I awake to the sound of technology seeping out of my son's bedroom. It doesn't surprise me, even at this early hour.
My son is enamoured with technology. He eats with an old cellphone beside his plate. He keeps lists of the latest gadgets he wants to purchase. He pores over Future Shop and Best Buy flyers. He talks endlessly to strangers about BlackBerrys and iPods. He dreams about receiving electronics for gifts.
He is five years old.
His first word was "clock." He was comfortable using a mouse to click and play computer games before he was 2. He could carry on an intelligent conversation about Ethernet cables by preschool.
Maybe his age is irrelevant. Born at the turn of the 21st century, he has never known a different world. Maybe his fascination with technology is merely a predictable attempt to understand and control his surroundings. Maybe my idea that an appropriate technological coming-of-age should be 12 or 13 is subconsciously linked to the introduction of computers in my junior high school more than it is to a specific, universal age when innocence finds knowledge.
Or perhaps he is genetically wired to be a technophile. His father sold 4-H calves so he could purchase an Atari 800 in 1980, and became the first kid in his rural community to program games in BASIC. He was an acceptably old 14 at the time, if you subscribe to my developmental theory of technological appreciation, but I have the feeling his acquisition of a computer was limited only by the delay of its invention.
As a language teacher, I revel in words and stories and speech. I use a computer pragmatically, and know only as much as I need to about any useful electronic device, ignoring those for which the purpose is merely recreational. I have not bought my son anything more technological than a desk lamp and a clock radio. I strictly limit TV watching and computer time. I take him swimming and hiking and to museums. I shower him with craft supplies and Lego. We read together constantly.
But his interest in technology still expresses itself. He gathers sticks on hiking trails and uses them as infrared spy detectors. He transforms toilet paper rolls and pipe cleaners into elaborately wired house alarms. He creates video cameras and portable CD players from Lego blocks and discarded snack boxes, entrancing his kindergarten teacher with long-winded explanations of their features.
Show and tell affords him the weekly opportunity to share one of his inventions with his classmates. Having learned to read early, he now finds instruction manuals for cellphones to be fascinating material. And when we go to historical museums, he lingers over displays of cameras, phones and cash registers from another era.
It is this equal obsession with old technology that has me convinced my son's interests are genetically driven rather than environmentally encouraged. He seems to appreciate the idea of technology's timeless power. "So this telegraph machine was the first way people could send messages to someone else far away? Awesome!"
He is indiscriminate in his enthusiasm for collecting discarded technology for his bedroom museum. A four-year-old computer is given equal status to a rotary phone or an antique tube radio. And he is comfortable mixing pieces from modern and historical eras to create something new. "When we bring back the old Model T from Daddy's farm, could we install an MP3 player in it?"
But alas, my son has already learned a hard lesson about how limited funds restrict access to technology. With no income other than an annual birthday donation from his grandparents, anything new is beyond his budget. He has been known to wiggle teeth that are not yet loose in an attempt to wrest cash from the tooth fairy. Yet getting him to do odd jobs for money has proven harder than pulling those stubbornly rooted teeth.
His old-fashioned parents have declared that using the family telephone, stereo, TV, camera and computer in a common room provides more than enough technological opportunities and freedom for a child who cannot yet tie his shoes. Powerless in an age of power, what's a thwarted technophile to do?
The answer came during a winter visit to my sister in Saskatoon. My son, armed with a wallet containing $18 of remaining birthday money, requested a trip to the local Value Village. His aunt, a staunch supporter of recycling, agreed to take him. It was a fortuitous match.
In only a few minutes of browsing, my son had chosen an outdated answering machine, an old Instamatic camera and, the crowning discovery, a compact typewriter complete with its own robin's-egg-blue carrying case. Unencumbered with the responsibility of packing all these items on the plane, he made his purchases with money to spare.
When he arrived home, I overheard his jubilant demonstration of the typewriter to his older brother. "It's just like a computer except that you don't have to turn it on, and you can use as much paper as you want. You don't have to ask Mom if you can print something!"
So now the power of technology and the power of access can be heard coming from his crowded bedroom: Tick, tick, tick, cling!
Darice Wiebe Lutz lives in Langley, B.C.