It’s that time of the year when children home for summer start packing their bags to go back to school or college, and parents whose 18-year-olds are leaving home for the first time casually ask: “So who fixes the computer when he’s not around?”
I am fairly comfortable handling technology but I must confess that I often find it difficult to manage some of the programs that our son leaves behind on our desktop. The bewildering array of gadgets hooked up to the computer and the jungle of cables under the table can turn even a gadget-friendly person into a technophobe. They know which cable belongs to what, but when they are gone, heaven help you if you accidentally disconnect a wire as you vacuum under the table, or fiddle with the Wi-Fi router and are asked by the operator to change the “DNS settings”. You are in trouble.
I have not met any parents who are better at dealing with technology than their teenage offspring. Technology is something that comes naturally to an 18-year-old. They are wired differently. They can Wi-Fi your apartment without even asking you for the manual, and teach you many interesting and useful things.
Higher education: It may be worth asking your teen for that tech tutorial.
Take Skype, for example, the program that enables you to video-chat with someone over the Internet. I have even used it to try and learn Mandarin but gave up after a few attempts. If you have children going to college, Skype is what you will love and they will hate. Without this technology we would have bust our budget on phone calls to friends and family living abroad.
I also have Skype on my iPhone. But to be able to call from my phone I must log on to a wireless network—or load an application that “tricks” my phone into believing that I am in a wireless zone. If your iPhone is unlocked and “jailbroken”, any smart kid can do this “trick” in a few minutes.
Last week, a young university student and his friends showed me how they can stream a movie from a big movie rental company in the US and watch it on a computer in Delhi. It’s not rocket science: One of them was a paid member of the rental service. He created what is called a virtual private network (VPN) and “tricked” the rental company into thinking that he was watching the movie in the US. They were not cheating the company or indulging in piracy; they had just “bypassed the system”, as they said. People in China use VPN to access websites blocked by their government.
In a manner of speaking, kids who find ways to bypass the system can be called hackers. But they are “ethical hackers”; they genuinely do not support piracy. There are three reasons why they do this: One, they have incredible curiosity; two, they like the challenge and find it fun; and three, they firmly believe in the philosophy of openness of software. They are rebellious and dislike controls. I came across one such group based in New York City whose motto is “we learn, share and make things”.
The reason that you can buy a region-free DVD player on the market is because a young Norwegian who was then in high school (he was known as DVD Jon) broke the encryption. The iPhone “jailbreak” is the brainchild of another 17-year-old from New Jersey, US.
Personally, I would like to be able to “trick” my phone and my computer. I would like to access Skype outside a Wi-Fi zone, watch movies on a VPN network, and turn my computer into a Nintendo game console. But my problem is I wouldn’t know what to do if by chance I messed it up. As I said, I am fairly comfortable handling technology but there are certain things that are best left to the younger generation. So here are my tips for parents whose children have gone to college:
• In a crisis, call your friends’ children. That’s how I survive.
• If it’s not urgent, make a “to-do” list and keep adding to it till your child comes home on his next visit.
• And always keep a rough drawing of which cable goes where. Just in case you have to vacuum under the table.
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.
Write to Shekhar at firstname.lastname@example.org