesting without fear of missing part of the program. It allows us to back up just as easily to review something missed. And yes, sometimes an ad will catch our eyes and we’ll back up to intentionally watch and discuss a commercial. The device allows us to choose programming by a menu and retrieve a recorded program from a list at a touch of a button. We are no longer scrambling to find a blank tape or shuffling through the stack of recorded tapes, winding back and forth trying to find a specific program. The technology has allowed us not to be at the mercy of a programming schedule and to skip the intrusive commercials effortlessly.

The roots of video games are in the strategy and role-playing games people have played for centuries; however, the technology allows complex simulation and rapid response and restructuring to a player’s interaction. Video games create a custom playing environment based on a player's actions, countering like an ever-changing chessboard that reacts to and reconfigures itself to take full advantage of the player's situation. This allows the
player to do things virtually that they wouldn't be able to accomplish in real life. While building an island colony, or traveling across the prairie in a Conestoga wagon, or escorting hapless Zoombinis to their new home, or landing on Omaha beach, or shooting to bits the “live to kill” Orks, the player is managing the resources at hand, gauging complex technical and visual situations, managing and accomplishing specific tasks, testing out different strategies, evaluating the actions and motivations of other players, and interacting with a less than perfect input device. This play is done safely in our home with no greater risk than that of losing a game. And, just when the player has become a master at the challenges of the situation, a level of play is finished and a new level is laid out, often undoing the specifics of what has just been mastered, encouraging a necessary adaptation and evolution in the player. Many video games are true role-playing games. My son will often play a game as the usual good guy saving the town, or battle, or world. He then goes back and plays the same game being the very “baddest” character he can find or make up, analyzing the differences and learning what makes each character successful.
At times, a look at my son while he games reveals a mind deep in the thoughts necessary to navigate and master the challenges of the game, and shows that he is “in the zone” of complex thought. He is on the rich trail of discovery. He has a near-total concentration on the task at hand. Yet externally, to the average passer by, the intense stare and extremely focused energy resemble inactivity, and he looks as if he is staring at some kind of mind-numbing plug-in drug that is stealing his youth. I know nothing could be further from the truth.
In our family there is a whole social experience when gaming. The player has the social reference of the experience. Peers discuss what it took to get the Zoombinis to Zoombiniville and now share a common experience. It is the subject of interaction with friends away from the game and often becomes a gateway to other common interests beyond the game. Video games also allow interaction during play. While playing with others, either on the game or just in the room, a lot of boisterous activity and interaction results, talking of game play, and strategies, and outcomes. The Internet has allowed many of our friends to play in a multiplayer mode while each is in his or her own home, scattered across the state and country, chatting with each other and sharing the common goals that bond them together, being players of the same game. The intense interest in specific games has resulted in plentiful activity researching various aspects of the game through the web and books.
Please don’t think that video games, either on the computer or on a console, are the only outlet for our family. Collectible card games, traditional card games, board games like Risk or Settlers of Catan or chess are all part of our family repertoire, and the switch between them is effortless.

Computers have been in our home since there were only the two of us. They are second nature to our son. Before he could read or write, or even talk in complete sentences, he was using computers to assemble compositions both visually and musically in KidPix. We often use the computer to solve problems, easily doing arithmetic or laying out the structure or logic of a situation. The connection to the web has made a vast informational resource available to us, quickly supplying information to questioning minds.
One interest my son and I share is robotics. Nearly all robots run using computers. They are programmed and designed using computers, and we found our robotics club years ago using a computer. Programming a robot has been an eye-opening experience in absolute structure and logic. To do the simplest task with a robot requires a steadfast adherence to the order and syntax of the programming language that you are using. You are creating a code that will control your creation in a precisely determined way, in a nearly infinite number of situations. We have been consistently amazed at the power, flexibility and intolerance of programming. I have learned that my son and I approach these problems in very different ways and that our collaboration often produces results far greater that either of us could muster. From the task of laying out the basic organization of the project to the very smallest detail in the debugging, our different views unleash the richness and power of collaboration.
We routinely use computers in photography, cooking, travel planning, accounting, illustration, sound recording and editing, and to listen to music. My wife and I often, after a long or stressful day, find it relaxing to cruise the net or ease into the zone while playing Bejeweled or solitaire, even for just ten minutes.
We have a room that has the desktop computers and the gaming computer with its surround sound speaker system and the computer that runs our family weather station. Our laptop computers are typically in the living room, but they may be found in the kitchen, bedroom, garage, or vehicle. A gaming console may be set up on the large TV in the living room or on the small one adjacent to the desktop computers. The technology is integrated into many things that we do. It is not segregated away. It isn’t necessary to remove oneself from the rest of the family to use it unless someone wants to.

In our home, all of this technology comes with significant monetary cost, costs similar to Karate, or music lessons, or trips to far away places, and we place it high on our list of priorities. We work hard to supply the tools for an inquiring mind. Along with the basics of food and shelter, we also supply a solid desk with good light, a comfortable chair, and a reliable high-speed internet connection. My career is at the junction of technology, art, and entertainment, and supplying plentiful technology to our lifestyle is an easy and enjoyable thing for me to do. Our son also has access to a significant enough piece of our limited monetary resources so that he can purchase the games or rent the movies that he sees as important. He often plans and saves for the next gaming console or computer upgrade. Of course, I have witnessed many other families embrace technology successfully with less stuff and even while repressing their technology phobias.

Yes, we could live quite nicely without this technology. Our lives would be simpler and less expensive. For me though, failing to embrace today’s technology would be like closing the libraries and burning the books. Television, video games, and computers are today’s media giving us access to vast amounts of information and allowing us to discover aspects of ourselves and of the world around us.

They enrich our lives.

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