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From Issue #19 June 20, 2013

Parental Controls

Blocking computer access hardly offers a lesson in life.

By Marco Tabini Twitter icon 

An adult foolhardy enough to leave any mechanical, electrical, or electronic object within my reach as a child would return to find it dissected into its component parts. Like a pathological pathologist, I couldn’t resist performing autopsies on everything I could get my hands on.

But instead of taking the innards out and recombining them Frankenstein-like into something new and more powerful that I could call my own, I was baffled. I could tell that there was some sort of beautiful language behind technology, and yet the things I took apart spoke in tongues that I could not understand; that frustrated me. All I could do was take revenge on them by refusing to put them back together, much to the chagrin of the people around me.

I was otherwise a well-behaved kid. Even in my teenage years, my parents had few concerns about typical tragedies like causing an unwanted pregnancy or alcohol and drug abuse. Sex wasn’t part of my life until the time came when I could understand its consequences. Alcohol makes me sick. And I’ve always considered reality bizarre enough, without the need for further chemical alteration.

What my father says made his blood freeze in his veins like dry ice had nothing to do with any of that. Rather, according to him, the scariest words to leave my mouth came when I was 8 or 9 and asked, “Can I use the family computer?”

Switched on

My blue-collar, middle-class parents should have had little interest in computers. As far as they were concerned, such machinery belonged in laboratories, manned by serious scientists clad in white coats. They knew that computers printed out their meager paychecks, managed the mechanical computation of the bills they constantly struggled to pay, and, ultimately, had some part in the Cold War that still gripped the world with its weapons of unimaginable fear and mathematically assured mass destruction.

Despite their diffidence toward the machines, my father had purchased our used home model — a TI-99/4A — from a friend over mom’s loud objections. They eventually decided that they didn’t quite know what to make of it and left it to collect dust in a drawer. My history required that I spend some time cajoling them before I was finally allowed to use it, and even then it was only under strict orders to never attempt one of my experiments.

Once my folks relented and I got my hands on it, I fell instantly in love.

The computer was my Rosetta stone. I finally found a kind of technology that actually spoke to me in a language that opened up every possibility. I discovered games. I learned BASIC. And I found that I could make the machine do what I wanted without having to arm myself with screwdrivers and pliers — and that I could do it over and over again without wearing parts out or hurting myself.

I also discovered something else. When I was young, my father had told me computers would be everywhere. They soon were, from supermarket checkouts to ticketing kiosks. But the people tasked with managing them had little interest in understanding how they worked. That meant that technological loopholes could easily be exploited if one ignored the less-than-legal ramifications of one’s actions — something that is surprisingly easy to do when you’re under 18.

Ticket, please

My first and only foray into the darker side of computing came when the local transit authority installed kiosks that could print tickets on the spot. Unfortunately for the authority, the stubs were printed on plain yellow paper using a two-color dot-matrix printer of the kind you find today attached to old-fashioned cash registers.

There was no real attempt at security; the integrity of the system was predicated on the fact that the average person would not have easy access to the equipment required to replicate its output. I, however, was no ordinary person: I owned a computer. After a few trips to the local office supply store and a bit of trial and error, I was walking around with a handy collection of fake ticket stubs in my pocket, ready for any transit line, fare zone, and time of day.

Ticket inspections were frequent, but often uneventful, as my fakes were as good as originals. One day, I took things too far and mistakenly printed fare information on both sides of the same piece of paper. It was the last ticket I had with me, and I had to use it — and, of course, I was stopped by a ticket inspector.

He was a portly, middle-aged man with short, dark hair, hyperopic glasses that made his eyes look unnaturally large, a dark-blue uniform with the letters “ATC”1 marked on the breast pocket of his shirt, and a strangely high-pitched voice. He asked for my ticket. I thought I was done for. Humiliation, shame, jail time — my mind raced through all the possible kinds of punishment I’d endure from the establishment at which I had so brashly thumbed my nose.

I handed over my two-sided stub, attempting to remain outwardly calm while my insides were about to collapse into a heap of fear. The man looked at the yellow paper, its sides slightly wrinkled because the real machines had a habit of crimping them where the transport gears touched, and I was gunning for an artistic level of counterfeiting. He examined one side, then the other, squeaked a single, “Interesting,” then smiled and handed the stub back to me. “These computers! They can be so funny.”

That was it. My brush with the law had come and gone before I really had a chance to register it. But far from being emboldened, I felt deeply ashamed. In my mind, the Man had lost its capital letter, and I had just conned a man not unlike my own father, someone who would soon go home to his wife and children, sit on his couch, and watch TV.

I returned home, gathered all my yellow paper, and threw it away.

Growing pains

My brief criminal career wasn’t the end of my trouble. By the time I was a teenager, my TI-99 had been replaced by a more modern PC, and my solitary experimentation had grown into a network of like-minded friends and acquaintances who preferred talking about computers to spending an afternoon playing soccer.

Inevitably, every one of us ended up running afoul of our parents. Computers consumed our lives, taking time away from the sacred trifecta of open air, sunshine, and exercise that has dominated parental guidance since the dawn of the human race. Nearly all of us had our computer privileges revoked at some point or other. Power cables and power bricks were confiscated; curfews were imposed.

Eventually, we discovered modems and bulletin-board systems and started racking up impossible phone bills, waging war with our parents on a whole new front.2 Once again, attempts to curb our rule-breaking failed; late in my teens, I remember artfully dodging my parents for two weeks after a particularly nasty bill. When they eventually caught up, I had to pay the whole thing out of my own pocket.3

We youngsters used computers to push the envelope in terms of what was deemed acceptable, and our parents patiently stood one step behind us, making up the rules of the game as they went along, and intervening only when we stepped over what they judged to be the line dividing right from wrong. In a sense, we were all learning to deal with something for which there was no historical point of reference; what divided us was the conflict between the generational responsibility of adulthood and the carefree stupidity of youth.

Still, it’s obvious that, despite the lack of ancient wisdom and guidance, our parents did something right. There is absolutely nothing remarkable about the kids I grew up with: we all made it to adulthood more or less in one piece, and, to the best of my knowledge, our wild years of computing didn’t push anyone into any significant trouble.

Like father, like son

As I type this, my two children are sitting across from me, playing with their iPads. One is reading an e-book; the other lazily playing a game. Computers hold no wonder for them. If people in the 1950s saw computers as the tool that gave us weapons of incalculable power, I see them as capable of much more targeted harm. The Internet and social media have turned them into weapons of personal destruction. It doesn’t take much: post an inappropriate photo on a social media site or copy the wrong digital file, and your life could suffer in ways that may take years to fix or dog you forever.

Of course, unlike our parents, we can rely on parental controls that are implemented right into every piece of technology at our disposal. But these are merely a modern equivalent of confiscating a computer’s power cable. It’s an abrogation of parental responsibility that can only truly satisfy people who have forgotten what devious bastards they were when they were 15.

The tools in modern operating systems to limit time or block age-inappropriate Web sites supposedly magically make it impossible for children to get into harm’s way. Instead, they create a bigger problem: these blocks fail to aid them in creating the critical judgment skills that will allow them to understand why their behavior is unacceptable.

My wife and I refuse to delegate our jobs as parents to a machine, but we also have rejected the notion that we should firmly control the lives of our children. Rather, we have embraced gently guiding them. We make sure that the time they spend on tablets and computers is properly supervised so that we can teach them how to safely and thoughtfully navigate the problems they encounter. It’s scary, and it’s hard work, but we hope it’s for the best.

My wife says every generation has its computer, its television, and its pulp magazines: innovations that exist in the gap between adults — who don’t quite understand them — and children, who perhaps do not quite comprehend their consequences. Like our parents, our job is to let the kids explore, following close behind to make sure they don’t accidentally step on a (virtual) hornet’s nest.

Photo by Marc Biebusch. Used under Creative Commons license.


  1. “Azienda Trasporti Consortile” — roughly translated to “Publicly owned Transportation Company” — is still the name of the transportation authority in my hometown of La Spezia

  2. In Italy in the late ’80s and early ’90s, local phone calls were billed in time increments, just as with long-distance calls in North America. A one-hour call in the middle of the day could cost well in excess of 1,000 lire, which, multiplied by several hours’ usage a day, would quickly turn into a nasty surprise in the familial mailbox at the end of the month. 

  3. My father has always had a knack for turning financial misfortune into a life lesson. As a police officer, he could have easily kept me being penalized for almost any traffic infraction. But he made it very clear from the moment I got my driver’s license that he never would — and made good on his threat when I received my first parking violation. As a result, I have been a very careful driver all my life. 

Marco Tabini is an entrepreneur and writer based in Toronto, Canada. For the last 10 years, he has been the owner and publisher of php|architect magazine, a position which he has just left to bootstrap a startup that focuses on Web-enabled APIs.

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