Learning from my children… and Radiohead

I’m blessed. I have three children, born early 1986, late 1991, mid 1998. There is so much I learn from them.

My daughter, the eldest, told me all about Facebook in 2004, and even became my first friend there after I received an invite from Dave Morin, now at Path. Before that I’d done things like watch her converse across multiple MSN Messenger channels in parallel (forcing me to have Microsoft in an Apple-only house!), seemingly while doing her homework and while watching television. It reminded me of the time she was just a few years old, watching TV while reading while eating while playing with toys. I would gently walk over to the TV with the intention of switching it off, only to be stopped by a plaintive “Dad, I’m still watching it”. She was three when the web was written about, five when it became real. And it was a joy to learn about the web through her eyes, the sites she visited, the sites she knew about, the tools she used and why.

She was about 14 when she got her first mobile phone, to give you an idea of how long ago it was. Imagine a 13 year old without a mobile phone now. And SMS was in her DNA, all the way from the start. [While I can’t take credit for it, I do love the definition: “A teenager is someone who can send a text message without taking her phone out of her pocket“]. She was extolling the powers of eBay and YouTube to me before she was old enough to have a credit card. And her choices of phone were (in chronological order) Nokia, Motorola and Samsung. She now has an iPhone.

She’s now a schoolteacher, and it’s a real privilege for me to learn, by watching her and talking to her, how teachers use the web to build their class and course plans and material. A few weeks ago, when she was visiting us, I had the chance to observe her at work in the living room, preparing her material while the TV was on in the background, and it all came flooding back.

Next up was my son, who was less about Facebook and more about Bebo, as social networking did its Benjamin Button thing and went younger. And skateboarding. And cameras. So the sites he took me to were different: it was through him that I discovered places like daily dose of imagery and metacritic, as examples.  His first phone turned up when he was about 12, and his choices were different. Nokia to begin with, Samsung soon after (influenced by camera quality), and then settling with the Nexus One. Android is very important to him.

And then came my youngest, and she introduced me to stuff like Stardoll and Club Penguin, as social networking went younger still. This had its dark side: as the age by which children engaged with such technologies dropped, there appeared to be an unwelcome consequence, that of increased cyber-bullying. So my wife and I found ourselves having to learn about the dangers of formspring and “underage” facebook, a hard time to be parenting. Nothing in our past prepared us for the environment; yet we had two advantages, the older children, there to advise and guide us while not interfering or participating themselves. Parenting was our job, not theirs.

She was 10 when she got her first phone, and it was an iPhone. A hand-me-down. From me. She stayed with that for a while, and then, exactly as predicted by my old boss Ian Livingston at BT, she went all “BBM” on me and insisted on a BlackBerry. [A couple of years ago, as the first commercially available Androids were coming out, and I was telling Ian about the preferences my son had shown, he’d predicted that the next child would be a glutton for BlackBerry Messenger, given her age. He was absolutely right.]

During their lifetimes I have seen the fat TV disappear completely, the CD become a shiny plastic relic to place in the same category as “desktops”,  the mobile phone become a prosthetic device, and the laptop a fashion accessory. Their facility with sound and picture and video, the ease with which they navigate cyberspace, the way they put all this to use and create value from it….. all reasons to make a dad’s heart sing. Of course I’ve had to learn about how to help them combat fraud, how to avoid going to the wrong sites, how to protect their privacy. But largely they’re the ones doing the learning and the teaching, not me.

Except for one or two things. Many children seem to believe that printers get cartridges replaced and paper restocked the same way clothes fly off floors, get washed and ironed and turn up in their bedroom wardrobes. Something needs to be done about this. But that’s a different post.

Where was I? Oh yes, learning from my children. Today my son came to me to tell me about the latest Radiohead album, and to ask whether we can order it.

So we went to the site, pictured below:

EMI may be in trouble, the dinosaur BPI and IFPI may bleat and rant about Numbers of Mass Distraction, but, despite all that FUD,  there is still a lot to like about the way the music industry is going. Because some people are really trying to do things differently. [Ed: enough with the TLAs, JP!]

Global releases. Simultaneous releases. None of the cowpath-paving regional carving-up of territories or times. All formats in one bundle, without the evil of salami-slice torture thrown in. A distribution process that is in keeping with the modern world, all designed and executed by people who appear to have read Kevin Kelly’s fantastic essay Better Than Free and, more importantly, appear to have understood it and taken it to heart.

Of course there were, and continue to be, glitches.

The site was too busy to take the load 14 minutes after the announcement of the album, brought to me by my son quoting Pitchfork. My order wasn’t going through, I was getting a false “decline”. But there was a way to ask for help, an email address. Which I wrote to. And got a reply forthwith saying that the site was very busy, the “decline” was likely to be a function of that volume, and that I should try again in a few hours. Which I did. Successfully.

I’m not a fan of cookies, and bristled at being told “in order to buy any product you must have cookies enabled”. But I could live with it, in the expectation that things will get better.

I had to pretend that I lived in China, just to see what happened. Nothing. If I clicked there I went precisely nowhere. Everything just went quiet. Ominous.

The £3 price differential between MP3 and WAV was enough for me to feel “why don’t you include the MP3 in your WAV bundle then?”. But I didn’t make a big deal of it. Radiohead have done so many things right in this venture that I can live with the rest. Not perfect, but continuing, positive proof that there’s a better way to improve the music business than the nonsense engaged in by people like BPI and RIAA.

I hope Radiohead break the record for money collected on pre-order for this album. Pour encourager les autres.

It will show others what is possible, following on from the brilliant work done by people like Nine Inch Nails, and for that matter, Radiohead themselves, earlier with In Rainbows.

In the meantime, I continue to learn from my children. And will remain ever grateful at having been given the opportunity to learn from them

16 thoughts on “Learning from my children… and Radiohead”

  1. Is there a gender thing happening here?

    En route to church this past weekend, my 10 year old son declared an interest in Android (he’s dropping hints about stuff these days as his birthday is next week). My 14 year old girl promptly pooh-poohed that choice, stating that Blackberry was the only phone worth having.

    “More than an iPhone?”, I asked. That, it seems is so last year. My sharing of stats on smartphone market share (Android, then Nokia, then Apple, etc) is evidently completely irrelevant in this specialised segment of teenage Crackberries.

    That morning, our vicar focused on communication – maybe he is reading the same playbook as my kids?

    Re: Radiohead – great to see the band continue to try out new forms of album release in these moribund times for labels. I, for one, am certainly enjoying vinyl’s resurgence (including listening to whole albums at a time, JP). But no hi-res download options? Wonder why not. Surely, we are not all going to be condemned to outmoded 16bit quality just because Apple has not figured out how to go hi-res?

  2. My family lost our patriarch suddenly this summer and he had exactly the outlook that you describe. His curiosity about his girls’ (my wife) careers, interests and learning was never satiated. It gives real meaning to those around you and it gave meaning to all of us.

  3. Not sure. My children have been pretty consistent in their choices when compared to age and lifestyle peers rather than just gender peers. Not a scientific study, just observations over time.

  4. I think Einstein said something of fundamental importance when he described himself as passionately curious. Society, especially through Industrial Age teaching methods, spends too much time reducing standard deviation in students. Curiosity is the power behind creativity, and needs to be nourished.

  5. Your comment about learning about the web through the eyes of your children is quite resonant. One small example of my own: I love that my children, 5 and 3 years old, find it entirely unextraordinary that to chat to their grandparents 200 miles away they do this on the computer via Skype. That my parents think of this as entirely normal still fills me with wonder!

  6. Fascinating is a modern smart phone completely changes the dynamics. We had to go to the playground, school, library, university, to learn knowledge and experience feedback. Now it all can flow to the phone. Creating so many choices for filtering what to do and speeding up feedback. Little wonder many can get isolated under the deluge or reinvent so quickly as they learn so rapidly.

  7. So you pre-ordered. Can you explain why? I just can’t understand it.

    I visited the Radiohead site, all set to buy, only to find they wanted me to pay now but not be allowed to download until next week. Makes no sense at all to me. I will probably go back next week, but I might not. (Ok, I’m sure I will, but you get the point)

    (Also, what is this WAV nonsense. What’s wrong with FLAC?)

  8. not sure there’s a gender thing, they’re pretty unisex about all this. and when it comes to hi-res my expectation is that one day all digital music/film will be free …. except for hi-res HD etc

  9. @tom yes, we are reaching the stage where the amazement is no longer about the digital native but the digital immigrant. the grandmothers who use facebook. the greybeards on twitter.

  10. by signing up earlier, I expected to get around any issues of registration on the day of release, particularly if it was popular. besides, it costs me nothing to pre-order, as long as I intend to buy anyway… unless I was prepared to wait for the downstream discount eons later. Incidentally, they let me download the day you commented. same day, one day earlier than advertised.

  11. Great post.

    As a father, I have learnt a lot from my girls over the past few years. It got me interested to try and read up about how they manage to multi-task and adapt to technology so fast. Some literature points to how the human brain and it’s plasticity allows it rewire itself well into the teen years.

    This led me to get involved in how they were going about learning (their coursework at school etc.) and was amazed how digital their consumption of educational content was. They had a huge discomfort with printed textbooks. This insight has helped me identify a business opportunity and now we are gearing up to launch a repository of digital learning tools for school children, including digital curriculum books (*currently under development and slated for launch in July this year in India).

    Learning from my children also helped me identify untapped business opportunities. Hope it can succeed and be of relevance to the new generation.

  12. @debabrat now I’m reaching the age where I have even more to look forward to. within the next 10 years I will be a grandfather.

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