What Do I See When I See My Child?

An entry in a series on the experience of being a parent in the digital age. 

At first glance, this may seem like a question with an obvious and straightforward answer, but it isn’t. Vision plays a trick on us all. It offers its findings to us as a plain representation of “what is there.” But things are not so simple. Most of us know this because at some point our eyes have deceived us. The thing we thought we saw was not at all what was, in fact, there. Even this cliche about our eyes deceiving us reveals something about the implicit trust we ordinarily place in what our eyes show to us. When it turns out that our trust has been betrayed we do not simply say that we were mistaken–we speak as if we have been wronged, as if our eyes have behaved immorally. We are not in the habit, I don’t think, of claiming that our ears deceived us or our nose.

What we ordinarily fail to take into account is that seeing is an act of perception and perception is a form of interpretation.

Seeing is selective. Upon glancing at a scene, I’m tempted to think that I’ve taken it all in. But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. If I were to look again and look for a very long time, I would continue to see more and more details that I did not see at first, second, or third glance. Whatever it was that I perceived when I first looked is not what I will necessarily see if I continue to look; at the very least, it will not be all that I will see. So why did I see what I saw when first I looked?

Sometimes we see what we think we ought to see, what we expect to see. Sometimes we see what we want to see or that for which we are looking. Seeing is thus an act of both remembering and desiring. And this is not yet to say anything of the meaning of what we see, which is also intertwined with perception.

It is also the case that perception is often subject to mediation and this mediation is ordinarily technological in nature. Indeed, one of the most important consequences of any given technology is, in my view, how it shapes our perception of the world. But we are as tempted to assume that technology is neutral in its mediations and representations as we are to believe that vision simply shows us “what is there.” So when our vision is technologically mediated it is as if we were subject to a double spell.

The philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek, building on the work of Don Ihde, has written at length about what he has called the ethics of technological mediation. Technologies bring about “specific relations between human beings and reality.” They do this by virtue of their role in mediating both our perception of the world and our action in the world.

According to Ihde, the mediating work of technology comes in the form of two relations of mediation: embodiment relations and hermeneutic relations. In the first, tools are incorporated by the user and the world is experienced through the tool. Consider the blind man’s stick an example of an embodiment relation; the stick is incorporated into the man’s body schema.

Verbeek explains hermeneutic relations in this way: “technologies provide access to reality not because they are ‘incorporated,’ but because they provide a representation of reality, which requires interpretation.” Moreover, “technologies, when mediating our sensory relationship with reality, transform what we perceive. According to Ihde, the transformation of perception always has the structure of amplification and reduction.”

We might also speak of how technological mediation focuses our perception. Perhaps this is implied in Ihde’s two categories, amplification and reduction, or the two together amount to a technology’s focusing effect. We might also speak of this focusing effect as a directing of our attention.

So, once again, what do I see when I see my child?

There are many technologies that mediate how I perceive my child. When my child is in another room, I perceive her through a video monitor. When my child is ill, I perceive her through a digital thermometer, some which now continuously monitor body temperature and visualize the data on an app. Before she was born, I perceived her through ultrasound technology. When I am away from home, I perceive her through Facetime. More examples, I’m sure, may come readily to your mind. Each of these merits some attention, but I set them aside to briefly consider what may be the most ubiquitous form of technological mediation through which I perceive my child–the digital camera.

Interestingly, it strikes me that the digital camera, in particular the camera with which our phones are equipped, effects both an embodiment relation and a hermeneutic relation. I fear that I may be stretching the former category to make this claim, but I am thinking of the smartphone as a device which, in many respects, functions as a prosthesis. I mean by this that it is ready-to-hand to such a degree that it is experienced as an appendage of the body and that, even when it is not in hand, the ubiquitous capacity to document has worked its way into our psyche as a frame of mind through which we experience the world. It is not only the case that we see a child represented in a digital image, our ordinary act of seeing itself becomes a seeing-in-search-of-an-image.

What does the mediation of the digital smartphone camera amplify? What does it reduce? How does it bring my child into focus? What does it encourage me to notice and what does it encourage me to ignore? What can it not account for?

What does it condition me to look for when I look at my child and, thus, how does it condition my perception of my child?

Is it my child that I see or a moment to be documented? Am I perceiving my child in herself or am I perceiving my child as a component of an image, a piece of the visual furniture?

What becomes of the integrity of the moment when seeing is mediated through an always-present digital camera?

How does the representation of my child in images that capture discreet moments impact my experience of time with my child? Do these images sustain or discourage the formation of a narrative within which the meaning of my relationship with my child emerges?

It is worth noting, as well, that the smartphone camera ordinarily exists as one component within a network of tools that includes the internet and social media tools. In other words, the image is not merely a record of a moment or an externalized memory. It is also always potentially an act of communication. An audience–on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Snapchat, etc.–is everywhere with me as an ambient potentiality that conditions my perception of all that enters into my experience. Consequently, I may perceive my child not only as a potential image but as a potential image for an audience.

What is the nature of this audience? What images do I believe they care to see? What images do I want them to see? From where does my idea of the images they care to see arise? Do they arise from the images I see displayed for me as part of another’s audience? Or from professional media or commercial marketing campaigns? Are these the visual patterns I remember, half-consciously perhaps, when my perceiving takes the on the aspect of seeing-as-expectation? Do they form my perception-as-desire? For whom is my child under these circumstances?

I have raised many questions, which I have left unanswered. I leave these questions unanswered chiefly because whatever my answers may be, they are not likely to be your answers. And the value of these questions lies in the asking and not in the particular answers that I might give to them. Regardless of the answers we give, the questions are worth asking for what they may reveal as we contemplate them.


If you’ve appreciated what you’ve read, consider supporting the writer.

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.

Louis C.K. Was Almost Right About Smartphones, Loneliness, Sadness, the Meaning of Life, and Everything

“I think these things are toxic, especially for kids …” That’s Louis C.K. talking about smartphones on Conan O’Brien last week. You’ve probably already seen the clip; it exploded online the next day. In the off-chance that you’ve not seen the clip yet, here it is. It’s just under five minutes, and it’s worth considering.

Let me tell you, briefly, what I appreciated about this bit, and then I’ll offer a modest refinement to Louis C.K.’s perspective.

Here are the two key insights I took away from the exchange. First, the whole thing about empathy. Cyberbullying is a big deal, at least it’s one of the realities of online experience that gets a lot of press. And before cyberbullying was a thing we worried about, we complained about the obnoxious and vile manner in which individuals spoke to one another on blogs and online forums. The anonymity of online discourse took a lot of the blame for all of this. A cryptic username, after all, allowed people to act badly with impunity.

I’m sure anonymity was a factor. That people are more likely too act badly when they can’t be caught is an insight at least as old as Plato’s ring of Gyges illustration. But, insofar as this kind of behavior has survived the personalization of the Internet experience, it would seem that the blame cannot be fixed entirely on anonymity.

This is where Louis C.K. offers us a slightly different, and I think better, angle that fills the picture out a bit. He frames the problem as a matter of embodiment. Obviously, people can be cruel to one another in each other’s presence. It happens all the time. The question is whether or not there is something about online experience that somehow heightens the propensity toward cruelty, meanness, rudeness, etc. Here’s how I would answer that question: It’s not that there is something intrinsic to the online experience that heightens the propensity to be cruel. It’s that the online experience unfolds in the absence of a considerable mitigating condition: embodied presence.

In Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, his unnamed protagonist, the whiskey priest, comes to the following realization: “When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity … that was a quality God’s image carried with it … when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate.”

This is, I think, what Louis C.K. is getting at. We like to think of ourselves as rational actors who make our way through life by careful reasoning and logic. For better or for worse, this is almost certainly not the case. We constantly rely on all sorts of pre-cognitive or non-conscious  or visceral operations. Most of these are grounded in our bodies and their perceptual equipment. When our bodies, and those magical mirror-neurons, are taken out of play, then the perceptual equipment that helps us act with a measure of empathy is also out of the picture, and then, it seems, cruelty proceeds with one less impediment.

The second insight I appreciated centered on the themes of loneliness and sadness. What Louis C.K. seems to be saying, in a way that still manages to be funny enough to bear, is that there’s something unavoidably sad about life and at the core of our being there is a profound emptiness. What’s more, it is when we are alone that we feel this sadness and recognize this emptiness. This is inextricably linked to what we might call the human condition, and the path to any kind of meaningful happiness is through this sadness and the loneliness that brings it on.

Because it’s worth reading over as text, here, one more time, is what Louis C.K. had to say about this:

“You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty. That knowledge that it’s all for nothing and that you’re alone. It’s down there.

And sometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car, and you start going, ‘oh no, here it comes. That I’m alone.’ It’s starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it…

That’s why we text and drive. I look around, pretty much 100 percent of the people driving are texting. And they’re killing, everybody’s murdering each other with their cars. But people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.”

Okay, so I appreciated this part because I already agreed with it. I already agreed with it because I bought into this understanding of the human condition when I read Pascal years ago and because it resonates with my own experience. In his Pensées, Pascal wrote, “All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.”

Want to know what else he wrote? This:

“Anyone who does not see the vanity of the world is very vain himself.  So who does not see it, apart from young people whose lives are all noise, diversions, and thoughts for the future?  But take away their diversion and you will see them bored to extinction.  Then they feel their nullity without recognizing it, for nothing could be more wretched than to be intolerably depressed as soon as one is reduced to introspection with no means of diversion.”

Pascal wrote this stuff not quite 400 years ago. Four hundred years. Now, the question this raises is this: Doesn’t that undermine Louis C.K’s whole bit? If the problems he associates with smartphones clearly predate smartphones, then isn’t he fundamentally off-base in his criticisms?

Yes and no.

Let me borrow some comments from Alan Jacobs to clarify what I mean. Over at his recently revived blog, Text Patterns, Jacobs wound his way from a discussion of Leo Tolstoy’s influence on Mikhail Bakhtin to make a very useful point about how we understand technology:

It seems to me that most of our debates about recent digital technologies — about living in a connected state, about being endlessly networked, about becoming functional cyborgs — are afflicted by the same tendency to false systematization that, as Levin and Pierre discover, afflict ethical theory. Perhaps if we really want to learn to think well, and in the end act well, in a hyper-connected environment, we need to stop trying to generalize and instead become more attentive to what we are actually doing, minute by minute, and to the immediate consequences of those acts.

In other words, rather than generalizing about “smartphones” or “digital technology,” let’s pay attention to specific practices. Granting, of course, that Louis C.K. is a comedian giving a short routine, not a philosopher writing a long monograph, he might’ve done well to take a cue from Jacobs.

The smartphone itself is not the “real” problem. The “real” problem, if we can agree that it is a problem, is our inability to abide, at least sometimes, the existential loneliness and sadness that are somehow wrapped up in the package of realities that we call “being human.” That problem is not in any essential way connected with the smartphone (as Pascal’s observations attest).

But the smartphone is not altogether irrelevant. It is part of a practice that is itself a manifestation of the problem. The problem is not the smartphone, it’s this thing we’re doing with the smartphone, which, in the past, we have also done with countless other things.

Unfortunately, recognizing that the problem isn’t essentially connected to the smartphone leads some to discount the problem altogether. That would be a mistake. The problem is no less real. It’s just that smashing our smartphones is not a solution. If only it were that simple. That promise of simplicity, in fact, might be why it is so tempting to causally link personal and social problems to certain technologies. It offers a certain comfort to us because we don’t have to look to our own crooked hearts for the source of our problems, and it holds out the promise of a relatively painless and straightforward solution.

The opposite is the case. The problem here, and in most cases, is (in part at least) buried in our own being, and tending it requires a mindful vigilance that must abide complexity in the absence of silver bullets.

So, then, rather than opening his bit by saying “I think these things are toxic, especially for kids,” Louis C.K. should have said, “I think this thing we do is toxic, for all of us …”