Fn 12: It's More Than Just Teaching Kids to Code

"There's an element of wonder that needs to be restored."
— Alex Klein

Coding education for kids is wildly popular right now. From books and toys to after school programs from non-profit organizations, companies are putting lots of money and resources behind helping create the next generation of programmers. But is that enough? A few years ago, Anil wrote about his skepticism behind these efforts, wondering if perhaps they are missing the mark on teaching proficiency over literacy.

On our season finale of Function, Anil sits down with Alex Klein, co-founder and CEO of Kano Computing, a company that creates kits for all ages that help make coding and computing skills as simple and fun as putting together LEGO bricks. During their wide-ranging conversation (recorded at this year's CES), learn about what motivated Alex to empower kids to create technology in this way, and hear his thoughts on the current trends around teaching kids to code.

Thank you for listening to the first season of Function! As we take a break and prep for season two, we want to learn more about you. What do you like about Function? What would you change? Tell us everything in our audience survey! Visit voxmedia.com/podsurvey and let us know what you think.

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Big thanks to Microsoft Azure for supporting the first season of Function.

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Transcript

Anil Dash: Hi. Welcome to Function. I'm Anil Dash, and this is the last episode of our first season and so we wanted to do something special. We made a trip out to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show, better known as CES, which is sort of the heart of the tech industry for the week when it takes place.

This is that show where hundreds of thousands of people from around the world come to Vegas to see the latest and greatest gadgets, but also where every single company from the biggest names in tech, they all come by and they show off their gear. Google set up a playground for their Assistant, and this was basically every kind of smart speaker or smart microphone device you can imagine from an Instant Pot that'll cook your food when you talk to it to cars that respond to your voice. It was really pretty incredible, and we got to sit right in the middle of it; in the heart of sort of the future of technology and have a really incredible conversation.

My guest Alex Klein, who you're gonna hear a little bit more from in a bit, he captured what it's like to be there.

Alex Klein: It's circus-like, isn't it? It's a crowd of quiet, like-minded and like-backgrounded folks obsessing over the newest and the sparkliest. People come to this conference to see something new and I think often times they do find something.

AD: Being at the Consumer Electronics Show really showed off one thing that is very, very obvious: these electronic products with these speakers and these microphones and these cameras are gonna be part of your daily life. They're gonna be in your house — they're gonna be, in my case, in my kid's bedroom — and these gadgets are always around us. They're around our families. And one of the biggest questions that I think any of us reckons with is what impact is this gonna have on kids? What effect is it gonna have to raise our children around this kind of technology? And whether you're a parent or not, this affects lives of the next generation.

I know this isn't a new discussion and everybody's been worrying and wringing their hands about the new technology and its effect on kids since fire was the newest technology. But for these folks that are born into a world of smartphones and smart speakers, the kids know the technology really well but they might not understand all its implications. And so what we think about when tech comes into our house is what is the effect of it on kids. But what I think about a lot is how are the kids gonna see the technology? What empowers them? How do they feel like they can create with it, or that they can control it?

And that's where Alex Klein comes in. His company, Kano? He creates these kits and they're incredible. You do it yourself, you build it; I gave one to my kid actually on Christmas morning, and I just thought it was so cool. It's one of the reasons we reached out to Alex. And it's something from building a little box that lights up all the way to this thing that looks exactly like Harry Potter's magic wand, except that you can program it with your computer to do special magic tricks. I talked to Alex about his company, Kano, but also about why it's important for kids to create.

So let's jump into that conversation that we had with Alex on the floor at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Alright...good morning everybody! Welcome! This is the live taping of Function; I'm Anil Dash, your host. We are here as the guests of our friends at Google as well as of course, Function being a podcast produced by Vox Media and my company Glitch. And I'm also joined here by Alex Klein of Kano, who we're gonna talk to in some depth about some of the amazing things he's doing.

But first of all, this is the Consumer Electronics show, so anything goes. So I saw on the news — I haven't seen it personally — there's a smart toilet that has a smart speaker in it. But I mean, there's more normal things. There's your voice-controlled speakers and assistants and things; there are touch screens you can have around the house that can give you assistance. There's all the smart cars and things. One of the most surprising things to me is, almost all of what I see created here, is oriented around being in your home — in your life. That's very different to how CES was 10 years ago or 20 years ago, where it was like, "at work this is the machine you're gonna put on your desk, this is this tool you're gonna use". And one of the things I think that typifies that, is what you're doing at Kano.

AK: Right.

AD: Which is, this is designed specifically for home, for kids, for families. Can you talk a little bit about what your company is and what you make?

AK: Yeah, sure. So we're Kano. We create computer and coding experiences and kits, for all ages all over the world. We started with the Kano Computer kit.

AD: For folks listening at home, he's holding up this really cool kit. You got a clear case, and you can see the circuit boards inside.

AK: Yeah.

AD: You can see the wires sticking out. It looks a little bit like...I would get stopped by the TSA if I took this on a plane. You might not.

AK: 'Cause they'd want to marvel at the gorgeousness of the design and compliment you and ask "where did you buy this Kano kit?"

AD: But it's beautiful. This has blinking lights. It's great.

AK: So the basic premise is simple. You follow a storybook. You put together a real device. We demystify what every component does; it comes to life and then our software starts from first principles and leads you on an adventure. You create a profile, you type some secret words into the command line; the computer comes to life. You start connecting code blocks. Sounds ring out.


Child: When you wave your coding wand, the sensors turn your movement into data. And the PCB beams that data to your computer.

Adult: Then once your computer receives the data, it turns it into code. It understands whether you go right, left, up, down, slow, fast, and it then it makes it code.

Child: It's so...


AK: In the case of our magic wand, our Harry Potter wand, it starts to vibrate and glow, and soon you're coding real applications, games, and music, in JavaScript or Python.


Other Child: Wingardium Leviosa!

Another Child: Diffindo!

Yet Another Child: Reducio!


AK: The basic premise was certainly to get into the home but really anywhere where there's a mind that is curious. Anywhere in our society where we spend a third of our waking hours staring at these post-Steve Jobs-ian Sapphire screens. Anywhere where someone has that sense of "how does this work? How do I make it do something new?" That's where we want them to try Kano.

So that's what we do. We've got computer and coding kits, we've got kits that let you build speakers and cameras, and grids of pixels. We let you hack Minecraft, make music, make games and some recently we've released the Harry Potter Coding kit, which lets you build a wand, learn to code, cast spells on a screen and then ultimately make your own magic. Over Christmas day this year, every second, a kid or a beginner, we don't know, in the world, made and shared their own spell. So it's not just Hermione Granger's Wingardium Leviosa or Ron Weasley's Lumos; it's your own artefacts.

AD: So we're gonna come back to Harry Potter.

AK: Pitch. Spiel.

AD: It's good, it's good. No, but the reason I brought you on is that this is such an interesting thing to me. One, personal investment is my kids got one.

AK: Thank you.

AD: We had that Christmas morning moment where opened it up and actually lingered on it instead of throwing it aside saying "What's the next thing? Where's the candy?" And it was easy enough that an adult can do it, so that was cool. But what you create is...it's nice. There's a kit, you can build stuff, and kids can learn to program these blinking lights and these devices and feel a sense of agency. But the thing that jumps out to me is that there is this ethos in what you're doing, and I think what a few others in a sort of similar space are doing, which is that can we teach a young person that technology is something they control and they have agency over as opposed to...you're given this tablet, you're given this phone, 'cause you know, most of us give our kids tablets when they're three, four, five...pretty young. And we use it as a sedative. So if you're on a long flight...we had held off on giving the tablet to my kid until we went to Japan. It's a 14 hour flight and I'm like, "go nuts — as much as you want to watch on here," and it was great because we didn't have to drug him. But that's a very different relationship to technology than "Oh, it's something you make. It's something you program. It's something you control."

What brought you there? What made you say — and you don't have kids yet, so this is sort of an unusual choice. What brought you to where you wanna say, "I wanna empower people but especially kids, to be able to make and create and control technology?"

AK: I get, I mean there are a few...I was born in London, which is why I sound kinda funky, and I moved to Seattle when I was nine, and my school was a weird nerdy school where I think everyone's parents worked for Microsoft and I was the one arts kid. I did theater, I wanted to write; that was what I wanted to do. And I was kind of alienated, not only because I was wearing baggy Hot Topic jeans and had crazy long hair and everything, but because I didn't know how to code. And so I went online and I asked some questions on an online forum, and I thought they were basic questions around programming and Stack Overflow — which if it existed, I probably would have gotten a better answer — but I got griefed and spammed basically.

AD: Yeah, back in the day if you asked a programming question and you were a newbie you would just get ceaselessly tormented.

AK: Yeah. So I had people online saying "That's a dumb question. What are you 10 years old?" And I was 10 years old, so it was upsetting.

AD: It's a good excuse.

AK: But I'm also a member of this post-Steve Jobs, sapphire screen generation. I was addicted to my MacBook. I lined up for the first iPhone. And the first time I ever saw the inside of a computer, which as you remarked is the kind of computer kit where the inside becomes the outside, the inside becomes the story. The first time I saw the inside of a computer was when someone near and dear to me, in frustration at something I had done, picked up my laptop and smashed it on a concrete floor in front of me.

AD: Oh that's dramatic.

AK: Dramatic, right. That's why I tell the story. But in that moment of sadness, there was this revelation behind the veil; there's this secret world of circuits and synapses and rules and algorithms.

AD: So what's a less violent way to see inside your device?

AK: Well, you can buy a Kano computer kit for just $99.

AD: I'm maybe a half generation ahead because we grew up where we'd put the computers together. You'd have a computer at home.

AK: Totally.

AD: Well, the very first ones, they were the same thing — a sort of sealed box and then you would get to this area where you would swap out the parts and be unplugging things and get a screwdriver and open things up. But you couldn't; you don't have the tools to open up a modern computer. Your phone is so hermetically sealed, you'll never get in there.

AK: The other thing on that point of hermetically sealed that sort of broke into this out of journalism, was the time I spent embedded as a reporter for a New York Magazine; Occupy Wall Street. So this was post-financial crisis. I was in Zucotti Park in New York City in the tents with the protestors, rain coming down, and I noticed people were railing against justifiably the big banks, the hedge funds, in Bernie Sanders famous formulation, "the billionaires and the millionaires," right? And saying, there are these secret rules, this sealed space of Wall Street that I could never get into, but controls my life.

AD: Finance was a black box.

AK: Finance was this black box, and then the protestors would take out their iPhones, they'd log into Facebook and they'd share #OccupyEverywhere and I remember thinking at the time, "tech is next." This isn't a one percent, it's a one percent of one percent. Twenty billion connected devices in the world; less than 50 million people still can code. So never has so much power and so much societal infrastructure been understood, written and shaped by so few people and that gap, that for me was like...I'd studied socioeconomic inequality at grad school and I'd been doing journalism, and all the coding and building stuff out there was really hard to understand. Like the Raspberry Pie for Dummies guide was 400 pages long.

AD: And that was supposed to be the approachable way to learn programming.

AK: Exactly.

AD: That's the interesting thing because the choices made by a programmer, by a designer who designs code, shape the world around us.

AK: Totally.

AD: I wanna get to this moment that I had. Christmas morning we had one of your kits in the house, and my son unwraps it and I pried it out of his hands and stole it from him I started playing with it. It was great. This was a nice moment. I felt a lot of the joy of programming and bringing these things back.

AK: Amazing.

AD: But that's not the moment I wanna focus on. You make a product; that's what you hope for. It was great. It was a great experience.

Then, a couple of days later, we were at the Apple Store, you end up there because some costly cable breaks and then he almost — as if entranced — walks sort of mesmerized across the store he's been to a million times because he saw Harry Potter's wand on the shelf sitting there. And that alone is arresting; he loves to read, he's read all the books like any kid. My son is seven, almost eight; like every kid that age, that's the world they're living in. And this is interesting because you're in a building full of brand new cutting-edge technology that looks like this room we're in now where as we record this, we're staring across every Google Assistant device that can exist from your Instant Pot to your thermostat, and so in a room full of that, to walk across all that kind of high tech and see what literally looks like Harry Potter's wand? That taps into imagination, it taps into fantasy...all these things. And I saw it in both lenses at once, which is the wonder of a child — it's still magic to them, it's still real. And boy, that's one effective consumer marketing strategy, right? You, as a CEO, you have this incredible amount of control and power over my child.

AK: [laughs in a cartoonishly evil mocking fashion]

AD: And I felt both in the same moment. I'm curious; have you seen that? Have you seen children in that space? Have you heard that experience from other parents?

AK: Yeah, I'm glad I was compelling and I'm happy about that. I think the reason it works well, the Kano notion of make your own technology, and the Warner Brothers/J.K. Rowling notion of Harry's initiation into the wizarding world, is there's like a fundamental, metaphorical overlap, which maybe doesn't have to be written on the box; just a picture of a wand waving and fire tracking perfectly does it.

AD: Right, it tells a story on its own.

AK: Yeah, we live in this world today where a small subsection of society speaks these secret words and they can move objects with their mind and predict the future and even get into your mind and make you think things, and make you do things, maybe even make you vote for things. That secret subsection we call programmers.

AD: We call them wizards.

AK: Machine learning. Exactly like you; definitely a better programmer than I. Yeah, I think that the idea of taking you on a hero's journey, as Harry goes on a hero's journey exploring a hidden world, unlocking secret powers that were once held by a small elite, Prometheus-like grabbing them. Taking them out into the world, and doing it in a really fun way, like a game, like Fortnite, which is a creative game with competition. I think that really appeals to kids. This notion of not just passive empty play, but creative mastery. And that's been the case since Minecraft.

AD: That's interesting because I think you look at Minecraft, you look at Fortnite...I think adults know them as...you go in there, and you blast stuff and you shoot it off and whatever. But kids are seeing it as a place to build. Almost like Legos or [Roblox] or anything else...

AK: Or hang out.

AD: Right. They're socializing their...I think somebody said something about Fortnite recently. It's one of the most popular messaging platforms in the world. People are going into a game, arming up, setting themselves up, building a whole space out, and then going in there just to chat to other people.

AK: I think it's partially...we project our fears about the future on our children, and we live in a time where the pace of change has pushed parents and kids — probably not all — but pushed parents and kids apart in some ways. These fears around screen time and, "What are these devices doing to my child's brain? Maybe I should take them away. Maybe I should become a neo-Luddite." But I think...

AD: But there isn't a choice there! They're gonna be exposed to it.

AK: Totally. You can't get rid of it, so you may as well bring it to them in a way that is a form of intelligent entertainment. A way that allows them to create a social space of their own because their lives as so scheduled. So regimented.

AD: Right.

AK: They are incredible. We have 10 year olds on Kano building radio stations. 12 year olds building Bitcoin miners. 14 year olds automating the position of solar panels in Kosovo.

AD: Alright, lets take a break for a minute and we'll come back with more from Alex Klein.

AD: Welcome back to Function. I'm Anil Dash. We're gonna get right back to the conversation we had live at CES with Alex Klein of Kano.

Over on Glitch, we had a kid who was 14 who was in India who's made a whole slew of apps. He's made an app every month for the last year, each of which has gotten 100,000 users. He's just trying different ideas out.

So there's this desire [for kids] to express themselves and to create through code. But I go into...we're at CES; everybody here is looking at new devices. We're just looking at...whether it's hardware, software, or whatever, it's a gadget that goes in your pocket or it's something you install in your home. But we buy it, and it's a black box. And it just happens to us. It happens to our household, it happens to our family, and I want to take us inside. Presumably you've got a conference room with a whiteboard in your office where you're talking about or sketching out, "This is the next thing that we want to create that we hope is compelling the kids."

What's the conversation you have about this balance of...there is a positive side which is "this is engaging and compelling and it draws you in", and you do a great job of this where you step me through every part of it, and now you're going to type this in, and now you're going to see this light up, and it's just really rewarding. It's very satisfying. Then, the flip side of that is, "we are programming behaviors into children." So what happens in your conversations when you're creating a product, where you're saying how do we balance the responsibility of that, or what could go wrong? Do you game out the potential negative or the downside?

AK: That's a really good question. So we're 80 people now, and I think when you get started there's incessant, inevitable, unavoidable positivity, because what could go wrong? There's two of us...

AD: Yeah, we're the good guys.

AK: We're in a flat in North London, we're hand folding cardboard boxes, getting paper cuts, printing books down at the colors printer on Curzon street. Then you get to 80 people and...

AD: Well, you're so desperate just to keep the doors open that you can't even think anything bad, right?

AK: Totally. And I still think you have to preserve that. Who here's ever been skiing before? Snowboarding, right? So who here's ever skied or snowboarded through trees, right? So if you've ever done that before, you know that the way to avoid hitting a tree is not to focus on the trees and be like, "How do I avoid these trees?" You focus on the spaces between the trees. And if you're ever in a crowded airport, if you don't ski or snowboard, you can do this exercise. Try walking through and being like, "How do I avoid all of these people?" Then try going through the spaces. So we do try and focus on the spaces. I think the other aspect to your question around kids responsibility...we have a great kid community. We've shipped 600,000 units since September 2014; most of those have gone to kids. However, paradoxically, when we set out to design a product, we don't emphasize or obsess over the kid dynamic.

So we describe Kano as computer and coding kits for all ages all over the world, and the reason for that is that this next generation are the first to be born who won't remember a time before the Internet. They're the first to be born in the age of mass distributed opensource software where most smartphones in the world run. Linux, the age of constant connectivity, you can get 4G Internet on Mt. Everest now.

AD: They won't remember not having access to smartphones and information everywhere.

AK: Yeah. So it may be that a new kind of person has actually been born. What I think it's like...when you design something for kids, what you do is you create a metaphor and an archetype in your mind of a kid, and then you try and serve it, but that metaphor or archetype is based on who? Yourself when you were a kid. In my case 20 years ago. So you'll always be out of date. So we try and just create a product that is simple, creative end-to-end, social, and driven by narrative. And we try and speak to fundamental feelings like we all have, like to look inside, to take control, to build stuff, to play. Probably as you guys do at Glitch.

AD: Yeah. So I'm curious though: if you look at something though, I've come across this. You almost want to have the potato chip thing of "I always want to eat one more," and when you design a product you always want to, "Of course we want more engagement, and of course we want them to spend more time." And if I've got lessons I'm doing on Kano, or I've got apps I'm building on Glitch, or any of this, not just the stuff we build, but what's out in the world. If I'm like, "I want to look at one more photo on Instagram." There's almost this treadmill, and it's different for children than for adults, right? Well, maybe it's not, but we at least think, "Okay, we need to protect them and shield them." Do you ever think about what's the time limit? Or is that the thing where I'm supposed to go on my device or my phone and say, "I don't want to spend more than an hour on this, or two hours on this in a day," or has that not come up; that's not your challenge?

AK: Well, I think we're helped in a sense by the fact that parents are part of the equation, and the vector for it, and...

AD: So it's very participatory, you see kids doing it with the parents?

AK: I like to see that, but I also think there is a role that the parent has in moderating the usage of the child, and we should build a tool that the child and the adult want to use organically and feel really good about using at the end of the session, like a good long form piece of journalism or a brilliant effective documentary. Like something that informs and entertains. I think if we keep ourselves honest about that and we work really closely with parents and provide parents tools to see their kid's usage, as we do today, that mitigates the risk.

AD: So as long as it's learning, and it's generative, and not just...because it's an issue that comes up to me, where my son's a reader, as I said, he reads Harry Potter or whatever. And nobody ever scolds me of, "Are you limiting his page time?" Strangers will say how much screen time do you let him have?" But they never say page time. It depends what the book is, right? If it's some violent garbage book, then I probably don't let him read that much. But we seem to have a very different relationship, like "screen time" doesn't differentiate whether if he's learning something useful or...

AK: Consuming and just watching YouTube.

AD: Yeah! There's stuff online where I'm like, "I don't know how much of that I want him to have."

AK: There's a good quote on this. So one of our investors is Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that takes care of Sesame Street, and the founder of Sesame Street was this amazing woman called Joan Ganz Cooney. So she describes the purpose of Sesame Street when it started was to master the addictive qualities of television and do something useful with them. Rather than, "Ah, look at this demon." Say, "Look at this power. How can we humans harness it to prepare the next generation for the future, enrich our democracies, create more engaged and generative cultures." To use all the big words. But yeah, I think it's that.

AD: Good TED Talk, I'm ready for it.

AK: Anyone know someone who can get me an invite? But yeah: master social media, master the application paradigm, and do something useful.

AD: So I want to go into that, that idea of mastery, which is I think where we reflexively come these days to teach kids to code, right?

AK: Yeah.

AD: And it's this very mom and apple pie thing; nobody can be against teaching kids to code. I run a company that helps people code, and we've got lots of kids coding. So I'm not against it, but I'm always skeptical every time everybody is uniformly in favor of something. There's this narrative that's come up, and you and I talked about this earlier, but for a while it was like, "Well, your kid's going to be the next Mark Zuckerberg." Which now sounds not quite as complimentary, one; and two, is that what we want? Because there's all these implications about everything from complications of wealth to trust of people's information to all the other things that represents.

You're inside the world, where people point to what you create and say, "This is a thing that's going to teach your kid to code." What's your responsibility about that, and what's your attitude about should we teach every kid in the world to code?

AK: I think code is a means to an end rather than the end in and of itself. I think that the fetishization of programming and coding for kids otherizes it. The analogy I would draw is...if the first computer revolution was about using PCs — which previously only a small subsection of society did — if you were building them, people in the basement hacking together their own computers, that was niche. Now we all carry a personal computer in our pockets.

AD: It was really uncool. It's hard to overstate how uncool it was to be building and using computers in the 80s, and now people are like, "I want to come to Vegas and learn about technology."

AK: Totally. And it took great design, like the desktop paradigm, the folder structure, menus, drag and drop...

AD: Somebody had to invent all these things.

AK: Somebody invented that. We are trying to invent for the process of shaping and building computers and technology and apps, and you guys are doing amazing work on this too, and it would be wrong to fetishize the folder manager, menus, drag and drop. It's more about what they allow the user to do.

AD: So it's not the artefacts; it's empowerment.

AK: Yeah. Steve Jobs. Who knows this promise that Steve Jobs made in the early days that the personal computer should be the mind bicycle? Is anyone familiar with this?

AD: Bicycle for your mind, yeah. The inside tech coder nerd world, that's a very famous statement that he made.

AK: Yeah.


Steve Jobs: What a computer is to me is, it's the most remarkable tool that we've ever come up with, and it's the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.


I think it's about fulfilling that promise so people can make interesting things, have more control over the services they depend on, whether they learn this particular language or that along the way — great. But to your point, yeah — when we started the whole discourse was really bottom line, really pre-vocational, and to most kids we talk to, really, really boring. Build an app, sell it, make a million dollars.

AD: The impression that I get from a lot of teach kids to code efforts is they're like, "Well, if we do this right, the technology industry can hire coders more cheaply because there will be more of them."

AK: Yeah.

AD: They're just trying to make people that have this trade skill. I mean, that's find, if you're doing vocational training...sure. Learn to be a plumber, learn to be a coder, that's fine. But that's a different thing than understanding the role of technology in your life — which is almost like media literacy or civics — to learn how the systems around you affect you. But that seems to be different to "learn than code", isn't it?

AK: Yeah. I think there is an element to all of this, and this might be slightly controversial, where it's like a lot of the 'learn to code' efforts have arisen from within Big Tech, and a lot of them are funded by large technology corporations.

AD: Which are understandable. I think they're very sincere, and they do want more kids to learn to code. But also, it serves their interests to say "we can have more coders."

AK: Right. Exactly. Yeah. And reduce the average wage of a programmer which has risen to ridiculous, justified levels in the last few years. I think when those efforts arise from within Big Tech, it's like challenging from a design perspective because those in that world came up with technology and love it and live it and breathe it. And it's kind of the beginner's mind,and the artist's approach that sometimes is able to take something sealed and make it accessible and simple rather than the expert's approach from Big Tech. But I think there's a role to be played with the big companies and the small companies collaborating or I wouldn't be here in this Google Assistant group.

AD: So even on this thing aside, the coding aspect of it, how do we teach kids — anybody at any age — that technology could be something that we control, that we have agency over there, that we can be a wizard, we can be the one that sort of has this authority and not just something that happens to us and not just whatever device they happen to give us is the only choices we have?

AK: I mean, you could make them a Glitch account. You could buy them a Kano computer kit.

AD: Your check is in the mail. No, but I'm serious. Like, what does it take culturally? What does it take to change attitudes? Is it kids growing up with devices that they've created or programmed?

AK: I think that's an element of it, yeah. I think we've come into this age where you can get a really fast computer, a computer exponentially more powerful than the mainframe that took Apollo to the moon, for less than the cost of a curling iron. And, I think there's an element of wonder that needs to be restored.

I think four years ago when we started the company, the wonder was very much personalized. Like, you would watch a movie like "The Social Network", you would look at a TechCrunch onstage interview. It used to be that journalists were the people outside the building lobbing questions at the execs or the people in power as they exited, and the people in power were being shielded by their handlers.

I can't ever forget that Kara Swisher TechCrunch interview with Mark Zuckerberg on an elevated stage. And as soon as he gets asked a tough question on privacy and starts to sweat, Kara says, "What? Do you want to take off your sweater?" He takes off his sweater and he turns it around and he says, "You know, this is Facebook's mission".

AD: And inside his sweatshirt was, like, the runes of the Illuminati.

AK: Exactly.

AD: This is the weirdest thing I'd ever seen in my life.


Kara Swisher: It is a warm hoodie.

Mark Zuckerberg: Yeah. No, it's a thick hoodie. It's a company hoodie. We print our mission on the inside.

Kara Swisher: What? Oh, my God. The inside of the hoodie, everybody. Take a look. What is it? "Making the ..."

Mark Zuckerberg: "Making the world more open and connected".

Kara Swisher: Oh, my God. It's like a secret cult!

Mark Zuckerberg: Cool.

Kara Swisher: Look at that. "Making the world open and connected". Stream, graph, platform, and this weird symbol in the middle that is probably from the Illuminati.


AK: We felt that wonder then. Like, look at these boy geniuses that can do in 2 years what big companies with ten times the resources take 20 years to do. But, I think the wonder that we need to evoke now is like, "Look at this 12-year-old on Glitch who hacked Spotify and Google Voice. Look at this 16-year-old in Sierra Leone who built his own battery, added an FM radio transmitter...this was done with Kano, and started broadcasting tracks across his village under the name, DJ Focus. Look at what people can do...

AD: So rather than up on a pedestal and up on stage, that there's sort of ordinary creators — many of whom happen to be kids or young people — but not just, "Are you going to be the next billionaire?"

AK: Exactly, like generative artists, people combining code and music, people who are looking at decentralized networks, not just from the perspective of crypto and how to make a quick buck.

AD: It's not all Bitcoin.

AK: Yeah. It's not all Bitcoin, but how to protect data and build alternatives to the classic Internet. And I think, to your point on Instagram's square-like structure, people building their own websites and hosting their content there, that's not that hard. And anyone here, I think, could do it. That's a start. It's kind of like taking a civics class in school.

AD: Yeah. I want to get to that one point you mentioned there which is, creative coding or artistic coding. That's a whole scene, right? There are cultures all over the world of people expressing themselves through code and art. Is that something you see in your community or something you pay attention to?

AK: Our most popular app is called, Make Art. And it's a CoffeeScript...

AD: That wasn't a set-up, but that's pretty good.

AK: It worked well, yeah. It's like a CoffeeScript drawing program; people making fractals and trees and characters and animations. We have a girl in our community called "The Cool Guinea Pig" who has thousands of followers. And when she goes on vacation, she'll tell her followers she's going away and she's not going to be making art over that week because she's going to be on holiday.

AD: And it's not just painting. This is not like a paint app. This is using code to generate art. And it's visuals, music...

AK: Yeah. Make Art is more visuals, but you also have people making beats and melodies. Like, Kanye remains incredibly popular in the world of under 13 code art. Just so you all know.

AD: It's good to have a constituency.

AK: Yeah. I think that's really a big part of making this stuff accessible to everyone; showing that it's a way to express yourself, not just to solve a problem, which is typically the tech landscape formulation. How do we solve problems? How do we make money? How do you express yourself? How do you surprise someone? How do you tell a joke? Even if it means drawing a piece of human anatomy with code and sharing it on Twitter.

AD: The kids...do they make the Mother's Day card or whatever, or the birthday card on their devices and that's how they're creating this as they would of construction paper or markers?

AK: Yeah. Tons of that, making gifts for one another, making competitions. There was a Google logo competition on Kano. Which was like, who could remix the Google logo and you stretch it and change it.

AD: Well, Alex, thank you for taking the time. I really enjoyed getting to dive into this. I hope everybody gets a chance to think a little bit more about some of these narratives we hear about. We get excited about new devices, but where do they come from and what's the thought behind them? And we think about technology's role in our lives, and especially for children. How do we empower them to be creators and not just consumers? Obviously, we've gotten a chance to talk a lot about Kano and what you're doing.

If people want to find you, how do they find you and check it out?

AK: Just google Kano, K-A-N-O, or go to our website, K-A-N-O.me, Kano.me. You can see all of our computer and coding kits. You can see the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra conducting a beautiful composition with a magic wand. You can see the Weasly twins, and Steve Wozniak building and coding their own computers. And you can take on a few simple projects to get started.

AD: Very cool. Thank you for joining us. Thank you all for being here for our first ever, live recording of Function.

That's it for our conversation from CES. You know, being in Las Vegas for our biggest tech trade show of the year was almost overwhelming. There's all these blinking lights, super loudspeakers everywhere, all these devices that are just blinking and beeping and trying to get you to do things.

The wildest thing about that, especially when we had this conversation about kids and their relationship to technology, is imagining a whole generation that is born into that world. Those of us who are adults get to see these things develop and see Smart Phones getting invented. But, if this is the world you're born into, can you ever have a since that you control these technologies? Or, are they just something that's inevitable, that's just around you, that just happens to you? I think that's the thing that we're all reckoning with. Not just kids, but adults, everybody, whether it's in their personal life, in their work life. In every aspect of culture, we're thinking about the way that technology shapes the world around us, and that these little choices made by the people that create the technology really have huge impact on our lives.

It's interesting because that's a theme that has come up in every single one of these episodes that we've had of Function so far. I take it back to the first episode of the season. We talked to 2 Milly. He's the Brooklyn rapper that invented the Milly Rock and that's this dance that is in, not just Fortnite, but every single one of these popular video games. And we went deep on Fortnite. Like, how do the dances get in there? What do the creators do? And, just as importantly, do the creators of the dances get credited? Do they get compensated? And, at the time, I felt like, maybe we're taking this thing a little bit too seriously. Maybe it's not that big a deal.

But, you fast forward a little bit, it's not that much later. And all of a sudden, you have artists like Alfonso Ribeiro — who a lot of people know from The Fresh Prince [of Bel-Air]who is suing Epic Games over their depiction of his dance in their game, and a lot of other artists who are doing the same thing. And it starts to feel like something bigger is happening. Not just from video games, but in every aspect where somebody's writing a line of code, or putting a button on our phone, or putting a link on our screen. And it turns out that has huge impact in the way we live and what happens in culture, what happens in society. That connection just keeps rising and we have really enjoyed exploring that on Function.

We've got Season 2 coming, but we want to hear your ideas about the choices that are happening, the decisions that are happening in the technology we use, and the ways that it's changing the world around us that might not be that obvious.

Tell us what you want to hear from us. We've got a lot of ideas we're going to be working on. And in the meantime, please tell your friends about Function. We hope they'll give it a listen. We appreciate all of you who've shared, and listened, and told your friends about Function. It's been incredible to see it take off and really find an audience for an aspect of culture that is really overlooked when we talk about technology.

Well, that's it for this episode and for this season. Function is produced by Bridget Armstrong. Our associate producer is Maurice Cherry. Nishat Kurwa is the executive producer of audio for the Vox Media Podcast Network. Our engineers for this episode are Jarrett Floyd and Brandon McFarland, and our theme music was composed by Brandon McFarland.

Thanks to Google for hosting us at CES. And huge thanks to my team at Glitch for this episode, but also for the entire season of support on Glitch.com. You can follow me on Twitter, @AnilDash. Please remember to subscribe to the show wherever you listen. If you're just catching us at the end of the season, do go back and listen to the episodes earlier. We think you'll really enjoy them, and we'll be back soon with season two.