Tired of your Big Tech overlords? This startup thinks coding and build-your-own computer kits can help you break free

Building and coding our own computers make us better equipped to tackle Big Tech.

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Can Kano's Computer Kit turn kids into masters of the technology around them?

Image: Kano

Can Kano's Computer Kit turn kids into masters of the technology around them?

Like superheroes, startups always like to have a good origin story; computer kit-maker Kano outdoes its peers by managing to have two.

The impulse for the company, which makes a range of build-it-yourself computer kits and beginners' coding tools, came from the six-year-old cousin of one of the founders who wanted a computer that was easy to build.

The company's first product was its Computer Kit, a collection of components including a power supply, Raspberry Pi, cables, case, SD card, and keyboard that kids could build into a basic computer. The original Kickstarter project back in 2013 raised $1.5m to bring the idea to life.

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"We started with basically a bunch of bits in a box and a challenge from my little cousin to make a computer that he could make himself, as simple and as fun as Lego," says CEO and co-founder Alex Klein.

But Klein's own interest in the innards of PCs went back even further, to when his Macbook got smashed.

"I think I was about 12 and I was being a bit of a little shit and someone very near and dear to me smashed it to pieces. I remember I was in the garden, there were pieces in the grass and I was going through the pieces trying to find the hard drive, which I only vaguely knew about. That was the first time I saw the inside of a computer, and I found it so magical; it's one of the reasons all the cases today are transparent," he says.

While the products are aimed at anyone with an interest in coding, the packaging is friendly and welcoming, because the main audience is children making their first experiments with computing, although advanced users can get into JavaScript and, soon, Python commands.

Build it and code it

Since launching its first Computer Kit, the London-based company has developed three more products: the Computer Kit Complete, a step up from the original package which allows children to build a device with a 10.1-inch screen; the Pixel Kit, which allows them to program a matrix of LEDs (for example to build their own games or apps); and a motion sensor that can work with the other devices. However, a camera kit due to ship to Kickstarter backers last year has now been pushed back to 2019 due to supply issues with the planned chipset, the company said. A speaker kit, also due last year, is now expected to follow after the camera.

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But it's not just about the hardware: there's also the software, Kano App, which encourages kids to understand how the devices work, to start to grapple with coding, and to begin building their own apps and creations.

Kano says that, since September 2014, 150,000 people have used the computer kit to build 500,000 basic apps and nearly 52 million lines of code, and notes that beginners spend 13.5 hours on the company's computer kits during the first 30 days -- close to the level of engagement of an app like Snapchat.

In November last year, the company announced a new $28m Series B funding round, following a $15m Series A round. The additional cash will be used to get the computing kits into more stores across the US, expanding distribution to include Best Buy, Target and Walmart stores.

The company sees its products as something of an antidote to the sterile and closed-off state of so much modern technology -- the "everything is sealed everything is made by the geniuses paradigm," as Klein describes it. Kano's kit instead harks back to the days when people would regularly build and upgrade their own PCs; in that, it has a similar ethos to the team behind the Raspberry Pi.

That sealed nature of many devices works well for big tech companies for a number of reasons: if you can't get inside a gadget you don't know what's in there, so you can't fix it yourself. That makes it much easier for tech companies to make a modest change to the components and market it as a big change for consumers, who will find it almost impossible to judge the difference for themselves.

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But that also means that while there are billions of connected devices in the world, few understand how they work or how to program them, says Klein. "For me that's as big a societal gap, as big an information asymmetry, as there's ever been."

"If you depend on something, if you drive on its roads, you should have some say in how it works. You should have some understanding of the rules that make it up, so it's about creating citizens as much as coders," he says. "Maybe that's a little bit ideological for a tech company that's in its fourth year of doing business, but we may as well go for it because if we just create a generation of people who can code [then] that's to what end?"

Understanding technology

Kano's build-it-yourself and code-it-yourself ethos is aimed at giving more people the ability to understand technology.

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And by combining hardware and software, rather than just developing a standalone coding app for example, Klein reckons Kano has a better chance of keeping kids interested.

"If you give them an educational app on a smartphone, after about 20 minutes they're going to go right back into YouTube. If you give them an electronic soldering kit they'd be like 'this is boring, where are the visuals, the sound, the software?' So we try to merge both," he says.

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However there's still a big debate about how much screen time kids should have at all, with some of the biggest names in tech keeping technology away from their children as much as possible. So even if they are learning, is it a good idea to let childen loose on computers?

Klein describes the battle over screen time as the "biggest generation conflict that I've seen in my lifetime," but argues it's not a question of whether kids will learn from computers, but what they learn.

"We design these devices explicitly to be thoughtless, easy, unambiguous and to require very little from us. The modern standard paradigm for the design of hardware and software has been premised on addiction, commoditising attention, and I think that's why parents are afraid to put these things in the hands of their kids," he says.

"If we can build a system that breaks that paradigm and asks people to become participants in the technology they use -- piece it together with their hands, hack it in the software, add different elements to sense parts of their environment and then share their creations with others around the world -- I think you create a system end-to-end that any parent can feel comfortable putting in the hands of their kids."

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"When Kano was getting started the notion was the web and Silicon Valley was actually going to make the world more equal, was going to democratise access to information and we'd all find each other and communicate; now we've seen the pendulum swing all the way back," Klein notes. "We were always saying the biggest problem with tech is that it's a huge amount of power confined to a really rarefied subsection of society."

So can products from companies like Kano inoculate us -- and our kids -- against the worst excesses of Big Tech? Certainly it seems that many are less willing to unthinkingly trust our gadgets, and are more willing now to ask questions about what they are doing and why.

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    Build a cheap computer for your kids with Kano OS and a Raspberry Pi (CNET)

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