Alright, so as initial clarification for this post it should probably be called “against chromebooks as a sole contact point with computers for children both because of my own concerns about the accumulation of computational capital as well as the lack of practical skills it leaves youth with”, but that’s not catchy and requires a bit of explanation. In fact, I think I’ll take the rest of this little polemic to explain exactly what I mean.

As a bit of background, one of my jobs involves teaching kids computer science and programming in both in-school and after-school programs. Most of the time, I’m dealing with public schools and—at least in my neck of the woods—public schools means that we’re dealing almost exclusively with Chromebooks. I regularly work with kids who, between chromebooks at school and smartphones at home, have never used a computational device that isn’t heavily curated and controlled.

Now, I understand that Google’s market penetration is coming from two major things: Chromebooks are cheap, though somewhat artificially so, and they’re easy to administer and lock down. Both of these are appealing for the same reason, namely that budgets at public schools are very tight. If you want most kids to be able to work on a computer you need to be able to procure them very cheaply and you need to operate with a pretty barebones IT department.

I mean I think we can agree that those aren’t good constraints, but until people lose their aversion to paying for public services they’re very real constraints. I get that. I’m going to argue that Chromebooks are still a bad deal for students.

I think Chromebooks are simultaneously making it harder for students to learn about computers, conditioning them to accept closed & controlled systems, and are making them dependent on Google services thus furthering Google’s control and data collection.

It absolutely should not be the case that kids who have been using computers for years still don’t really understand concepts such as

  • what files are
  • the difference between local and cloud storage
  • the difference between a browser, a website, a local application, and even the OS itself
  • how to do basic things on a computer without relying on Google services

and yet that’s exactly what I’m seeing on a regular basis in the classroom. It seems like this younger side of gen-z has even worse computer skills than the older parts of gen-z and especially worse than millennials.

I know that most effects have complicated multiple causes but here I think a solid swath of blame can be laid on the use of Chromebooks themselves. I’m alarmed that they seem to be furthering a kind of computer illiteracy.

You might think my concerns are overblown and I hope you’re right. I hope that these kids are going to develop their computer skills after high school and be capable of taking care of their own machines and their own data.

Deep in my bones, though, I think this is going to be an important issue. Why? Because the 2010s have been the decade of accruing computational capital and it only seems to be accelerating as we head into 2020!

We’ve got “AI assistants” and smart speakers listening to our conversations, smart doorbells creating a literal panopticon that’s shared with the government without consent, smartphone apps tracking college students’ movements in order to snitch to school administration about their habits, fitness trackers that could potentially share data with insurance companies, facial recognition systems attempting to charge people with crimes, DNA databases being built from curious people wondering about their ancestry, etc.

There are so many violations of privacy and autonomy that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Everything I mentioned above is just from the last two years. Gone are the days when our biggest concern on computers was how cookies were being used in the browser. Now we’re carrying around devices with a variety of sensors using almost exclusively internet based services and everything is being tracked and sold. And so much of this is made possible by the fact that our devices are more closed and restricted than ever. Android may be better than iOS but you still have to root your device in order to have real control over it and that’s about ten steps too far for most people—and rightly so!

So back to Chromebooks. My biggest fear is that by raising youth on devices where all these conflations between browser/website/local software/operating system are happening is going to leave them with even less knowledge to defend themselves against this further encroachment on our privacy and autonomy. I’m afraid that they’re going to find it quite normal that you can’t install whatever software you want on a computer you own, that they’re going to find it banal that their own devices are spying on them and sharing that information against their will.

I don’t want gen-z to be the generation that accepts landlords attempting to install smart speakers into apartments in order to track the movements and habits of tenants. Yes, that’s a real thing some landlords are trying out. I don’t want gen-z to be the generation that accepts the idea of being chipped by their employer or being asked to wear a fitness monitor that can tell their employer if they’re away from their desk too much. Yes, those are also real examples.

“Learn to code” has become a meme, and a gross meme at that, about how anyone can make money if they just become a programmer. I want something much deeper than “learn to code” or to create a pipeline from schools into the greedy tech sector so hungry for programmer grunts. I want to start teaching youth how to understand the technology around them, the capabilities and limitations of it. I want to teach them how to create, how to subvert, and how to say “no”.

That is why I’m against Chromebooks in the classroom.