Personal Data Security: NAS

Today’s blog post is another in the theme of personal data security and an excerpt from my new book Understanding Personal Data Security. We all have lots of data. Statistically, however, nearly half of us never back it up. As in never. But part of the reason for this might be that our data is scattered among many different computers and devices, making the task of backup difficult.security

Part of the solution is to centralize your data. You don’t have to be a Buddhist like Steve Jobs to understand that simple is better than complex. In the case of your personal data and media files, storing and accessing them from a single location on your home network can make the task of backup that much easier. And the best way to centralized your data is with Network Attached Storage.

You might want to also read my previous blog posts Personal Data Security: Backups and 3-2-1 Backup Rule: Get Offsite before diving into this one.

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Curt Robbins


Network Attached Storage

Typically the best way for home networks to centralize data is using a dedicated hard drive that attaches to your home network, usually via your internet/wi-fi router. Called Network Attached Storage, or NAS, this is a special hard drive (or enclosure that holds multiple drives) that has just enough hardware and software wrapped around it that all of the other computers on your network can recognize it and copy, modify, and delete files. A NAS drive, sometimes called a NAS server, is nothing more than a big storage space into which all of your computers dump their data. You can’t install or run applications using such a device. It’s not a full-fledged computer, but simply intelligent network-accessible storage.

NAS servers have been around long enough that prices have fallen to where consumers can easily afford such a device to centralize their data storage. Some NAS devices include backup software, most of which can perform automated incremental backups (you’ll learn more about these topics in the Backups chapter that follows). Personally, my family and I store all of our data on a NAS, giving us a single drive volume to backup.

There are two primary types of NAS devices, each with a different target audience and cost. Entry-level NAS units have one or two fixed hard drives, meaning the disk drive(s) can’t be swapped out and, thus, the capacity of the device can’t be expanded. If you purchase such a “fixed” NAS, you’ll have to purchase a new one when you either run out of space or one of the disks fails. The other, more robust type of NAS features between two and eight open bays, each of which holds a single, removable disk drive. Some multi-drive (also called multi-bay) NAS models are sold diskless (no pre-installed drives), allowing you to use existing drives or purchase your own. It should be noted that there are a few two-drive NAS models on the market that feature fixed disk drives, meaning both drives can’t be replaced when they die.

One of the best solutions, which strikes a nice middle ground, is a multi-bay NAS that is sold pre-populated with removable drives and even preconfigured for data mirroring. This approach allows you to avoid the hassle of purchasing, installing, and configuring hard disk drives for your NAS, but still allows you to upgrade all drives to achieve more storage capacity or replace a single defective drive unit.

Some manufacturers, like Western Digital, offer a NAS solution for nearly every need and budget. For example, the company’s My Cloud Mirror features two fixed drives and a single USB 3.0 port. The My Cloud EX2 (sporting two bays) and My Cloud EX4 (four bays) both offer removable storage and ship with Western Digital’s NAS-optimized Red drives pre-installed and configured for data mirroring (a real-time data replication scheme described below). The EX series also features two USB 3.0 ports, allowing you to create your offsite backups that much faster and reliably (in real-world performance, USB 3.0 is roughly four to ten times faster than USB 2.0). You’ll learn more about reputable NAS models later in this chapter.

RAID

While more expensive, multi-drive NAS devices offer greater flexibility in terms of how you store and backup your data. For example, most multi-drive NAS servers (including both fixed and removable drive models) offer the ability to run a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks). There are a variety of types, or “levels,” of RAID. According to Wikipedia, “each scheme provides a different balance between the key goals: Reliability and availability, performance, and capacity. RAID levels greater than RAID 0 provide protection against unrecoverable (sector) read errors, as well as whole disk failure.”

It should be noted that a multi-drive RAID setup can also be installed in a PC. The best route, however, is a dedicated NAS plugged into your internet router or Ethernet switch. This saves you the headaches associated with maintaining a full computer and the risks that come with operating it. The likelihood of failure for a PC is greater than for a dedicated NAS server that quietly sits attached to your home network. The NAS will also consume much less power.

Although there are seven levels of RAID multi-drive configuration, only one—RAID 1—is of concern to consumers with home networks. RAID levels 2 through 6 are more performance-oriented and appeal to enterprise organizations trying to do things like optimize database queries and speed real-time online transactions. While your nerdy niece may advocate one of the higher RAID levels, RAID 1 is really all you need.

RAID 1

RAID 1 incorporates mirroring, in which data is written to two or more drives simultaneously to create a “mirrored set.” Thus, if you had a NAS device that supported RAID 1 and featured, say, four drive bays, you could install three drives (leaving one drive bay empty), one of which would be your primary storage and the other two of which would function as your local (onsite) backups that were always current.

RAID 1 illustrates the power of using multiple hard drives in a single drive enclosure (or computer) to protect your data. Think of RAID 1 as a real-time backup system. The disadvantage? This popular RAID standard gives you great onsite data redundancy (and, thus, backup), but does nothing to get your data offsite.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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Innovation: Not a Purple Pencil

Companies today are obsessed with innovation. As they should be. Call it a “paradigm shift,” “disruption,” or simply a “new age.” It’s all the same. If publish or perish is the mantra of academics, then smart companies should be preaching “disrupt or die.”

Marketing efforts prevail, however. Middle class consumers are continually told that the companies from which they purchase goods and services are innovative. But innovation isn’t a #2 pencil on which a company slaps a coat of purple instead of yellow paint. Innovation is a mechanical pencil you can re-use forever, simply purchasing new lead (especially when we’re running out of trees).

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Innovation isn’t a slightly better something, it’s a new something. True innovation from companies is customer-centric. It isn’t the Chevy Volt, with a battery pack cozying up to an internal combustion engine. It’s a fully electric Tesla Model S or a Nissan Leaf, with zero engine noise, more storage space, and connectivity to your smartphone. Disruption isn’t Comcast or Time Warner Cable offering on-demand video streaming or more digital channels. It’s Netflix and Vudu turning the industry upside down and encouraging cord cutting. Improving things for consumers isn’t Hewlett-Packard or Dell cranking out laptops with faster chips and higher resolution screens. It’s Apple, Samsung, and Google producing leading-edge mobile devices and wearables—and making them interactive with our homes and vehicles.

Innovation comes from companies like Netflix, Tesla Motors, Apple, and USAA. It was USAA, the financial services company serving primarily military customers, that introduced taking a photo of a cheque to deposit it. Why was it the little guy, USAA, that developed this consumer-friendly and extremely practical “technology”? Where were Bank of America and Citibank, with their voluminous resources? Probably on the golf course or lobbying in D.C., not forming research labs to produce such consumer-friendly and competition-smashing tech.

In a recent blog post, I discussed the lack of innovation in the auto industry. The proof? Nearly all cars seem the same. Most people I know can ride to lunch with a friend and, after returning, not be able to tell you the brand of car in which they were transported. Yet we can identify an iPad from across the street. While standardization is important, especially for safety, this reflects laziness among the executive ranks of so many companies. For the auto industry specifically, it seems they’d rather play copy cat than focus on real innovation. Innovation isn’t marketing BS. It’s customers and owners telling their co-workers and neighbors “You gotta get one of these!” When was the last time someone told you that regarding their car, lawn mower, or laptop computer?

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The Fremont, California manufacturing facility now occupied by Tesla Motors was previously a GM/Toyota partnership. This is wonderfully symbolic of the changes we’re about to witness in the auto industry. If you think disruption is just Pandora and Snapchat, think again. Let competitors partner on bland products that motivate consumers to say meh and dread the experience of a visit to their local car dealership or Best Buy. Meanwhile, companies like Tesla Motors, Netflix, Apple, and Google will build the new world atop the boneyard of the old dinosaurs. It’s the phoenix from the ashes, and it’s happening right in front of us.

Don’t partner with your competitors—defeat them. Innovate, disrupt, and blow the other guys away. Yes, there are valid opportunities for “coopetition.” Industry consortiums and standards groups are sometimes essential to progress in the marketplace and the interoperability of products and services from different companies. But allowing the accountants to navigate the ship, relying on economies of scale and rationalized partnerships with your enemies is short-term, borderline desperate thinking.

In today’s world, true innovation is disruptive, sustainable, and genuinely enticing to consumers. The only reason most of us aren’t parking a Tesla Model S in our garage is because of the relatively high cost (a topic about which co-founder and CEO Elon Musk has been very honest). But what about 2017, when Tesla introduces it’s roughly $35,000 Model 3? What about when Nissan gets the Leaf to crank out more than 200 miles from a single charge? What? You don’t want a car that produces virtually no sound, features more storage, produces no harmful exhaust, is super-sporty and fast, and costs a fraction of what’s required for gas-powered vehicles to fuel and maintain? Please forgive my cavalier attitude, but I’d say you’re freaking nuts.

If the company for which you work desires to survive and thrive in the 21st century, it must embrace this spirit of ultra-competitive and reality-based innovation. If it doesn’t, the new guys are going to be purchasing your office building or manufacturing facility to produce what middle class consumers really want—and your company will be relegated to nothing more than an obscure Wikipedia entry.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Auto Industry: Slow on Tech Innovation

It’s the time of year in America when our kids are back in school and the auto industry has released next year’s models, so let’s talk about consumer tech in cars. It’s nice that even some entry-level automobiles feature cool tech like Bluetooth, backup cameras (mandatory in all cars sold in the United States by 2018), and in-built wireless technologies like 4G. But why do I always get the feeling that the auto industry is continually dragging its heels, always playing catch up with mobile devices and all the wireless tech with which we’re surrounded on a daily basis?

With consumers habituated to fast upgrade cycles for items like smartphones and personal computers, why is the auto industry so bloody slow when it comes to jumping on the same bandwagon? Just like the consumer electronics industry, car companies release new models every year, so they certainly have the opportunity.

tesla model s replacement for blogI can almost understand a conspiracy theorist who might insist that auto manufacturers are colluding in their seeming refusal to embrace new tech and interoperability between our mobile devices and their products. Yes, there was Microsoft Sync in Ford’s automobiles (RIP) and Apple has introduced CarPlay, which began rolling out in a few 2014 models (and works only with Apple’s products; this isn’t an industry standard). But this still feels more like a push from tech titans like Apple and Microsoft than true innovation from the auto industry itself. Simply connecting to our existing mobile devices is part of the equation, but where’s the “gee whiz” stuff?

Where is the Angry Birds or Snapchat of automobiles?

Yes, I do like “new” technologies like LED taillights, adaptive cruise control, and computer-controlled suspension systems. But we’re talking innovation here. While uber-cool, these are tech that have been around for a long time. In fact, it’s a sign of how slow the automobile industry is not only to innovate, but simply to roll out existing technologies based on past innovations. While LED lights are finally beginning to trickle down to even entry-level cars, nice tricks like laser-based adaptive cruise control and sci-fi-inspired head-up displays are still the territory of luxury vehicles.

We expect a culture of affordable innovation from companies like Google, Apple, and Samsung. It’s the foundation of their existence. But the fact that they have to push their tech on the auto industry is sad. Yes, really cool technology is expensive and auto manufacturers don’t want to reduce their already sometimes razor-thin profit margins. I get it. But we also know that truly innovative tech becomes considerably less expensive as more consumers jump on the bandwagon. Any manufacturer that decides to roll out a given technology (LED taillights, for example) across it’s entire catalog will experience such per-unit price discounts that the cost of this tech should not be its primary concern. What should be? Beating the competition by satisfying the tech lust of middle class consumers. But if recession-strapped Americans gobbling up $600 iPads at unheard of rates isn’t enough to convince auto execs of this, what is?

Where are the advanced sound systems that use basic acoustic science to drown out road noise and vastly improve our listening experience? Where is the uttered “down window” that prevents me from taking my hands off the wheel? Just the fact that so many cars manufactured today lack auto-on headlamps is enough to make you cry. Unfortunately, auto industry executives just don’t seem to get it. At least not when it comes to innovations that satisfy consumer demand and recognize dominant social trends.

It’s nice to know that if you were frozen in a cryogenic chamber 35 years ago and awoke today, you could capably drive a 2014 or 2015 model car. Yes, we need standardization. But when I jump in a friend’s sedan and we cruise down the road and I can’t even tell who manufactured the vehicle without looking at its badging, I think we have a problem.

nissan leaf for linkedinWith the distinct exception of Toyota’s Prius hybrid, Nissan’s all-electric LEAF, and anything from Tesla, cars seem to totally lack differentiation. Sometimes it feels like they’re all manufactured by one huge World Car Corp. and they simply offer a wide range of shapes, sizes, luxury levels, and prices. This is especially painful given the price of automobiles. Really, Buick and Kia, the best you can do is Bluetooth, LED lights, and a crappy, difficult-to-navigate touch screen on the dashboard?

Voice navigation and head-up displays are probably the most promising uses of new-tech we’ve seen in a while. Both improve driver attention where it matters: At the road. And both are way-cool and enticing features. But while many of us actually have Bluetooth or backup cameras in our vehicles, how many can control the music or air conditioning in our cars with our voice?

Exactly.

This is probably one of my lousiest blog posts in terms of educating readers or making a good point (like me, chances are you’re simply angrier now). I’m basically just whining. But at $20,000 to $60,000, the value proposition for tech in cars is among the lowest of any consumer purchase. Considering how much we spend on personal transportation, I think we’re all entitled to a bit of whining—whether you drive a Toyota Yaris or a BMW M5.

I sincerely love that Google, Ford, and Volvo are doing some incredible things with advanced perimeter sensing, collision avoidance, and automated parking in their quest for better safety and, eventually, fully autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars make for great headlines in the media. But while we salivate over this future tech, the cars actually sitting in our driveways aren’t that much different from models from ten or even fifteen years ago—and none of us would use a cell phone or computer from 15 years ago, would we?

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Curt Robbins

[See also Time for Tesla and Electric Car Adoption: Not Why You Think.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Kevlar Woofers & Affordable Home Theater

3d1When I had to choose the backdrop photo for this blog, I instinctively opened the folder on my network storage device that contained my most recent photos. I had one I especially liked that I perceived to express the tone and flavor of this blog: The yellow Kevlar woofer from one of the B&W surround speakers in my living room.

I realized how small the world can be sometimes. The device on which I had archived and from which I was accessing this photo was one of the central topics of my latest ebook, Understanding Personal Data Security. But the content of the photo itself, the funky Kevlar woofer, was one of the many topics covered in two of my new books, Understanding Home Theater and Home Theater for the Internet Age. In all honesty, the purpose of this blog is to share ideas covered in this new series of books—available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Basically, this blog is a supplement (think of it as the free dessert that comes with your ebook meal). Which makes it ironic if you’re reading it standalone, but I’m glad it can work that way in this funky web 2.0 intellectual property economy.

About this time you might be asking “What’s so cool about yellow Kevlar woofer cones?” Well, first, they represent passion, commitment, and technical excellence. I know, that sounds dorky, but hear me out. They really do. Especially if we use objective metrics like money or time to measure the importance of a topic like home theater, which the yellow woofer obviously represents. Speakers featuring kevlar woofer cones, from companies like B&W and Noble Fidelity, are typically a tad better than your average variety.

If you’re a hobbyist, you put real money and plenty of time into your hobby. For my wife, it’s the springtime bonanza of gardening and flower landscaping that consumes a decent amount of money and tons of her time. For a buddy of mine in Colorado, it’s an expensive carbon fiber racing bicycle and race entry fees. For yet another friend in Texas, it’s cruising around the Gulf of Mexico in his 30-foot sailboat. In other words, most middle class consumers have one or more hobbies and, by definition, drop a considerable amount of disposable income into them.

Kevlar woofer in a B&W 705 speaker.

Kevlar woofer in a B&W 705 speaker

Another function of this blog is to lend transparency to my books. If you’re a real tech geek or connected consumer and want to dig deeper, this blog is the free value-add for my books. Because my entire book catalog must be updated bi-annually (based on the dynamic pace of the technical topics covered), this blog gives you an opportunity to provide feedback and maybe even influence the content of future editions.

Now, back to home theater.

One of the things that prompted me to publish Home Theater for the Internet Age and the subset, Understanding Home Theater, was the fact that consumers of all income levels can now enjoy quality big-ass display panels and real surround sound involving five or six speakers. Yes, there’s certainly a difference between a $2,500 home theater system and one costing ten times as much. But what can be purchased for between $2,000 and $15,000 is truly mind blowing. The convergence of computer, wireless networking, and home entertainment technologies—combined with the proliferation of media streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora—has resulted in price points and functionality that even the most optimistic home theater fan could not have imagined a decade ago.

In addition, the production quality of even mediocre television content and basically all films involves widescreen high-definition video and surround sound comprised of at least six separate audio channels, including a dedicated subwoofer feed that you can feel as much as hear. This, plus the affordability of popular media streaming services like iTunes, Google Play, and Rhapsody has resulted in a very consumer-friendly home theater market. This consumer-friendliness is in terms of both the raw capabilities of the receivers, Blu-ray players, and streaming media boxes that consumers are installing in their living rooms and also how bloody affordable even mid-grade examples of these product categories have become. Go entry-level and you’ll really blow your mind in terms of what you can get for your money in 2014.

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Curt Robbins

[See also Home Theater Basics, Home Theater: Surround Sound Basics, and Take My Remote, Please.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Chromecast for Christmas

Like a few million other tech geeks and home theater aficionados, I was one of the first people to purchase a Chromecast streaming media dongle from Google back in August 2013. For those of you unfamiliar, Chromecast, which is about the size of a Rubenesque USB flash drive, plugs into your home theater audio/video receiver or TV and allows you to use your mobile devices and computers to send internet-based streaming media (like movies, music, and games) to your TV and surround sound speakers.chromecast

At $35, Chromecast is a steal. Best of all, especially for families like mine, this groovy media streamer is platform agnostic. Your iOS-based iPhones and iPads and your Android smartphones and tablets can take equal advantage. In other words, you don’t have to worry about compatibility with your existing mobile devices and computers.

Success at Home

Having only a few months prior installed two new home theaters in my house, Chromecast perfectly complimented a family where everyone has at least one (and typically two) personal mobile devices and there’s an average of one PC per human—but where everyone also loves to sit in front of a big display panel and enjoys surround sound through real speakers (not the crappy ones built into your TV; they’re a joke). Every family member, on nearly a daily basis, began streaming music from Pandora and Songza and video from Netflix, iTunes, and Hulu Plus (some of which we could already do using Apple’s wi-fi-based AirPlay). All from our iPod Touches, iPads, iPhones, and Nexus 7 tablets, as well as our three Windows 7 laptops and a slick little Mac Mini. If the zombie apocalypse results in a shortage of silicon, looters will surely stop at my house on their way to Silicon Valley.

Having gained so much value from such an inexpensive and fun device, Chromecast obviously was at the top of my gift giving list for the 2013 holidays. Because of its incredible ease of use, I didn’t have to worry about whether the recipient was a techie. If he or she could plug the device into an HDMI port and install apps on a smartphone, they were basically in business.

The One that Worked

I gifted two Chromecasts, one each to two different friends (one in Ohio, the other in Colorado). My friend in Ohio, a single guy with no kids, instantly fell in love with his new media streamer, using it on a 23-inch computer monitor in his dining room to watch stuff on Netflix.

Once when I visited for dinner and drinks, we watched a James Bond movie on Netflix with the volume cranked. I was amazed that a $130 computer monitor and a $35 HDMI dongle—combined with the Samsung Galaxy smartphone already in my friend’s pocket—were able to produce such stellar (and portable) results. I might never walk on the moon, but I have at least seen home entertainment and media distribution reach this point of ease and amazing affordability.

The One that Didn’t

My other friend in Colorado, a married dude with three teenage daughters, never mentioned his Chromecast. We’ve been drinking pals for twenty years, so this wasn’t interpreted as rude. But I was curious as to how he was enjoying it or if he was even using it. After all, different strokes for different folks, and many homes aren’t quite as digitally enhanced as mine and those of other tech journalists.

christmas story blindIt turns out that my buddy wasn’t using his Chromecast. In fact, he hadn’t even installed it. I politely said my feelings weren’t hurt, but I was curious as to why he wasn’t. Turns out he wasn’t entirely sure what it did. Ok, fair enough. I explained the benefits, including the screen mirroring function introduced in the summer of 2014.

It was at this point in the conversation that I realized where the train jumped the tracks. A misperception on my part had resulted in me giving a strikingly inappropriate gift. However, in my defense, when considering my friend’s present, I knew he had a killer surround sound home theater (I had enjoyed big budget CGI-laden films like Transformers on it) and was a subscriber to Netflix. He also had several mobile devices floating around his house, including his daughter’s Nexus 7 tablet and five smartphones. He was perfectly outfitted to enjoy Chromecast.

Or so I thought.

Turns out his subscription to Netflix was for the disc-by-mail service, not the considerably more popular streaming option. And the role of Pandora in his life for streaming music was limited to the thousands of miles he logs on the road, in his car, as a sales dude visiting customers.

After discussing the topic for about five minutes, I realized that his family’s use of and dependence upon streaming media was 180 degrees opposite that of my house. I had truly made a poor choice by gifting my buddy in Colorado a Chromecast. It is gathering dust in a box in his basement—and probably will forever.

Simply because his family doesn’t consume streaming media. Unlike my household, they aren’t cord cutters. They subscribe to cable TV.

This will teach me to assume that a subscription to Netflix is for streaming. Even more ironic, my Colorado friend once subscribed to both the streaming side of Netflix as well as the by-mail disc service. He found that his family rarely used the streaming service, so he intelligently cancelled it. I originally subscribed to both sides of Netflix as well, but did the opposite: I nixed the disc service because the four people in my home were using only streaming (and tons of it).

Lessons Learned

Sometimes we become so entrenched in a particular digital or media consumption lifestyle that it’s difficult to understand that someone else—with a nearly identical technical infrastructure and demographic—might practice something very different. My friend’s reliance on physical discs over a broadband-based media streaming service had nothing to do with a lack of gear.

He has fast broadband, mobile devices, a killer surround sound home theater, and his family has an appetite for movies and TV shows. Unlike many, he gave streaming media a chance, and for a long time paid for a service from which he and his family gained almost no benefit, based purely on their particular lifestyle. He certainly isn’t a laggard or a Luddite. Like the rest of us, he simply doesn’t want to waste his money on products or services that provide him with little or no value.

Let’s chalk this one up to lessons learned (a $35 lesson, to be exact). But if you’re thinking of gifting someone a streaming media device for the holidays (like an Apple TV, one of those cool Roku boxes, a Chromecast, or maybe the game-friendly Amazon Fire TV), first learn if the intended recipient is even a consumer of streaming media in the first place. Just being a gadget freak, owning an iPad, or enjoying technology doesn’t necessarily mean that your gift of streaming media will be the one that keeps on giving.

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Curt Robbins

[See also Streaming Media Stick Wars and Apple TV: Best Media Streamer?]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Social Media’s Anti-Socialization Myth

Last November, I was visiting my in-laws in Maryland for Thanksgiving. After dinner, during a kitchen table conversation regarding the effect of internet-connected mobile devices and social media on the six grandchildren in her house, my mother-in-law asserted that these elements were detrimental to the face-to-face socialization opportunities and practices of the ten to fourteen-year-olds scurrying around her.

She was concerned about the amount of time they were spending using their iPod Touches, iPads, and Nexus tablets to engage in social media using services like Snapchat, Vine, Instagram, and Kik. I’ve heard this exact perspective shared by others—often older folks or those who engage with technology less than the average bear. There’s also those who simply don’t share the wanderlust of modern millennials toward their back pocket smartphones and wi-fi-connected touchscreens.

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With all due respect to my mother-in-law, I say pshaw and call BS on this perspective. It’s an attitude and fear that is increasingly pervasive among paranoid helicopter parents and those who spent the bulk of their lives without this technology (whether it was the result of poverty, preference, or simply the lack of its existence). Unfortunately, ignorance breeds fear. The myriad online virtual communities, especially when combined with broadband bit rates, are not corrupting the social skills and manners of our children. In fact, I contend that they are enhancing these brick-and-mortar skills.

Before you call BS on me, let me explain. Via school, marching band, volunteer activities, neighborhood friends, shopping, the library, and other activities, I believe the average middle class child of today gets plenty of face-to-face socialization. Instead of replacing in-person interactions, mobile device-based social media are actually supplementing them. We’re augmenting what we’ve always done as humans. We’re still sitting around camp fires telling scary stories, but we’re now also telling those stories on Tumblr, Facebook, WordPress, and Twitter.

My 13-year-old daughter can slam out text on her iPod Touch faster than any human I’ve witnessed. She owns the iOS keyboard on that little four-inch screen, making it beg and whimper as she hits a words-per-minute level that’s probably in the top five percent of her peers. But this mastery doesn’t come cheap. Practice makes perfect, as my grandmother used to say, and this girl has spent more time locked into her mobile device and sucking down virtual companionship and cultural enrichment from our 20 Mbps AT&T broadband connection than I’d care to estimate. (See? Even a middle-aged tech zealot like me echoes the theme of overindulgence among teens when it comes to social media.)

Considering the huge investment of time and effort she’s made in these app-based networking services, are my daughter’s social skills lacking? Hardly. She’s probably the most social member of our family. I contend that she has twice the social skills of some Amish kid cruelly deprived of technology and modern social media. She can pull it off in-person with a cute charm that will make even a jaded curmudgeon smile, while also maintaining a dynamic and complicated world of relationships on social media. And yes, Aunt Mildred, that’s all without negatively affecting her grades or volunteer activities.

Not only does social media not put a ding in the real-world social skills of these kids, it often directly enhances them. My daughter, when using Instagram to communicate her love for a particular pop band, made a friend in Canada who actually paid us a visit in the States. OMG, social media benefited the real world! People enjoy making black-and-white arguments and ignoring the thousand shades of grey that compose any issue of serious consideration and its real-world ramifications (and effect on our loved ones). The virtual, i.e. social media world feeds our “face-to-face” reality, and vice versa. Ignoring such a detailed dynamic gets a Luddite button pinned to your chest and moves you painfully close to those who believe the Apollo moon landings were filmed in a studio in Southern California.

riley for framing 2This is like arguing whether women or men are better athletes. To address roughly fifty percent of 7.2 billion people in a way that assumes they all have similar attributes or qualities is simply foolish and shows that more of these misguided souls need to take basic stats and psych classes in college. Some kids are really social, and it will show in both their physical and virtual social worlds—which will surely interact. Other kids are shy or introverted, and they will probably exhibit these characteristics in both their online and real-world personas.

In fact, if anything, a virtual or social media-based existence allows those who may be somewhat agoraphobic or simply lack the self-confidence of the average person (sometimes common among teens) to engage with likeminded others in a way possibly too intimidating if performed face-to-face. Working with social media “training wheels” may actually help young people engage in real life, proving to them that they can successfully conduct and gain enrichment from interactions with others—regardless of the forum. Having options is good. Today, our kids have more varied and dynamic social opportunities than at any time in the history of humans.

Another criticism of modern social media is the detrimental effects of the spasmodic multitasking that often accompanies a teen’s use of several different services at once. I would actually contend that juggling a variety of social media helps teens learn the reality of modern life and its requirement of multitasking. The merits, costs, and benefits of multitasking can be argued until the cows come home. Regardless of the inherent effects of multitasking, kids who are active in social media are going to, on average, be better suited to the realities of a task-juggling world—especially fast-paced work environments and cubicle farms, which are largely digital and screen-based (even for non-technical jobs).

Let’s not allow the pros and cons of multitasking (or any element of modern internet-based culture) to obfuscate the fact that the United States is so lacking in competent high-end technical skills that it must import them from countries like India and Pakistan. I would argue that social media often help children and teens to gain an acceptance and comfort level with technology, inviting them into a world where they desire to understand and maybe even create and manage the technical underpinnings of their incredible mobile devices and hyper-dynamic internet-based social networks.

Our children’s socialization skills are surely critical as they mature and enter educational institutions and eventually take on careers and families of their own. But assuming that social media, multitasking, and virtual online communities are somehow nefariously harming the face-to-face lives of our children is bogus. For sharing ideas, educating themselves, being entertained, seeking mentoring, chatting with peers, and otherwise engaging with likeminded people, social media brings an efficiency and cost/benefit ratio that is often impossible in the real world. This is especially true for those separated by great physical distances, like a kid in Tokyo who wants to talk about the TV show Supernatural or the band Panic! at the Disco with a kid in Cleveland.

Is negatively criticizing young people for harnessing the opportunity to dynamically interact and share ideas—across borders, cultures, and stigmas—really the approach we want to take?

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Curt Robbins

[See also Tweetin’ ‘Bout My Generation.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.