My first child is approaching two years of age, my second two months. I just turned forty. I have no idea what it would have been like to be a father when I was in my twenties or early thirties. More energy, less wisdom perhaps? Of the former, I’m fairly certain; about the latter, less so. The one discernible consequence, as far as I can tell, is that I frequently find myself in a reflective mood. Not surprisingly, those reflections frequently drift toward technology’s role in mediating my experience of fatherhood.
Obviously, there are lots of people writing about parenting and technology, but, it seems to me, having made just a cursory survey of the multitude of books and articles, that most of this writing has focused on the safety, good health, and privacy of the child. How much screen time should I allow my toddler? Should I post pictures of my children on social media? Etc. Of course, these are important considerations, but there’s more to be said, isn’t there?
Mostly I’m interested in something closer to the visceral, existential experience of being a father in our digital context. For example, knowing that one of the most important features of technology is its power to mediate our perception, I wonder how monitoring and documenting technologies cause a child to appear before us and the world to appear before them. I wonder also about the effect of technologies that cast the whole task of being a parent in a technocratic light, rendering parenting a problem to be solved by the application of the right techniques. Additionally, I wonder how the blessing of an overabundance of online information about pregnancy and child-rearing has also become a burden, one that has displaced communal wisdom in the face of uncertainty with the ideal of total knowledge. These are just a few of the questions I’ve been thinking about.
Children and parents there have always been, of course, but what it has meant to be a parent or a child and how it has felt, this has not been constant throughout history and across cultures. And often it has been the material/technological culture surrounding and supporting the parent/child relationship that has contributed to these shifts in meaning and experience.
Neil Postman argues along these lines in The Disappearance of Childhood. He goes so far to suggest that the idea of childhood is a consequence of the culture of print and that it was disappearing in the culture of electronic media. Writing in the early 1980s, he had television primarily in mind. This is a pretty strong version of the claim that technology shapes the meaning of being a parent or a child. I am inclined to agree with Postman most of the time, yet I’ve approached this particular book rather skeptically. But even if we don’t agree with all of what Postman has to say, there’s a lot from which we might learn and an approach to the question of technology and childhood that leads us beyond merely pragmatic questions. I’ll have more to say about Postman’s argument in the future. The point right now is simply that technology is not neutral with respect to the experience of having a child and being a child.
Recalling Mel Kranzberg’s First Law, to say that technology is not neutral does not mean that it is either “good” or “bad.” As I’ve thought about these matters, and as I will explore them in forthcoming posts, my point will not be to conclude this or that technology is bad or good with respect to the experience of being a parent. Of course, that conclusion may sometimes be warranted. Nonetheless, I want to think primarily about questions of meaning and experience.
Behind all of this, I should add, is the question of wonder. I keep coming back to this. How can I help preserve my child’s wonder at the world and my own wonder at my child?
I’ll write about this in short bursts, meditations almost, rather than in long posts. I welcome your feedback along the way, of course. For future reference, I’ll group these posts together with the tag “Parents in the Digital Age.”
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