Scott Hanselman

Is technology killing curiosity?

June 01, 2016 Comment on this post [70] Posted in Musings
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I was talking with Kishau Rogers this week at a Hackathon we were helping with at The White House for ThinkOfUs. (See how I dropped The White House in there like it was nothing? It was everything. More on that later.)

You'll remember Kishau from her excellent podcast where she proposed that we should NOT teach kids how to code...but rather we need to teach kids (and people) how to think about systems. Folks just don't know how stuff works. Maybe we're old(er) but we found ourselves asking, is tech killing curiosity? This post has more questions than answers, so I hope you sound off in the comments!

I have this glorious pocket super computer with me now. It connects to all the world's collected knowledge, has an advanced battery, radio transmitter, and so much more. But most people have no idea how it works? Yes, technically you don't have to know how it works, but aren't you curious?

We can make lists about how "there's two kinds of people in the world" and split them up into techie and non-techie, or computer literate or non-computer literate...but I'm thinking it's simpler. There's the curious and the not-curious.

I took apart my toaster, my remote control, and a clock-radio telephone before I was 10. Didn't you? What's the difference between the people that take toasters apart and the folks that just want toast? At what point do kids or young adults stop asking "how does it work?"

As each new layer of abstraction becomes indistinguishable from magic we may be quietly killing curiosity. Or shifting its focus. Is the stack so deep now that we can't know everything?

There's a great interview question I love to give. "When you type into a browser, what happens? Then what happens? Then what happens?" I ask this question not because I care how deep you can go; I ask because I care how deep you care to go. Where does your interest stop? How do you THINK it works? Where does technology end and where does the magic (for you) begin? HTTP? TCP? DNS? Voltage on a wire? Registers in chips? Quantum effects?

I do an Exploring Engineering class at local colleges each year. I love to open up a text file, type the alphabet, then open that text file in a hex editor and go "hey, the letter 'a' is 61 in ASCII, why?" Then I add a carriage return/line feed (13/10) and ask a room of confused 18 year olds "what's a carriage and why does it need to return?" I take a record player in and talk about the similarities between how it works versus how a hard drive or blu ray works. I see where the conversation takes the class. Inevitably the most engaged kids (regardless of their actual knowlegde) will end up being great engineering candidates. But where did their curiosity come from?

Perhaps curiosity is an innate thing, perhaps it's taught and encouraged, but more likely it's a little of both. I hope that you're stretching yourself and others to ask more questions and explore the how and why of the world around you.

What do you think? Is 21st century technology making it too easy? Are iPhones so magical sitting atop the last millennium of technology that it's not worth teaching - or even wondering - how it all fits together?

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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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June 01, 2016 10:15
I love technology, but at a certain level I leave it as "ok... it's interesting, but I don't need to know all internals."
This applies also to internals of a car - I know friends that love to work and fiddle on car stuff, but this is a part that I really don't want to touch.

I wouldn't say "There's the curious and the not-curious.", maybe "There's the curious and the not-curious in certain areas."
My rule of thumb: I don't need to know everything, but I need to know where I can get the knowledge if I need it.

June 01, 2016 10:25
I don't think its technology that stops people asking questions. I think its natural to be inquisitive as a child, but adults can either encourage this of kill it early in life by the way they answer the questions.
June 01, 2016 10:53
There are many ways we can approach the problem, and I do like to think that intelligence counts a lot. As we know people have different levels of intelligence, and we all are born curious, you are a father, and very observant, so I know you noticed that your kids as soon as they started their lives (probably in the womb, hard to observe though), they were curious, and explores, and that keeps on as they grow, they try something new, they will hit their head, burn their hand, and they will keep on going.

But for some reason, at some point in time some of them just stop, they don't learn anymore, they listen and don't care, when you see they are adults with very little more then what they specialized, but that's not true for everyone right, I am still very curious, you clearly are.
I believe that its because you are intelligent beyond the majority, and you are able to imagine beyond the magic, and know their is more, and that causes curiosity.

If a barrier of magic is thrown at you, and you believe that's is the ultimate truth and the magician is really incredible and powerful, you will never search for the trick, you won't even think there was a trick. Some times you see such simplicity in kids, and some time in adults of the younger or older age.

So I don't believe technology is taking that away, I believe its only facilitating, and quite possibly amplifying it since anyone at time can learn how something works, they just have to google with Bing and tada, way more data that they can read is right there on his pocket computer. People who would have to rely on their parents and teacher to learn anything now don't have that dependency anymore, they can freely do it and learn as much as their intelligence will take them.

I bet if there was a way to survey kinds 20 years ago, and get their average knowledge about things, in proportion with the amount of knowledge available at the time, then do the same for today's kids, we would find that there are more kids that know a lot then there was before, but the reason I believe we don't feel it like that, its probably because the new norm is to know certain things, and in the see of knowing people its hard to pick the ones that are ahead.

Not all hope is gone, our kids are becoming more intelligent with each generation, and capable of imagining beyond the layers of abstraction in their IPhones, we just have to keep putting more layers to keep them curious.

A concerned father.
Thank you.
June 01, 2016 10:54
It varies.

I would say that technology helps the curious. Technology has shifted the" interest barrier to entry" making it more accessible to explore curiosities. In otherwords I'm now able to easily learn about mild curiosities whereas before something may have had to of been a strong curiosity to be worth exploring.

Because of this reduced barrier to entry I think technology may help the less curious become more curious. There are people who may have never cared enough to go to the library and get a book, or even scour the web, but will do a quick google search now to get a brief understanding. Perhaps this could be the beginning of a bridge between the curious and the not curious.

And then there are some people who just aren't curious. They truly don't care or don't have time to care.

I think it's a good idea to avoid associating "techie" with "curious". If you do an inner join there you are going to lose some results! There are plenty of non-techie curious people. If they didn't care about tech before they aren't going to care now.
June 01, 2016 11:03
I think you're blurring the line between curiosity and depth, here.

When you open up a text editor, you don't need to understand ASCII in order to write a novel (or investigative journalism!). When you open a browser, you don't need to understand DNS in order to go learn a new programming language, or how you design space stations, or what's going on in the Middle East.

What you're describing here as desirable is a kind of fractal curiosity - you're saying that you'd like to see somebody who becomes aware of a component, to become curious as to how that component works. You don't like the idea of seeing a component as a mere tool, because you know the wealth of detail and understanding that the abstraction is hiding.

But as you say, the stack is deep. The kind of fractal curiosity you're describing is the stuff of a hundred open tabs on your browser, and counting. And the returns are diminishing - technology has invested a lot of effort into building really good tools that let you abstract away most of those details ninety percent of the time, which means that while the details may be interesting, they're also less likely to be relevant the deeper you dig and the further you go.

You're defining curiosity as "How does everything work?". Whereas a lot of curiosity is "How does this work?", and there, being able to stop at some level of abstraction lets you build expertise at the level you're actually focused on and curious about. There's also the curiosity of "What can I build, what can I achieve, is it possible to do X" -- which may certainly benefit from fractal curiosity, or be touched off by it, but benefits much more directly from being able to use a set of tools really really well.

If somebody can't see why delving into the fractal might be interesting, I could see that as a lack of curiosity. But the fact that they've found other interesting things, where they've chosen to devote their time and attention, where they've honed their interest and expertise - that isn't a lack of curiosity at all.
June 01, 2016 11:10
Technology is getting more complicated, which in turn is making it harder to discover how things work on your own. When you and I took apart our respective toasters, we could see how they worked. Even put them back together to fix them (with one or two bits that didn't seem to be needed), the things I took apart were invariably broken to start with. I got the kick not only from seeing how it worked but fixing it.

Could you do that with a toaster with a chip that controls heat or the bagel setting? To the ten year old, the toaster was the mystery to discover. The microchip would be a further mystery perhaps beyond what I as a ten year old could have grasped. (Although maybe I do my childhood self a disservice.)

That said I will be encouraging both my boys to be curious and fortunately I will be able to help them understand the lower level. I expect at some point I will find my toaster plugged in with a few surplus bits on the side.

June 01, 2016 11:14
Ziv - Fantastic comment!
June 01, 2016 11:47
Technology & techies

I liked the classification techie / non-techie... As a techie I can speak from technie perspective [my own thoughts]

As a developer I feel pumped up to understand programming language, memory allocation, performance and deepdive if I can to cover A-Z aspects. But, sometime limitation is time to go deep.

The more depth of a subject we know it's easier to solve complex problems or issues.

It's like mastering your craft. I definetely see value of going in depth in your area of expertise.
June 01, 2016 11:54
If technology is killing curiosity at least it is good news for the cat...
June 01, 2016 11:54
I'm surprised no one mentioned that there's very little reward in knowing the intricacies of technology anymore. We grew up (I assume) before the internet made every piece of magic less magical. If you were the curious sort you could distinguish yourself among family, friends, students, and co-workers by knowing the details. Now if you boast to know these details your friends can quickly shoot you down with a quick trip to Youtube. You used to be able to pick a dream job just by being an a decent engineer graduate. Now the best engineers in the world are being laid off at Intel. Now PSaaS and endless Nuget packages make the foundational elements a dime a dozen. People and companies focus on features and differentiation because that's the only way you might get lucky enough to be successful. In short I think the tech boom is coming to an end.
June 01, 2016 12:08
"How does the pilot know where to go when we're flying through clouds?"

My kids still have their curiosity intact, but suffer from their father's inability to give more than hand-waving explanations. I mean, I've played with VOR in FlightSim (or whatever the 30-years ago Atari1024 thing was called), but even explaining radio waves is pretty abstract: "light that you can't see, that goes through things"?

As Pete says, with the old fashion toaster things were easier, you crack it open and you see. Lots of things nowadays are much more abstract, so it makes it harder to understand.

That aside, I don't think curiosity is something you gain, it's something you lose:

Possibly apocryphal, but: "It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education." Albert Einstein
June 01, 2016 14:05
Does somebody have the same feeling about all this trending topic of technology is being overestimate, because now is promoting to teach kids and people to code and be a geek of technologies but why don't promote to be an enthusiastic in the matter what people love!

For example promote people to do what they love , not all should be technology and coding, we need to have the best scientists, doctors, and writers of the history and they could use the technology to be more efficient because we need passion and promote what everyone want to do not only promote use technology and coding.

Regards from @Jecaestevez
June 01, 2016 14:41
Great article. Talked to me in a grand way. I have to kids, girls aged 9 and 18 and even if they grew up with a dad that is a computer scientist and general tech hacker (in a positive way) and are way better students that I ever was when I grew up, they didn't got that "I need to know and understand" bug that I'm afflicted. Take for instance the guitar, I love playing guitar and while learning, beside the usual "ok, I'll read about where the guitar comes from, how did it end up this way today" and so on, I also built a few tubes amplifier during "my" learning journey for the guitar. I needed to know... Stuff... Circuits, welding, cathodes, tubes..... It wasn't a "choice" I had to make... I had to... I should not be glorified by the time I invest on learning things I obviously don't have to. Hard to explain, but to me understanding something isn't something "shallow", it's a way of live. And... Sadly... You have it in you or you don't.

I'm quite old for a computer geek by today standard, being 52. But even, yesterday l looked at RUST programming language... Even though I'm a .net architect. I had to... Smelled interesting.

This is why I love your talks. I still remember your talks about MVC when it started, I remember how you looked under the covers to make us see that's "it's only code" and all your allegories about the ring lost in the pipes and where the magic starts to you!

Keep it up
June 01, 2016 16:15
I've been involved in electronics since I was 14. I remember assembling TTL breadboard at the kitchen table when I was in high school. What I find amazing is that after I understood basic circuits, logic gates, timers and counters I could at least tell myself that I understood how a microprocessor works. (Maybe the story was wrong but I believed it) Processors progressed beyond 4mhz and at some point the 90mhx Pentium came out but I still could see in my mind how it could / should work.

Now we have 3.5ghz 10 core processors with 10 nm transistors. That story doesn't work anymore. I have no idea how a current processor could possibly work. Heck the clock cycles are in the same range as noise and glitches back with the older processors. I suspect (hope?) that if I could hang around Intel for a year or two it would make sense. However at the moment all I can say is that it's magic, amazing magic that makes it all possible.

Then I think about your post here and wonder, how could a kid today could play around with stuff at the kitchen table and get a mental model that makes sense? I have to have hope it's possible and there are kids doing it. But I wonder, do they have a good story for what they know and thoughts on how much is magic. Then again, does it matter? Maybe just playing around is 95% of it all. Curiosity is a powerful thing.
June 01, 2016 17:10
Some people already said it in their comments but I can't resist saying it once more... There is no division of curious and non-curious -- not in the sense this post puts it.
Everybody has their area of expertise. Some linguists would probably perceive us as language ignorants. Mathematicians would not be able to understand why our knowledge of math is so shallow. Why didn't we ask those obvious questions? Why didn't we go deeper?
And similarly for many other areas.
Do we all need to know how to make a loaf of bread?
June 01, 2016 17:11
I don't remember where I read it, but I subscribe to the thought that technology is killing boredom. Curiosity is, I think, largely a side effect of boredom.

Back before I had the Internet and my crummy old computer couldn't play Doom I started playing around with this QBasic thing I found because it was something to do. I tore apart my crummy old computer and figured out how to overclock it so I could play a shareware version of Wolfenstein, but since that was only one chapter I got bored again and started playing with the C compiler that came with some old "Tech Yourself Game Programming" book I borrowed from a friend. I learned more about computers and programming as a bored ten year old than I did in four years of college.

For me, things really changed when I got a smartphone. I stopped looking for something to do or learn when I was bored and I started flinging birds at pigs. I stopped reading everything I could find about every subject I cared about so I could know all there is to know because Wikipedia is in my pocket.
June 01, 2016 17:28
We should definitely teach children how to code. Coding is a concrete task that many children can grasp.

Thinking about systems is very abstract in nature. Most people do not attain this capability (abstract thinking) in it's most basic form until their middle teens, if at all. Most can, not all do.

Trying to force abstract concepts on children under the age of 13 is usually a waste of time, but some - those way out on the curve - can handle it.

June 01, 2016 18:14
The stack is indeed deep. When I started coding, I could hack and make it do what I wanted. I disassembled boot sector viruses to learn how they worked. If I didn't like how a particular DOS command worked, I wrote my own version. I could optimize my system better than any of the systems guys, and happily did so.

Then Windows came along, and everything got complicated. I could still do some OS hacking, but my focus started moving away from systems-level stuff and more toward coding, and I was writing pretty low-level libraries. I wrote my own DBF library for Borland Pascal, and an object-oriented library in Foxpro 2.6 xBase code. I wrote my own internal web server in VB6 to configure and control service applications.

Now I work with C#/.NET, and I'm having to narrow my focus even further. There's too much out there to grok everything about the language AND every great library that's available through NuGet!

I love coding in Assembly, and I'd love to get back to where I could do so more often... but I fear that the abstraction levels are simply beyond that point. And even if I did rewrite EF from the ground up in Assembly, it's likely that none of my co-workers could help maintain the code. But I'm proud to have been a part of that early generation of coders who not only could, but had to reach down to that level at times!
June 01, 2016 18:18
@Shweta, great comic!

I think people need to strike a balance. I think everyone should have some basic scripting knowledge, but very few people need to learn C# and fewer still need to learn assembly. I think this boils down to "you should understand the layer you work in plus 1 or 2 layers deeper". I can't recall where I heard that, but it may have been one of your Channel 9 videos. Great advice.
June 01, 2016 18:44
Each person lives in a band of abstraction, with only limited understanding of what underlies it and what is above it. In that view, there are two dimensions: how wide is the band and how high or low it is.
Quantum physicists live in a low band. Application developers in a high band. Technology enables both, so I'm not sure that technology is a net negative on curiosity.
As far as depth, I think it depends on personality, just like before. The stack of human understanding is larger than ever before. Some people enjoy such knowledge, but it also comes at a cost of specialization (if you spend time understanding how transistors and CPUs work, then it is time away from distributed computing and data structure problems).
June 01, 2016 18:51
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June 01, 2016 18:56
“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

― Socrates

Scott, I think your article says more about you than about the world ;->
June 01, 2016 19:12
I tell my development team all the time that they should know how the technology they are using works from a lower level. I meet far to many developers who know the language or SDK but doesn't know how the language or SDK works.

There is a huge difference between the developer who knows how to write the code for a Func and the developer who knows what the Func is doing further down in the system internals.

The same thing is true not just for programming but for real life. Scott has posted before about how his wife's knowledge of plumbing ended at the sink drain and Scott's knowledge ended at the U-Bend.

In general I think we all need to be a little more curious about how the world works.
June 01, 2016 20:04
Interesting discussion. As a game developer and avid gamer myself, I see this curiosity disparity among various player-bases. In the RPG genre for example, you've got one group of people that want to know every intricate detail of every system and game mechanic, every intricate detail of every formula. They want to know _exactly_ what happens every time their character swings a weapon or casts a spell. You've got another slightly less curious group that cares about stats on items, spells, mobs, races, classes, etc., but doesn't necessarily care about all the formulas for every game mechanic. Then you've got a casual group that is just there to play the game and have fun. They enjoy character progression of course, but don't necessarily fret over the absolute best gear to wear for their race/class/level.

I will say curiosity to a certain extent can ruin things you used to enjoy. Having played various text-based RPGs and MMORPGS when I was younger, I was curious enough to start trying my hand at building my own small RPG. Having written every line of code for a couple now, understanding and creating all the moving pieces inside and out, it's hard for me to get into the spirit of playing other RPGs anymore. When playing them, I start thinking about how things are implemented and it immediately takes me out of character. Imagination kind of goes out the window when you know things are happening because you (or someone else) explicitly programmed them to happen. Maybe there's some truth to that old saying that ignorance is bliss. The question is, is that necessarily a bad thing?
June 01, 2016 20:34
200% agreed. I was just preparing an introduction for a conference with *exactly* this theme. It is an important discussion to have without simple solutions.
June 01, 2016 21:33
It started, well, for me it started with my sisters dolls! I just had to know how those damn things talked!

My life has never been the same... University of Southern California MSEE.
June 01, 2016 21:57
Curiosity is great in an educational institution but how many work places encourage or even support curiosity. This lack of support shows as the person who takes
"Why did you write code this way?" personally. Or the customer who refuses to believe "Because I said so" is not a good enough answer to "What will that feature really do for you?"

For those of us who have to leave curiosity behind when they come in to work, we explore other ways, like hobbies. For others, their curiosity was probably never nurtured at the age when it should've been.

Maybe it is easy for us to say that technology is making people dumb but there were un-inquisitive people before technology became all-pervasive. And maybe that's okay. There are those who use their phones simply for SnapChat (and the like) while others want to google the hell out of everything. That's just people.
June 01, 2016 22:09
I do not think that tech is killing curiosity. I think the problem that you may have been discussing at the (White House - WOW!!!), is the amount of interest in technical details in a rapidly growing technological world. I'd guess like me you didn't know too many people that would dig into the guts of some device or tech and figure out "how it works" when you were young. This is probably still true today, but more noticeable because of the amount of things we have that have a bit of complexity in them to make them work.

More things with years of deep knowledge and tech wrapped into them, and the same percentage of the population that has that drive to dig in a see what makes it work.

I think this is what is causing the perception that we need to get more people interested in the magic.

I am glad you ask the question as I have been asking the same question in interviews for years as well. It's nice to validate that there are others on the same wavelength.

This curiosity phenomenon is not limited to tech. I surf and have been for over 35 years. I have surfed with people who have surfed as long and really had no concept of where waves came from. People that are not interested in the minute details about winds/tides/current/bottom contours. They just want to know from someone else when the magic is going to happen.

I think all we can do is keep encouraging and helping the people that we influence that have it to keep the flame lit.
June 01, 2016 23:04
As a Star Trek, and especially Next Generation, fan, this discussion reminds me much of the planet Aldea from the first season episode "When the Bough Breaks". Theoretically, the abstractions technology provide are supposed to allow us to tackle ever more difficult challenges. The layers of abstractions upon abstractions of "settled" technologies do present the danger that an underlying abstraction could be creating an environment that is destructive. Absent a fractal curiosity, as Ziv discusses, at some lower level that could further improve an existing abstraction, there is a risk that our technology could threaten to undo us as occurred on Aldea. Which is not that far from what Pete T is saying.

Mike Watson also makes an excellent point about the lack of reward for knowing the intricacies of technology. I do take issue with the comment about the tech boom being nearly over. The current state and direction of technology presents a unique opportunity to completely, fundamentally, redefine what it is to be successful. That is more dependent than ever upon the choices each individual makes every day.

"Learn to code" is mostly an education tactic (or technology) du jour. As has been true with many other then-avant-garde education tactics, its ultimate strategy goals, and success or failure, depend greatly upon what perspective seems appropriate based on the metrics that drive society. It is a means to an end, just like any other technology.

Curiosity really is just a euphemism for a desire to learn new things and/or improve upon things that are already known. Technology either spurs curiosity or kills it, whether the curiosity is about science, the humanities or athletics.
June 01, 2016 23:35
I find that technology enables my curiosity. One of my habits / hobbies is opening the Wikipedia page for some topic I find interesting, reading some part of it and then clicking a link to some related topic. Repeat.

June 01, 2016 23:45
This is one of the reasons that I, as the hiring manager, I would have the candidate write some database access using only ADO.Net. I found that the candidates only knew how to use frameworks like Entity and had no idea what it was actually doing under the covers. I think having a deeper understanding of how our system works will help us deliver higher quality software with the knowledge to troubleshoot when things do go wrong. Thanks for the article.
June 02, 2016 0:29
This general issue was a big aspect of Toffler's "Future Shock". As noted by many, the stack of abstractions and inter-dependencies is so deep and so wide, and will continue to exponentially go deep and wide, that no human being can even grasp the basic principles in many different areas that are key to our day to day survival.

Not enough time in the day so to speak.

This is also a theme in James Burke's "Connections". The amount of mechanical or technical inter-dependencies in modern society is beyond grasping by any one person. In fact, the NYC blackout in the 70s was in his opening episode was a example of this and the surprising small item that failed.

His thesis is that the rate of change is driven by the free flow of information as innovation is essentially taking prior ideas and tweaking them. He tracks the development of airplanes, nuclear bomb, computer, etc. and how innovators take an idea, tweak it, add to it, and re-calibrate it until a problem is solved.

The problem is that the "connections" vastly multiply with huge productivity and life improvements but what happens if a key component fails? How far back do u go, and u can't possibly understand it all? His thesis - back to the ploughshare.

Thanks for the article.
June 02, 2016 2:11
Researchers generally agree curiosity (sometimes called interest in the literature) is a state in which people explore, ask questions, manipulate, examine and challenge themselves. Older theories of interest explained it as being reward based (Dewey, 1913) whereas newer theories view it as intrinsically based (Deci, 1992). Some consider curiosity an emotion (i.e., Izard, 1977; Silvia, 2006) but I think sticking with the motivational theories makes more sense in terms of your question here.

Is technology killing curiosity? Looking at the theoretical bases of curiosity / interest, technology would need to reduce either external or intrinsic motivation.

External motivation is based on drive theory. If exploring novel, complex, surprising things creates a reward of positive affect, people are more likely to be curious and explore (Berlyne, 1971). Many of us would anecdotally nod our heads in agreement on this one. There's an emotional satisfaction in tearing apart that old radio! But if the iPhone in our pocket can give us the answer (i.e., satisfy the urge for the new) then we don't need to tear the radio apart to see how it works... we just look it up. That's not actually reducing curiosity or interest however, it is just changing the action required to satisfy the curiosity.

Intrinsic motivation is based on relatively more complex social-personality psychology, but it essentially relates curiosity to human needs for autonomy, relatedness, competence etc.(Ryan & Deci, 2000). Here, we pursue an action for its own sake, not for the external (even emotional) rewards we receive. We don't do it because it feels good, we do it because we are human and have a need to be competent and KNOW how things around us work. Again, many of us know that drive as well. We like knowing how our computer works inside even if we are never planning to crack the case. Once again, technology can satisfy this intrinsic need to know without us having to get our out screwdrivers and multi-meters though.

So what I am reiterating here is what I think others have stated, that is, technology isn't killing curiosity so much as it is changing the scope of curiosity and interest.

That said...from a human learning perspective I think a more important question is this: is learning how a radio works from an article on Wikipedia as meaningful as experiencing taking it apart and physically seeing how the pieces and parts work together?

(This one is still being debated in ed psych and my own research interests are not entirely orthogonal to this question. Fascinating discussion here... great question to kick things off!)
June 02, 2016 4:16
Hey Scott, I think I agree in parts. The overflow of information has made newer generations less surprised about it. Remember how we had to dive into really old books to learn about Greek mythology? The fact that the information wasn't omni-available would make we value it more. Maybe people are lazier to this regarding now, because we take for granted that we can discover anything, anytime we need.

A while ago you mentioned this case when your ring (or your wife's, not sure) fell into the sink drain. You're not a plumber, anyway you knew where to go look for the lost ring. You brought this up to talk about level of abstractions, and I'm bringing this now to talk about necessity.

I think that, to keep some level of sanity, we HAVE to embrace abstraction. I'm not an engineer and I have high level understanding of how my car works. But I'm ok with it, I won't tear it apart to go 1 level deeper. But what if I HAD to?

We still have this spark. It's just that, maybe, we don't need to go deeper.
June 02, 2016 9:24
As always nice article Scott, I partially agree that technology is killing curiosity and only if we don't adapt with changes. Technology has been evolving rapidly and lot easily accessible. Understanding current generation of toasters needs special skills so not easy for kids to open and explore.

It is well known fact that technology will become even more complicated. There has to be areas of specializations in technology to let curiosity grow in deeper levels. This also leads the future need of collaborative model to achieve excellence. There would obviously be individuals who would embrace technology like it is now lot easier to create gadgets using raspberry pi/Arduino without having much deeper understanding of all the sensors.
June 02, 2016 13:34
Technology is too wide a word to be used in this context. A lawnmower uses a lot of technology but it does not kill curiosity in the same way.

I think it is the easy access to vast amount of information in modern world, which is killing curiosity. The information gives a false sense of knowing everything. And since kids have a false sense of knowing everything, they get bored too soon, as there is nothing much left to explore.

Information is not same the same as knowing, which is not the same as wisdom. Curiosity comes only after one admits that they do not know something.
June 02, 2016 14:26
Part of the problem is that, at some point, we realize that we have limited time and nothing is free. If we take all of our time learning how something works, that's time we take away from actually using that something to accomplish something else, maybe something great. Understanding the tech doesn't, in itself, accomplish anything.
The car analogy is a good one. I could spend months learning exactly how my car works. It might even save me on some car repair bills. But what else could I have done in that 1,000 hours?
Most people I know who absolutely have to know how everything works are more exhibiting a pathology of mistrust in the technology itself rather than curiosity.
June 02, 2016 16:43
There are a lot more layers to learn than there were when I was in high school and college in the mid 70's to early 80's. Modern Windows is a lot more complex than MS-DOS. You could build an Altair-class machine from scratch in your basement. I doubt anybody could build a modern i5 system from scratch in his basement today. You could know most of software back then. Now, you really have to specialize. So you can no longer walk all the layers.

However, things like the Arduino and Raspberry Pi are great bridges for those who want to at least get a feel for what is going on underneath and how the layers relate. I gave up my scope a decade or two ago, with a sense of defeat, when it seemed like there was no longer anything interesting I could build without access to a foundry for ASICs. A couple years ago, I got some good used gear again because the Maker revolution, the robot competitions, and the IoT are putting good platforms into the hands of experimenters. We get to play again!

I discovered gardening a year ago, the electric thrill of digging my hands into dirt. Since I'm a dyed-in-the-wool geek, I just know I won't be able to resist cobbling together a sensor network for moisture and pH, and I'll probably invite a couple of interested young folks I know along for the ride.
June 02, 2016 17:21
A modern laptop / desktop is more complicated than almost everything else not military. Exploring this with a screwdriver shows boxes and boards as building blocks but any further is into things too small to see unless you have an electron microscope handy. And even then it's not clear how it works.

There is a fantastic Scientific American magazine issue titled "Microelectronics" from September 1977.
It's old, full of yesterdays ads and prices, but good. The articles show how semiconductors work and how they are collected together and connected to make integrated circuits. Various gates are described and then the basics of logic and adders are described. They then move on to the components and structure of a microprocessor.

The most interesting bit is a complete step-by-step operation on a 3-bit computer.

A modern 64-bit microprocessor is just more of the same. Much much much more, but I have followed a single instruction in a 3-bit computer so I sort-of understand the operation of a 64-bit computer. The detail is definitely for the specialists.

There are more articles showing where microprocessors fit in the data and instrument worlds.

You can get it from

and costs $7.99 for the pdf version.

Certainly a huge leap in my understanding of the world.

June 02, 2016 18:08
It depends on where you look. Maker culture seems to be going strong, and beyond that, going to Detroit-area traditional SF conventions like, I see young people doing all sorts of things with Beaglebones, Raspberry Pi's, and Arduinos. Or figuring out their own uses for RFID chips. Outside of electronics, I've seen sessions on hacking food, like "Deconstructing Banana Bread" or making your own soda.
Even an unlikely subject like costuming can bring out a lot of curiosity. I attended a "stump the costumer" session that had a professional puppeteer on the panel. People were asking her how to make a mechanical tentacle that they could curl and uncurl, or a set of wings they could move without the control being obvious.
Sure, a lot of people are content to passively consume pop culture and sports, but that's always been so.
June 02, 2016 18:23
I think that nowadays, most adult people have an irrational fear that their precious piles of tech (even low tech) are not to be tampered with or that they are far to complicated for their own good and should only let specialists deal with them. And I think that most people vastly overestimate the complexity of what is around them.
Yes, fear. I mostly narrowed it to fear. Fear that one can break a computer by changing *complicated software stuff*, fear that their already damaged device will not be fixed by opening it and tinker with it, that they won't be able to reassemble their device.
Maybe it is that when you are a kid, you do not get to fear the same stuff.

And of course, some people just do not care.
June 02, 2016 18:53
Unfortunately, no matter what opinions that are provided here, the sociological studies on the matter have consistently shown increasing negative effects of technology on critical thinking skills.

In short, the more you rely on it the dumber you become.

As a simple quiz, just ask yourselves when was the last time you read a book on a serious subject such as history for example, attended a lecture on economics or sociology, wrote a letter to a friend or loved one...

If most of you cannot answer such questions with recent experiences, I rest my case...

I know, you don't get the relationship here but if you are smart enough you will eventually...
June 02, 2016 18:57
For me its not so much lacking curiosity but having to limit the things about which I am curious.
The time I spend disassembling toasters etc takes time away from wondering why we are all forced to work 8 hours a day when there are not enough jobs for people, why politicians lie and cheat, why business culture is dysfunctional and when it became so, why did the British government send a gunboat into Liverpool and troops into Wales, How can I program a Python SIMD API using PyopenCL, are time-slips real, what would the repercussions be if Reincarnation were proven real, etc......

Just because someone is not curious about the technology they use does not mean they ar incurious about everything.
June 02, 2016 19:41
I think that technology has encouraged curiosity rather than killing it. Think back just ten years ago, you are sitting at your favorite bar or restaurant, and suddenly the question pops up about an actress or actor that no one has seen in a while. Back then, we'd all just say "It's a shame we don't see them anymore, I wonder if they are still alive?"

Jump forward to today. We all (well most) have smart phones at the ready, and we can see that Molly Ringwald IS still acting, or that Brett Hull didn't break Wayne Gretzy's goals per season record and that he only played a couple more games than Hull.

When my kids ask what causes the ring around the moon, I no longer have to say "we'll look it up the next time we're at the library," and then never remember the question when we are there - I look it up right away and that can create more questions. (Six year olds are funny that way.)
Technology can spark those that "deep-think" as some in the thread were mentioning before, and save us from the "I don't know" response. For those that aren't naturally curious, once the question is answered, they end there. For those that are we can "see just how deep the rabbit hole goes."
June 02, 2016 20:35
Interesting post, I couldn't agree more on the futility of teaching kids to "code", where as the real tuition should be on thinking systematically in my opinion. Its not that i think teaching "coding" is a waste of time, just that languages (well lets be honest syntax is what i mean by language) change with the times, c -> c++ -> java -> .net as an example, but the concepts remain true, if/else in c is conceptually the same in any other language, and thats what should be tought in my opinion. Sure for the un-curious a simple black box with one input and two mutually exclusive outputs will suffice for the conceptual if/else, the point being that they need to be taught about the building blocks before they go near a compiler/interpreter.

Another way i tend to looks at the teaching to code situation would be like if you had to be able to strip down and rebuild a gear box in order to obtain a driving license. When all you need to know is how to operate it to be a driver. Teaching kids to code is the equivilent in my eyes, same as some motorists take there curiosity to next level and become mechanics, some kids may take learning the rules of how systems work and become developers (or other sorts of system engineers, like plumbers, electricians etc.), but most will be happy just to know "if thats true, then that, otherwise this" and be able to read a flow chart correctly if they ever encounter them in there working life...
June 02, 2016 21:16
Great topic and I would have to agree that for most people, the answer is yes. Even for those who are considered "curious" or "technologically savvy". Technology is having a diminishing effect on a person's curiosity. No longer do you open up a toaster to see how it works, you just look it up on the internet. And if you have a great idea, take 10 minutes and look on the internet and you will see somebody else has almost for sure created something similar. While it may not be technology at fault, it is the result of having amassed a digital ocean of information and the ever expanding need for newer technology to fuel it.

As a software Engineer and somebody who loves the evolving world of IOT, the amount of what actually goes on between every layer is too much for most people. Though that is no excuse for losing your curiosity. If anything, you should tackle things on a much smaller scale. Learn about it on the internet and then make it a goal to try it yourself. It's a juggle of maintaining curiosity and not being overwhelmed with the amount of information being put out there every day.
June 02, 2016 21:26
Is the auto mechanic who is excellent at repairing engines but knows nothing about how metal is forged or cast a worse mechanic because of it? If this knowledge would not benefit him in his specialization 99% of the time, he can go on not knowing about it... until that one repair job comes along which he needs to.
June 02, 2016 23:14
I guess that beyond the tech or non-tech people, technology is so much different now.

I remember programmers were more curious, but that was because they had to: Connecting an ethernet card was not simple, you had to know what a jumper was and how to set it up to work with your computer. Computer books used to explain all the internals of a PC in detail, it was common to learn to program the serial port in order to connect some external device, programmers also used to write their own interrupt code, and when intel released another processor, many magazines explained what advantages the processor had, what new instructions were available and a comparison with the last model.

Today, there aren't books about the internals of a PC anymore, API's are so big that there are entire books dedicated to only a single topic: A book to learn the basics in the language you choose to develop with, a book to take just a review of the characteristics of the operating system you are interested in. Years ago, to draw graphics in a PC, you just needed to know how to set your screen into graphics mode and write bytes at a specific memory location in order to draw pixels, but today, you are simply not allowed to do that, because "the screen is shared by other programs too", so you need to get a "context" or "device id" or something similar and then call an API to have your circle displayed in screen, don't ask how a circle is drawn, just tell the OS where you want it displayed, and don't do that whenever you want, wait until the OS gives you the opportunity to tell what do you want, the operating system will take care. Memory management? forget about it, just use your memory and the OS will release it when it decides that you don't need it. I don't know a person who knows how to directly program the USB port, it doesn't make any sense unless you are a device manufacturer, you just plug your device and install a driver, and the OS will handle it for you. Connecting an ethernet card? well, ethernet cards are integrated in the motherboard. And what happens when a new processor arrives? They just tell you that you need to have the new processor because if you don't, your programs will not be compatible anymore, so you need to be up to date. Apple is manufacturing its own processors for mobile devices, but they just tell you that the new processor is better, its faster, it saves more battery and you need it if you want to upgrade to the latest operating system.

Of course it is possible to know the details about how technology works, but it looks so complex, that few people want to dig if at the end, the way to make technology work is to use an existing API. On the other side, there are tons of information available, thousands of ads that want to take your attention that you just forget about the hardware you are using, you focus on the content. Maybe, we could increase our curiosity if we started to invest a couple of hours of the day ignoring all the information online and move just where we want to move...
June 03, 2016 6:05
You write: "I hope that you're stretching yourself and others to ..."

Whenever I stretch my kids I later regret it. It's like stretching flowers - it does not help.

Some things grow best by themselves. Follow your heart. Drop the word "should." And be happy.
June 03, 2016 12:07
I would say that it is very complicated issue any way.
In a way it is okay to say that the curiosity is changing, this being said it reflects some part of, however there is more to that story, a way way more.
Some aspects are being pushed back and replaced with some new ones, and the rest is just usual as it is...
June 03, 2016 19:11
Sometimes it's curiosity that does the killing instead of technology. I am in the middle of losing a 12 year continuously developed web site because of spending time to learn something new instead of grabbing something off the shelf for a part of the system. To practice curiosity you need to have the freedom to do it.

So in another sense maybe technology is killing curiosity. I am already more gun shy about learning and implementing new things to keep long term costs down when there are ready technology lego blocks.
June 04, 2016 9:16
It's because some people believe that they have fixed intelligence. Those that believe that they can increase their intelligence from learning will explore more.

That's why smart children end up suddenly failing at school after doing well for so long. They get top marks until they are faced with a challenge which they fail. They believe they aren't smart enough, so they give up.

Some varsity students are even known to go out drinking the night before the exam! How can they be so stupid? It turns out that they know they are smart but are scared of failing. They sabotage themselves to have an excuse. When they write the exam, they might still pass, but if they fail it, it's because of drinking - not because of their lack of intelligence.

To counteract this, parents need to give positive feedback on effort. You should't say, "You've done so well. You're so smart!" You need to say, "That was an excellent effort. I'm really proud of the progress you're making!"

This type of growth mindset is documented by psychologists. You can read Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed which covers some of it. Also, if you're curious (*wink wink*), do a search on the internet for "growth mindset".
June 04, 2016 13:53
Can anyone put this toaster back together for me?

I think the ability to know when you should stop digging down the stack is at least as important as some curiosity.

I don't want the guys who are:
Cut n paste only.
Must know everything first.

You're wondering what a magpie might be?
A magpie stops to look at everything. Anything they see is interesting. Coding is only interesting if they're trying a "new" pattern, language or something. Getting them to focus on fitting in with a team and producing work is a challenge.
A magpie is very curious.
June 04, 2016 22:50
I was one of those kids that took apart everything. I experimented with every electronic device I could put my hands on.
June 05, 2016 23:34
"He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life"
NASA twit. :)
June 05, 2016 23:35
thanks my friends
June 07, 2016 14:05
I dont think technology as such is killing curiosity. It is the misconception that a nice interface will take of all our technical problems and we do not have to use our brain anymore. Non-techs do not need to understand technology to use it; they are actually discouraged to not understand it. Apple made a very successful business out of a nanny-software and nanny-hardware. All those cloud services out there do the same. They provide a convenient way for things that we could most of the time do on our own with just a little knowledge of software and a Raspberry Pi. If we would do more things on our own curiosity would have a more prominent role in our lives. Yes, I am aware that I exaggerate.

Kids and people that work with technology should learn how to code. It is the literacy of our time. People do not need to become perfect coder but they need to understand how underlaying technology works, how it communicates and how it can evolve.

I discussed a similar topic a while back by addressing the misconception that software systems have become simper over time. The interfaces are cleaner than 20 years ago but the rest is, as you said, uncountable layers of abstraction:

June 08, 2016 11:39
I don't think that technology is killing curiosity, rather it is providing information before someone can ask a question.
June 10, 2016 19:56
I think there is a balance here. I think technology makes everything extremely accessible. In turn, it does remove a lot of the problem solving and ground work to get to the conclusions needed. I think what it does kill, is the desire to really understand the 'why' and the 'how'. When you can have the answer at your fingertips, I think it tends to minimize the desire to understand.

In this new age of technology, it falls on the parents to help instill that curiosity into their children and the next generation. Without that curiosity, innovation is left to a select few that cherish that feeling rather than a society that is complacent with the technology providing what they need, when they need it.
June 11, 2016 1:58
thanks. great article
June 11, 2016 21:37
This is so true. Schools in the UK are given Raspberry PI and BBC Micro devices to teach kids how to code. The government in the UK are worried about immigrants coming over to take jobs, so they want to create a generation of developers. This all come at a cost, the syllabus takes away the WOW!!! moments and turns them into a series of mundane tasks. That is not learning. Hopefully, we can, in the future, change governments from utilising short sighted techniques to plug gaps in the job market and allow children to find their passion in Technology.
That leads me to another personal bug bear, encouraging girls to pursue Tech Jobs, it is the dumbest thing ever. You can't make women pursue these jobs if we insist on giving them dolls and ponies as toys. It seems so self defeating to set stereotypes and then expect girls to go and break them. If we parents and adults constantly re-enforce these stereotypes then our children will not be better than us. It is up to parents to give their children lego and meccano toys to encourage them to break these stereotypes. It is important that adults keep children's options open as long as possible. That being said I am an Indian Software Engineer.
June 13, 2016 10:32
June 13, 2016 10:32
good post
June 13, 2016 17:21
I think the main problem isn't that people don't want to learn the entire stack, it's many don't want spend any more effort than the minimum requirements to complete the task at hand. So as time goes on, much of the world becomes magic or obscure.
June 13, 2016 23:41
yes to some extent the curiosity is not there because of too many abstractions and television. But what i am seeing KIDS are becoming innovative to build something on top of the abstracted layers like robotics and other stuff. When i was growing up I used to sit with my uncle rip apart the Audio tape recorder fix it and make it work again. I wonder if robots start invading into other areas like robots could write program then
would there be any anything left to be curious? If at all do we need to be curious since everything is available as a knowledge on the NET. For an example in my project I can be curious about how this business works , whats the source of data or who are all the users.
Like wise we have to initiate some level of curiosity at some abstraction (not too deep) in the kids. I see math as a great tool to initiate some curiosity which can spread to other areas as well
June 17, 2016 6:03
Hey there, I just wanted to register for the newsletter, but I only got 404 :(
June 17, 2016 23:22
Great post, Scott.

The book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" talked about this dichotomy as well. Pirsig used the terms "Romantic" and "Classical" as patterns of thoughts.

The romantics tend to be focused on being in the moment and not on rational analysis, wheras the classical viewpoint is focused on the details and on the curiosity you describe.

In my view, Pirsig's book was aimed at showing the importance of the balance between the two modes of understanding. This balance is what causes the same task to be viewed as either boring and awful or a great opportunity... it is all a matter of the attitude taken to the problem.
July 18, 2016 11:12
I agree with you that curiosity can be innate and learned. But I think you are looking at curiosity from only one perspective.

I think the post ignores the fact that everybody has their own area, interest when splitting people curious and non-curious from one direction.Taking apart the remote control, toaster is about the individual. There are people who tries those when they were 10 where their peers don’t. People have interest in different areas, ask themselves questions and want to have a deeper knowledge. Today, we have access to the information on various subjects which did not exist when we were 10. It creates a new way of a living on an individual level from using the new tools to read and obtain knowledge to creating new jobs. These days people have more things to be curious, to ask and learn how these work compared to the past. I believe technology makes people to explore and be curious more in diverse interests.

I think technology can supplement curiosity rather than killing it. It creates more opportunities for individuals to explore, learn and to work. Technology does not only change a way of life, but also the learning path. Because people cannot absorb massive information and sources that are available these days, they use technology and only choose what they need to know. There are people who use technology just to pass their time without questioning where some others keep asking questions and looking for answers to go deeper in order to bridge the gaps and bring new ideas.

Thanks for your sharing.
July 18, 2016 15:49
Great post and interesting topic. I don't think tech is killing curiosity, but the embedded systems that are today's technology might do so. The iPhone or Android don't leave a lot of room for exploration and creativity, and the legacy status of desktop computing does not help. I do think small and cheap systems like Raspberry Pi and Debian/Raspbian have a lot more to offer in terms of figuring out how systems work. Julia
July 30, 2016 13:17
It is the easy access to vast amount of information in modern world, which is killing curiosity.
too much information makes us disturbed, and since kids have a false sense of knowing everything, there is nothing much left to explore and
it makes them afraid to communicate

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.