Sunday, October 11, 2015

Newsflash! Your Kids ARE Digital Zombies!

Arizona State sorority members
If these kids aren't digital. zombies, then what are they? Certainly not living in the present and attending to the larger world.

Bill Maher, in his last ('New Rules') segment of Real Time Friday night,  merits kudos for calling out all the selfie stooges - including the recent mobs in Philly and NYC trying to capture Pope Francis on their smart phones - looking through their mini screens - instead of taking in the moment directly. (Not to mention the assorted kids with a 1 in a million chance to actually meet and see the Pope facing backwards and doing selfies with him.).

But the ubiquitous selfie is but one symptom of the zombification of the nation, especially its younger generations.  We also behold texting zombies - heads buried in their phones- walking along side walks, crossing busy streets or even driving cars - oblivious to the reality around them. They also display an alarming .similarity to actual zombies in their sidewalk shuffles and guttural, incomprehensible responses when you attempt to make conscious contact, e.g. "Urrrgh", "Unhhh".  Can we then agree if it walks like a zombie, and expresses itself like a zombie it is, for all intents, a zombie?

The WSJ's Alice Gopnik ('No, Your Children Aren't Becoming Digital Zombies', Oct. 10-11, p. C2) doesn't believe so. She cites study after study purporting to show there are no ill effects and all is pretty close to normal. She also revives the old "happened in older generations" Mcguffin, by trying to compare the behavior  we're seeing now with smart phones to the telegraph! Are you kidding me? She seriously quotes a hand wringer from the year 1858 about the telegraph being too "unsifted, superficial and too sudden for the truth".

But of course,  this is a false analogy,  irrespective of what any critic of the time said or wrote. For one thing, the telegraph was not ubiquitous like smart phones are today. You had to actually enter a post office or wireless station to send a message off, and even then there were absolutely NO images...only terse wording. There was no way - given the costs - one could use it to communicate with peers minute by minute or second by second as texters can now. Hell, there was no speed of long distance communication such as allowed and enabled today by the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Hence, Gopnik compares chalk and cheese.

The point she misses in her Pollyanish prose is that there is indeed cause to worry given how the dominance of imagery has weakened communication as well as literacy skills in adults.  I already have noted this in previous posts referencing the findings of Neil Postman in his masterful book, 'The Disappearance of Childhood’.

Postman’s thesis is subtle to grasp because it is two-pronged. He showed how the continued intrusion of visual media via television (and now smart phones, I-phones and the internet)  has stripped childhood of its innocence, even as he showed the same media has effectively rendered adults as children. The effect has been to create “adult-children” and ‘child adults”.

Thus, nearly all current TV fare adults can watch, like 'Survivor', kids can also watch. The visual medium itself - integrated into the use of iPads, TVs and smartphones, makes the reduction of the world to a visual medium the same for all ages. Hence, child adults, and adult children. Taking selfies, as the scenes of Francis also showed, are as much the province of kids as adults. Thus, one beholds a regression of modern day adults to the state of children - again via their over use of electronic media.

Many may be surprised, but in fact the era of true adulthood only seemed to last a short time, certainly in western culture.

In the period following print typography, a new world of symbolic abstraction based on the printed word emerged, and the human adult with it. As this adult became more solidified and print became the basis for separating the adult mind from the child’s – the social construction of “childhood” had to be created. This was to more easily distinguish child activities and media from what adults consumed. Thus, it was expected even as recently as 60 years ago that no child would be paging through Playboy, or for that matter Sartre's Being and Nothingness, and no adult in his or her right mind would be glued to 'Howdy Doody' or 'Superman' on the tube. In either case, there would be cause for serious intervention (in the child reading Sartre case, it would be positive, say the kid  skipping 7-10 years of school to go directly to first year university.)

Postman's point is that before about 300 years ago the “child” as such didn’t exist in the social sphere. The child before about 1650 was treated as a small adult, had to work in the coal mines along with his more mature relations, as well as toil in the fields. There were no child clothes, child games as such or child distinctions.

The arrival of print changed all that because it disclosed the need for the young to be properly trained to assume a role in a world in which lack of print mastery exacted great social costs. The mastery of print required also a certain skill set totally contingent on the ability to process the printed word including: the ability to sit still and focus  for protracted periods, the ability to sequentially process abstract (phonetic) symbols, the ability to master logical –rational thought.

The point missed by those like Gopnik is that the child-adult transition is now nearly impossible because of the ubiquity of electronic media. This indeed, has been proven in research such as by Mark Bauerlein, ('The Dumbest Generation'). showing FB users, for example, have been conditioned to accept a "single-minded attachment or obsession which has contributed to an artificial,  solipsistic view of the world"

Thus, instead of being a channel of information and genuine knowledge consolidation, the monitor screen becomes a mirror for the users’ own limited selves and under-developed psyches. That Facebook would insinuate itself into a life to the extent of excluding so much else in the world is not surprising, and Bauerlein shows how this is done by blocking out all unwanted material on one's FB pages. Most of this material turns out to be dealing with complex issues of news, global conflicts etc - hence the elimination indulges the child yen for a pain-free world minus any negatives.

But Facebook is but one medium. We now know from research (that Gopnik totally ignores)  that legions of kids are already seriously addicted to  online games, and it's gotten so bad in China that the gamers have had to be interred in "boot camps", e.g.

As noted above, for the Chinese, screen addiction of any type is now classified as a clinical disorder and they've taken serious measures to break their young addicts of their screen dependence - whether it's to their smart phone, or laptop via some gaming app. At Daxing Boot Camp in Beijing, one of 400 rehab centers created to treat net addicts, calisthenics, group therapy. some mild ECT and a complete lack of screens. You can bet your bippy if the problem is severe in China this screen addiction is equally severe here in the U.S. all Gopnik's cited studies to the contrary.

Gopnik also neatly sidesteps how digital bullying has now evolved to the number one form, and we won't even go into the increasing prevalence of porn addiction - such that many teens (according to a recent Economist report, Sept. 26th, p. 59)) are having to seek help at sites like "No fap". The report cites a pan-European study from 2010 that found 14 % of 9 to 16 year olds had seen porn in the previous year - and this was prior to the advent of smart phones and iPads which make the stuff easier to access for kids.  Further, March Childline and NSPCC - two charities serving kids - found that one in ten British 12-13 year olds described themselves as "addicted to porn". If these stats are such in the UK you can be certain they are as bad or worse here in the U.S.

Gopnik, at the end of her piece asks:

"So why, despite the research and all those failed prophecies of previous technological doom are people so convinced that this time it's different?"

Well, because it is! In the old days drivers weren't killed at a 20 percent higher rate (reported last year) because of "texting while driving". You had to sit in your home with your trusty Smith Corona and type your messages out. You didn't do it in a car!  In the old days also kids couldn't bully their peers by long distance, sending nasty messages over the smart phone. You had to get up close and personal and settle issues with your fists right then and there. No hiding behind a screen.

And as for porn, it wasn't ubiquitous on some 800 million websites (hell, no internet even existed then) all accessible by smart phones, as The Economist notes. You had to actually get up off your duff and hoof it down to the corner 7-11 and plunk down 50 cents to buy the latest Playboy - and hope the counter clerk didn't ask your age.

So YEAH, it IS different in quality and quantity. A pity those like Gopnik don't see that, but then - working for the WSJ - her job is as much to feed and "grease"  the wheels of consumer frenzy (especially in time for Xmas) as it is to spout specious opinions.

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