Digital Devices and Learning to Grow Up

Last week the NY Times ran the sort of op-ed on digital culture that the cultured despisers love to ridicule. In it, Jane Brody made a host of claims about the detrimental consequences of digital media consumption on children, especially the very young. She had the temerity, for example, to call texting the “next national epidemic.” Consider as well the following paragraphs:

“Two of my grandsons, ages 10 and 13, seem destined to suffer some of the negative effects of video-game overuse. The 10-year-old gets up half an hour earlier on school days to play computer games, and he and his brother stay plugged into their hand-held devices on the ride to and from school. ‘There’s no conversation anymore,’ said their grandfather, who often picks them up. When the family dines out, the boys use their devices before the meal arrives and as soon as they finish eating.

‘If kids are allowed to play ‘Candy Crush’ on the way to school, the car ride will be quiet, but that’s not what kids need,’ Dr. Steiner-Adair said in an interview. ‘They need time to daydream, deal with anxieties, process their thoughts and share them with parents, who can provide reassurance.’

Technology is a poor substitute for personal interaction.”

Poor lady, I thought, and a grandmother no less. She was in for the kind of thrashing from the digital sophisticates that is usually reserved for Sherry Turkle.

In truth, I didn’t catch too many reactions to the piece, but one did stand out. At The Awl, John Hermann summed up the critical responses with admirable brevity:

“But the argument presented in the first installment is also proudly unsophisticated, and doesn’t attempt to preempt obvious criticism. Lines like ‘technology is a poor substitute for personal interaction,’ and non-sequitur quotes from a grab-bag of experts, tee up the most common and effective response to fears of Screen Addiction: that what’s happening on all these screens is not, as the writer suggests, an endless braindead Candy Crush session, but a rich social experience of its own. That screen is full of friends, and its distraction is no less valuable or valid than the distraction of a room full of buddies or a playground full of fellow students. Screen Addiction is, in this view, nonsensical: you can no more be addicted to a screen than to windows, sounds, or the written word.”

But Hermann does not quite leave it at that: “This is an argument worth making, probably. But tell it to an anxious parent or an alienated grandparent and you will sense that it is inadequate.” The argument may be correct, but, Hermann explains, “Screen Addiction is a generational complaint, and generational complaints, taken individually, are rarely what they claim to be. They are fresh expressions of horrible and timeless anxieties.”

Hermann goes on to make the following poignant observations:

“The grandparent who is persuaded that screens are not destroying human interaction, but are instead new tools for enabling fresh and flawed and modes of human interaction, is left facing a grimmer reality. Your grandchildren don’t look up from their phones because the experiences and friendships they enjoy there seem more interesting than what’s in front of them (you). Those experiences, from the outside, seem insultingly lame: text notifications, Emoji, selfies of other bratty little kids you’ve never met. But they’re urgent and real. What’s different is that they’re also right here, always, even when you thought you had an attentional claim. The moments of social captivity that gave parents power, or that gave grandparents precious access, are now compromised. The TV doesn’t turn off. The friends never go home. The grandkids can do the things they really want to be doing whenever they want, even while they’re sitting five feet away from grandma, alone, in a moving soundproof pod.

To see a more celebratory presentation of these dynamics, recall this Facebook ad from 2013:

Hermann, of course, is less sanguine.

Screen Addiction is a new way for kids to be blithe and oblivious; in this sense, it is empowering to the children, who have been terrible all along. The new grandparent’s dilemma, then, is both real and horribly modern. How, without coming out and saying it, do you tell that kid that you have things you want to say to them, or to give them, and that you’re going to die someday, and that they’re going to wish they’d gotten to know you better? Is there some kind of curiosity gap trick for adults who have become suddenly conscious of their mortality?”

“A new technology can be enriching and exciting for one group of people and create alienation for another;” Hermann concludes, “you don’t have to think the world is doomed to recognize that the present can be a little cruel.”

Well put.

I’m tempted to leave it at that, but I’m left wondering about the whole “generational complaint” business.

To say that something is a generational complaint suggests that we are dealing with old men yelling, “Get off my lawn!” It conjures up the image of hapless adults hopelessly out of sync with the brilliant exuberance of the young. It is, in other words, to dismiss whatever claim is being made. Granted, Hermann has given us a more sensitive and nuanced discussion of the matter, but even in his account too much ground is ceded to this kind of framing.

If we are dealing with a generational complaint, what exactly do we mean by that? Ostensibly that the old are lodging a predictable kind of complaint against the young, a complaint that amounts to little more than an unwillingness to comprehend the new or a desperate clinging to the familiar. Looked at this way, the framing implies that the old, by virtue of their age, are the ones out of step with reality.

But what if the generational complaint is framed rather as a function of coming into responsible adulthood. Hermann approaches this perspective when he writes, “Screen Addiction is a new way for kids to be blithe and oblivious; in this sense, it is empowering to the children, who have been terrible all along.” So when a person complains that they are being ignored by someone enthralled by their device, are they showing their age or merely demanding a basic degree of decency?

Yes, children are wont to be blithe and oblivious, often cruelly indifferent to the needs of others. Traditionally, we have sought to remedy that obliviousness and self-centeredness. Indeed, coming into adulthood more or less entails gaining some measure of control over our naturally self-centered impulses for our own good and for the sake of others. In this light, asking a child–whether age seven or thirty-seven–to lay their device aside long enough to acknowledge the presence of another human being is simply to ask them to grow up.

Others have taken a different tack in response to Brody and Hermann. Jason Kottke arrives at this conclusion:

“People on smartphones are not anti-social. They’re super-social. Phones allow people to be with the people they love the most all the time, which is the way humans probably used to be, until technology allowed for greater freedom of movement around the globe. People spending time on their phones in the presence of others aren’t necessarily rude because rudeness is a social contract about appropriate behavior and, as Hermann points out, social norms can vary widely between age groups. Playing Minecraft all day isn’t necessarily a waste of time. The real world and the virtual world each have their own strengths and weaknesses, so it’s wise to spend time in both.”

Of course. But how do we allocate the time we spend in each–that’s the question. Also, I’m not quite sure what to make of his claim about rudeness and the social contract except that it seems to suggest that it’s not rudeness if you decide you don’t like the terms of the social contract that renders it so. Sorry Grandma, I don’t recognize the social contract by which I’m supposed to acknowledge your presence and render to you a modicum of my attention and affection.

Yes, digital devices have given us the power to decide who is worthy of our attention minute by minute. Advocates of this constant connectivity–many of them, like Facebook, acting out of obvious self-interest–want us to believe this is an unmitigated good and that we should exercise this power with impunity. But–how to say this without sounding alarmist–encouraging people to habitually render other human beings unworthy of their attention seems like a poor way to build a just and equitable society.

Et in Facebook ego

Today is the birthday of the friend whose death elicited this post two years ago. I republish it today for your consideration. 

In Nicolas Poussin’s mid-seventeenth century painting, Et in Arcadia ego, shepherds have stumbled upon an ancient tomb on which the titular words are inscribed. Understood to be the voice of death, the Latin phrase may be roughly translated, “Even in Arcadia there am I.” Because Arcadia symbolized a mythic pastoral paradise, the painting suggested the ubiquity of death. To the shepherds, the tomb was a momento mori: a reminder of death’s inevitability.

Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego, 1637-38

Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego, 1637-38

Poussin was not alone among artists of the period in addressing the certainty of death. During the seventeenth and eighteenth century, vanitas art flourished. The designation stems from the Latin phrase vanitas vanitatum omni vanitas, a recurring refrain throughout the biblical book of Ecclesiastes: ”vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” in the King James translation. Paintings in the genre were still lifes depicting an assortment of objects which represented all that we might pursue in this life: love, power, fame, fortune, happiness. In their midst, however, one might also find a skull or an hour glass. These were symbols of death and the brevity of life. The idea, of course, was to encourage people to make the most of their living years.

Edwart Collier, 1690

Edwart Collier, 1690

For the most part, we don’t go in for this sort of thing anymore. Few people, if any, operate under the delusion that we might escape death (excepting, perhaps, the Singularity crowd), but we do a pretty good job of forgetting what we know about death. We keep death out of sight and, hence, out of mind. We’re certainly not going out of our way to remind ourselves of death’s inevitability. And, who knows, maybe that’s for the better. Maybe all of those skulls and hourglasses were morbidly unhealthy.

But while vanitas art has gone out of fashion, a new class of memento mori has emerged: the social media profile.

I’m one of those on again, off again Facebook users. Lately, I’ve been on again, and recently I noticed one of those birthday reminders Facebook places in the column where it puts all of the things Facebook would like you to click on. It was for a high school friend who I had not spoken to in over eight years. It was in that respect a very typical Facebook friendship:  the sort that probably wouldn’t exist at all were it not for Facebook. And that’s not necessarily a knock on the platform. For the most part, I appreciate being able to maintain at least minimal ties to old friends. In this case, though, it demonstrated just how weak those ties can be.

Upon clicking over to their profile, I read a few odd notes, and very quickly it became disconcertingly clear that my friend had died over a year ago. Naturally, I was taken a back and saddened. He died while I was off Facebook, and news had not reached me by any other channel. But there it was. Out of nowhere and without warning my browser was haunted by the very real presence of death. Momento mori.

Just a few days prior I logged on to Facebook and was greeted by the tragic news of a former student’s sudden passing. Because we had several mutual connections, photographs of the young man found their way into my news feed for several days. It was odd and disconcerting and terribly sad all at once. I don’t know what I think of social media mourning. It makes me uneasy, but I won’t criticize what might bring others solace. In any case, it is, like death itself, an unavoidable reality of our social media experience. Death is no digital dualist.

Facebook sometimes feels like a modern-day Arcadia. It is a carefully cultivated space in which life appears Edenic. The pictures are beautiful, the events exciting, the faces always smiling, the children always amusing, the couples always adoring. Some studies even suggest that comparing our own experience to these immaculately curated slices of life leads to envy, discontent, and unhappiness. Understandably so … if we assume that these slices of life are comprehensive representations of the lives people acutally lead. Of course, they are not.

Lest we be fooled, however, there, alongside the pets and witty status updates and wedding pictures and birth announcements, we will increasingly find our virtual Arcadias haunted by the digital, disembodied presence of the dead. Our digital memento mori.

Et in Facebook ego.

The Facebook Experiment, Briefly Noted

More than likely, you’ve recently heard about Facebook’s experiment in the manipulation of user emotions. I know, Facebook as a whole is an experiment in the manipulation of user emotions. Fair enough, but this was a more pointed experimented that involved the manipulation of what user’s see in their News Feeds. Here is how the article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  summarized the significance of the findings:

“We show, via a massive (N = 689,003) experiment on Facebook, that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. We provide experimental evidence that emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people (exposure to a friend expressing an emotion is sufficient), and in the complete absence of nonverbal cues.”

Needless to say (well except to Facebook and the researchers involved), this massive psychological experiment raises all sorts of ethical questions and concerns. Here are some of the more helpful pieces I’ve found on the experiment and its implications:

Update: Here are two more worth considering:

Those four six pieces should give you a good sense of the variety of issues involved in the whole situation, along with a host of links to other relevant material.

I don’t have too much to add except two quick observations. First, I was reminded, especially by Gurstein’s post, of Greg Ulmer’s characterization of the Internet as a “prothesis of the unconscious.” Ulmer means something like this: The Internet has become a repository of the countless ways that culture has imprinted itself upon us and shaped our identity. Prior to the advent of the Internet, most of those memories and experiences would be lost to us even while they may have continued to be a part of who we became. The Internet, however, allows us to access many, if not all, of these cultural traces bringing them to our conscious awareness and allowing us to think about them.

What Facebook’s experiment suggests rather strikingly is that such a prosthesis is, as we should have known, a two-way interface. It not only facilitates our extension into the world, it is also a means by which the world can take hold of us. As a prothesis of our unconscious, the Internet is not only an extension of our unconscious, it also permits the manipulation of the unconscious by external forces.

Secondly, I was reminded of Paul Virilio’s idea of the general or integral accident. Virilio has written extensively about technology, speed, and accidents. The accident is an expansive concept in his work. In his view, accidents are built-in to the nature of any new technology. As he has frequently put it, “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash … Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.”

The general or integral accident is made possible by complex technological systems. The accident made possible by a nuclear reactor or air traffic is obviously of a greater scale than that made possible by the invention of the hammer. Complex technological systems create the possibility of cascading accidents of immense scale and destructiveness. Information technologies also introduce the possibility of integral accidents. Virilio’s most common examples of these information accidents include the flash crashes on stock exchanges induced by electronic trading.

All of this is to say that Facebook’s experiment gives us a glimpse of what shape the social media accident might take. An interviewer alludes to this line from Virilio: “the synchronizing of collective emotions that leads to the administration of fear.” I’ve not been able to track down the original context, but it struck me as suggestive in light of this experiment.

Oh, and lastly, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg issued an apology of sorts. I’ll let Nick Carr tell you about it.

On Paper

“The world of Paper is an anachronism. It’s a screenless world created to sell you a thing made for the screen. It’s the past resurrected in order to convince you that something entirely common today is actually a portal to the future. Anyone touching a shiny, bright screen is going to look futuristic when they’re ensconced in a world furnished with stuff from Grandmother’s attic. This is a manipulation. If we want the world of Her, let’s actually go build it. Let’s figure out how to build technology that can be productively used without having to stare at it all the time. Let’s figure out how to do that in a way that doesn’t continue to hand over our privacy and free will to corporations that clearly still haven’t figured out how to get out of the advertising game. Let’s figure out how to break the attention barrier and return to a sense of technological progress that is measured by how useful things are, not how good they are at catching us in digital traps where we waste our lives clicking things. But let’s not delude ourselves that we’re just an app-install away from a frictionless and clean world of invisible technology.”

From Christopher Butler’s wide-ranging reflection on Facebook’s new app, Paper, “fashionable Luddism,” the commercial uses of nostalgia, depictions of the future in film, and our perpetually re-negotiated settlements with technology. Read the whole thing.

Et in Facebook ego

In Nicolas Poussin’s mid-seventeenth century painting, Et in Arcadia ego, shepherds have stumbled upon an ancient tomb on which the titular words are inscribed. Understood to be the voice of death, the Latin phrase may be roughly translated, “Even in Arcadia there am I.” Because Arcadia had come to symbolize a mythic pastoral paradise, the painting suggested the ubiquity of death. To the shepherds, the tomb was a momento mori: a reminder of the inescapability of death.

Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego, 1637-38

Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego, 1637-38

Poussin was not alone among artists of the period in addressing the certainty of death. During the seventeenth and eighteenth century, vanitas art flourished. The designation stems from the Latin phrase vanitas vanitatum omni vanitas, a recurring refrain throughout the biblical book of Ecclesiastes:  “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Paintings in the genre were still lifes depicting an assortment of objects which represented all of that we might pursue in this life. In their midst, however, one would also find a skull and an hour glass:  symbols of death and the brevity of life. The idea, of course, was to encourage people to make the most of their living years.

Edwart Collier, 1690

Edwart Collier, 1690

For the most part, we don’t go in for this sort of thing anymore. Few people, if any, operate under the delusion that we might escape death (excepting the Singularity folks I guess), but we do a pretty good job of forgetting what we know about death. We keep death out of sight and, hence, out of mind. We’re certainly not going out of our way to remind ourselves of death’s inevitability. And, who knows, maybe that’s for the better. Maybe all of those skulls and hourglasses were morbidly unhealthy. I honestly don’t know.

But while vanitas art has gone out of fashion, a new class of memento mori has emerged: the social media profile.

I’m one of those on again, off again Facebook users. Lately, I’ve been on again, and recently I noticed one of those birthday reminders Facebook places in the left hand column where it puts all of the things Facebook would like you to do and click on. It was for a high school friend whom I had not spoken to in over eight years. It was in that respect a very typical Facebook friendship:  the sort that probably wouldn’t exist at all any longer were it not for Facebook. And that’s not necessarily a knock on the platform. I appreciate being able to maintain at least a minimal connection with people I’d once been quite close to. In this case, though, it demonstrated just how weak those ties can be.

Upon clicking over to their profile, I read a few odd birthday notes, and very quickly it became obvious that my high school friend had died over a year ago. It was a shock, of course. It had happened while I was off of Facebook and news had not reached me by any other channel. But there it was. Out of nowhere and without warning my browser was haunted by the very real presence of death. Momento mori.

Just a few days prior I logged on to Facebook and was greeted by the tragic news that a former student had unexpectedly passed away. Because we had several mutual connections, photographs of the young man found their way into my news feed for several days. It was odd and disconcerting and terribly sad all at once. I don’t know what I think of social media mourning. It makes me uneasy, but I won’t criticize what might bring others solace. In any case, it is, like death itself, an unavoidable reality of our social media experience. Death is no digital dualist.

Facebook sometimes feels like a modern-day Arcadia. It is a carefully cultivated space in which life appears Edenic. The pictures are beautiful, the events exciting, the face are always smiling, the children always amusing, the couples always adoring. Certain studies even suggest that comparing our own experience to these immaculately curated slices of life leads to envy, discontent, and unhappiness. Naturally … if we assume that these slices of life are comprehensive representations of the lives people lead. Of course, they are not.

But there, alongside the pets and witty status updates and wedding pictures and birth announcements, we will increasingly find our social media platforms haunted by the digital, disembodied presence of the dead.

In that dreary opening chapter of The Scarlett Letter, Hawthorne wrote, “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”

And so it is with our digital utopias, our virtual Arcadias.

Et in Facebook ego.