10 June 2007

Computing & Children

I'd like to make a personal digression today. My wife and I are expecting our first child; we're starting rather late in life, and of course we're anxious about being good parents. I'm the youngest of five children, and my siblings all have two children apiece. So J. is coming into the world with eight cousins. We've been scattered to the corners of the North American landmass since I was in college, and I've always been pretty shy around my siblings. So gatherings are pretty awkward. But thankfully my wife, L., is extremely well-adjusted socially and a great bodyguard.

K. is the hyper-functional older sister; she's a college professor in Canada, and before that she was a developer at a Silicon Valley startup. She was on her way back from a professional visit to Seattle and stopped by for about three hours this Saturday. To my relief, I wasn't really called upon to say anything. K. spoke nonstop for about three hours, with occasional stimulus from L. At one point, L. left for a bathroom visit, and K. turned to me, asked me a question, and interrupted me before I had completed a sentence. I was relieved, actually, even though she was busy criticizing what she surmised I would have said had I been allowed to say it. Having a personal relationship with someone who is paid hundreds of dollars per hour to speak is inherently difficult.

Much as I would have liked to deconstruct K.'s three-hour summary of parenting advice, however, it must be said that it all seemed quite sound to me. One thing that surprised me was her aversion to the modern fashion of trying to immerse children in activities; K.'s always seemed to show stunning celerity in taking up pursuits, something mercifully mitigated by motherhood. Worse yet is the idea of steeping children in computer technology. (For this idea taken to a pathological extreme, see this site advertising computer camps). K. was horrified by daycare centers with computers for games. When she remonstrated with the staff about it, they protested that the children needed to learn basic computer skills early. K., who used to be a developer, reports that her own son easily overtook her in basic computer usage skills by age 5. By 2020, when he enters the job market or university, anything mentioned on this blog will be as obsolete as George Washington's wooden dentures. K. half-facetiously discussed wanting to sabotage the computer when no one was looking, to save the children from a bleak future of virtual reality. (What a perfectly dystopian—and apt—description!)

And now, I thought I'd interject a sentiment that's been gnawing in my soul for a long time. Here it is, from James Howard Kunstler:

I think the eminent Jungian psychologist James Hillman is right when he asserts that, despite all our lip-service to "family values," Americans actually hate their children. In suburbia, where most Americans now live, children can't use an everyday environment that has been constructed solely for the convenience of motorists — at least not without the assistance of Soccer Mom. By the way, in arranging things this way, we manage to deprive children of a terribly important stage of their development: the period between, say, eight and fifteen when they need to a acquire a sense of their personal sovereignty and how it operates within the context of the everyday environment.

Children over seven years old need more than a safe place to ride their bikes. They need at least as much as adults. They need places to shop. They need honorable gathering places — not just the scraps left over from the commercial developers, the berms and parking lots. They need cultural institutions, libraries, theaters, museums. And they need access to all these things on their own without the assistance of Soccer Mom. As things stand today, the public realm for children in suburbia is the psychotic principality of TV. Instead of seeing the full spectrum of society in normal operation (including honorably occupied adults who are not their parents) all they get are the antics of Marilyn Manson, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Beavis and Butthead. These are their models for adulthood.

One of the more insidious ideas of the Electronic Age is the notion that the virtual is an adequate substitute for the authentic. A virtual pet is as good as a puppy. A virtual friend on the internet is as good as a real friend. A group of hobbyists constitutes a "community. This idea is false. The artificial public realm of TV is not an adequate substitute for authentic civic life, and at some level most people who are not completely insane recognize this. For instance, where adults are concerned, an emotional involvement with soap opera characters is not the same as having relationships with real people in the real world — though I daresay there are plenty of adults in this country who might be confused about this today. That's how psychotic our culture has become. And, of course, Barney the Dinosaur is a poor excuse for a childhood chum. He's not even a very good artificial imaginary companion. He isn't equal to the average child's innate imaginative ability (which is precisely why Barney is so sickening to intelligent parents.)

In my next post, I'd like to give this idea a little more attention.
ADDITIONAL READING: "On Beauty and Being Just" (PDF), Elaine Scarry; "Virtual is No Refuge From the Real," James Howard Kunstler;

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home