We just gave Sophia her first computer.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Michael, your daughter is clearly very advanced, a tribute to her Mother’s fine genetic material and persistent tutelage; why on earth did you wait until she was almost 2 years old to provide her with her own laptop?”
An excellent question, one that is easily answered – we were waiting for someone to give us one for free.
I was foraging through a back closet in the music office last week, and pulled out a dusty old Dell laptop that had clearly gone unused for a very long time. Donna, the office administrator, said, “Take it! The thing is so riddled with viruses and spyware that we can’t even get it to boot up anymore. Just make sure you use it for something School of Music related.” If anyone asks, we’re using it as a tutoring tool for a future School of Music student.
I got it home, and it turned out that the computer only had one virus on it. I immediately set about uninstalling the offending software, and replacing it with something more suitable for use by human beings.
I installed a free operating system on it, a version of Linux called edubuntu. It’s part of the Ubuntu project; a group of programmers who are working to make Linux just as easy to install and use as Windows or OSX. Based on my experience, they’ve nailed it! Installing edubuntu took exactly 4 steps. I downloaded a disk image from their server, burned it to a CD, popped it in the drive of the Dell, and powered up. From there, the installation was almost identical to what you would experience if you were installing XP or OSX. A series of splash screens popped open, asking you if you wanted to run edubuntu side-by-side with XP, or if you wanted to completely reformat the hard-drive and start over. I decided to keep XP on the drive, just in case I ever needed it … like, if I was ever curious to know what a computer virus looked like, or something like that. Because I have no experience with anything like that. You know. Because I use a Mac. And Macs don’t have …. ok, now even I’m sick of it.
It took about 30 minutes to install, and this is on an old laptop with 256 MB of RAM. The great thing about the installation, and this was the big problem with Linux that the Ubuntu folks have solved beautifully, is that it comes with default drivers for almost any computer configuration. You pop in just the single disk, it searches out what hardware you have on your computer, and automatically installs the correct drivers to make it work.
So, by that evening, my daughter had her first computer setup and running. Linux makes it very simple to control what individual users are allowed to do with the computer, so her user account has no internet access at all, and no ability to delete any files on the computer.
Edubuntu comes pre-installed with a whole suite of educational games. The simplest ones are just about at her level – hit a letter on the keyboard, it pops up with a flashcard of the letter, says it out loud, along with something that starts with that letter. “A – Angelfish!” and “K – Kangaroo!” are her favorites. From there, it goes all the way up to a full Office clone – word processing, powerpoint, spreadsheets, anything she would need to write her 8th-grade thesis on the viability of quantum position biasing at non-zero temperatures.
All free. Free as in speech. Free as in beer. That’s the amazing thing about all of this – the open-source movement has managed to thrive by replacing profit motive with community motive. Every piece of software that is running on my daughter’s new computer, from the basic drivers to the operating system to the educational games, was written by someone, and then released free into the wild. They have no expectation of making any money from my use of their software. Not only that, but they’ve invested time into making sure that non-geeky people can actually use it. You don’t have to be an initiate into the Cult of the Compiler in order to benefit from their work.
There are some serious implications here for the emerging church, I think. Somebody should get around to writing that post.
Sophia now walks around the house pointing to all the laptops, saying “Daddy ‘puter, Momma ‘puter, Phia ‘puter!” usually followed by a hands-up “Hooray!” I love that my daughter’s first experience with computers will be with open-source. I love that she will grow up thinking that Linux is a real, viable option. I love that she has a laptop that she can make her own, and if she spills juice on it, no harm no foul. And I love that at 22 months, she knows which button to push to make the computer say “Kangaroo!”