The Paradoxes of Digitally Mediated Parenting

The novelist Karen Russell recently reflected on her experience as a new parent with a baby monitor, one that streams footage directly to a smartphone app and sends notifications whenever it registers certain kinds of movement in the room.

“I’ve become addicted to live-streaming plotless footage of our baby,” Russell admits, but her brief, poetic essay ends with a reflection on the limitations of such pervasive surveillance and documentation:

“Children vanish without dying,” Joy Williams wrote. Every time the app refreshes and shows an empty crib, I feel a stab of surprise. Children do endure in space and time, but they’re always changing, and no camera is sensitive enough to record the uncanny speed at which this transformation happens. Already the baby has doubled in size. “A slow-motion instant,” a friend and veteran parent told me, describing how the years would now pass. A camera is a tool that spools up time, but of course it cannot stop it.

This paragraph reveals a paradox at the heart of our obsessive documentation. When our documentation is motivated, as it so often is, by a rebellion against the unremitting passage of time, it will only accelerate the rate at which we experience time’s passing. If a camera spools up time without stopping it, then those same spools of time, the moments we have captured and horded, heighten our awareness of time’s ephemeral and fleeting nature.

It is striking, upon reflection, that we use the word capture to describe what we think we are doing when we visually document a moment. That we seek to capture these moments, these experiences, or, even more straightforwardly, these memories–as if we wanted to bypass the experience altogether and pass directly to its recollection … that capturing is what we think we are doing discloses our apprehension of time as something wild and unruly. We seek to master time, but it refuses to be domesticated.

Upon further reflection, it is also striking that it is a moment and not, say, a scene that we think we are capturing. That time and not space is the default category by which we understand what an image records suggests the true nature of the desires driving so much of our documentation. This is why we can never satisfactorily recreate a photograph. It was never the external and physical facts that we sought to document in the first place. It was more like a river of commingled sensation and emotion, one into which we can most certainly never step twice.

Concluding her essay, Russel writes, “When I’m unable to sleep, I can watch our baby. I am watching right now. I can see the bottoms of his feet and count his ten toes, virtually ruffle the pale cap of his hair. He is breathing, I am almost certain. Go in and check, says the Dark Voice of Unreason. Go in and touch him.”

And with these words, a second paradox emerges: we monitor in order to relieve anxiety, but our anxiety is heightened by our monitoring. Put another way, we will grow anxious about whatever we are able to monitor. We will monitor all the more insistently to relieve this anxiety, and our anxiety will intensify in turn.

There is nothing new about the anxieties parents feel when it comes to the security of their children, of course. And I suspect most parents have always felt a bittersweet joy in watching their children grow: saddened by the loss of all their child has been but gladdened by who they are becoming. But I do wonder whether or not these experiences are heightened and amplified by the very tools we deploy to overcome them.

Since Bacon’s day at least, we turn to technology for “the relief of man’s estate.” At what point, however, does the reasonable desire to alleviate human suffering morph into a misguided quest to escape the human condition altogether? Finding whatever joy and contentment we may reasonably aspire to in this life seems to depend on our answer to this question (at least, of course, in affluent and prosperous societies).

It is, to be sure, a line that is difficult to perceive and wisely navigate. But when our techniques yield only a heightened experience of the very disorders we seek to ameliorate, we may justly wonder whether we have crossed it.


This post is part of a series on being a parent in the digital age.

One thought on “The Paradoxes of Digitally Mediated Parenting

  1. The words we use to describe our behavior is indeed telling.

    In regard to photography, the common words to describe them are particularly deceptive. A photograph does not “capture” anything, especially a “slice of time” or a “moment”. It does not, of course, create a memory. A camera is not “a tool that spools up time”. This is an illusion, a metaphor run amok.

    Time is not a thing. It is a conceptual frame – however big or small – used to refer to subsets of actions of energy and matter which are constantly in flux for purposes of discussion. It can no more be ‘sliced’ like an apple than a wave on the ocean.

    The very thing that gives a photograph power is its ability to create the illusion of stillness, of something without motion, of something which makes no sound. Henri Cartier-Bresson once complained that “nobody tries to photograph silence anymore.”

    A photograph is precisely that; a graph of photons as they stuck a light sensitive object. This produces an artifact that we call a photograph. It operates like a recording retina, not a cage for events. Events can not be captured. Anything more that is made of it is a conjured up story, a psychological fantasy.

    In the 21st century we have the issue of ubiquitous monitoring, from the police, industries, advertising companies, personal home security systems and of course, baby monitors. This is a symptom of gross insecurity about identity and existence. In the 20th century, this function – though not quite so pronounced – was done with photography; particularly the family photo album. It was used as a means of reassurance, and it could be used as such specifically because of the deceptive illusory application of the popular metaphors associated with the camera. It has everything to do with storytelling and self-deception, and nothing at all to do with the technology, the device, itself.

    “in a game of catch between particles,
    transmitting electromagnetic light
    and going fast, 40 million times a second,
    where the pebble hits the water,
    that is where the trouble began,
    something without substance became something with substance,
    why did it happen?
    because something substanceless
    had a feeling of missing out on something,
    not getting it,
    was not getting it
    not getting it
    not
    getting it,
    imperceptibly not having something
    when there was nothing to have,
    clinging to a notion of reality;
    from the primordially endless potential,
    to modern reality,
    twenty billion years later,
    has produced me and my stupid grasping mind,
    has made me and you, and my grasping mind.” ~ John Giorno, “Thanks for Nothing.”

    “A photograph can create silence. Can words do that?” ~ Patrick Modiano

    No, a photograph doesn’t tell a story.
    If it’s any good, it’s the one visible line in a poem that makes all the other invisible verses apparent.

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