Posts Tagged ‘Internet’

There has been some controversy on the internets this week. Specifically – as this is otherwise a useless and self-evident statement akin to pointing out that the Earth revolves around the sun – on the subject of steampunk.

Now: I get that it’s in the nature of human beings to be critical. We all have little mental pressure valves that sometimes need to be vented in full, no matter how slight the final provocation. The results of this are not always entirely rational, and don’t even necessarily represent our day-to-day views; or, if they do, then in a more polarised, less compromising format. For instance: when my husband and I were cycling along the Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand in the first week of our honeymoon, a territorial magpie flew right into the side of my un-helmeted head, causing me to fall to the dirt, cry just a little bit out of shock, and – once I straightened up – to bleed from the temple. This prompted my significant other to launch into an angry, fifteen-minute long tirade about how all magpies were basically just flying rats, they’re bloody dangerous and their singing’s not even that great, fucking magpies, flying around like they own the place, and so on until I had a little less blood streaming from my head and had recovered enough to point out that, one, the magpie had gone; two, I didn’t think it had actually meant to hit me, if its stunned retreat was anything to go by; and three, magpies are actually pretty cool, when they’re not defending their nests.

Thus assauged by my recovery, my beloved came to see the humour in the incident, and returned emotionally to his default state of Magpies Are Fine, Or At Least Not Worth Getting Constantly Worked Up About. And thus, the point: while a little vitriol from time to time is both healthy and human, the important thing is to recognise when the rage has passed, and to compensate accordingly. Which brings me to Cat Valente’s recent blog on the problems of steampunk, a post that was clearly written while in the throes of anger, and which she has subsequently followed up with both a concession to that fact and a list of ten things she actually does love about steampunk. My reactions to her initial post aside, these efforts at conciliation are worthy of respect, in that Valente has been both brave enough, while impassioned, to share her views publicly, and then adult enough to try and engage afterwards in a more constructive dialogue. So, points for maturity.

Charles Stross has also written an anti-steampunk post, one which predates Valente’s and to which she makes passing reference; and then, in seeming response to both these views, but specifically to that of Stross, we have Scott Westerfeld’s defence of steampunk. In case you have been living in a hole, it is not unrelevant that Westerfeld’s two most recent novels are themselves works of YA steampunk: Leviathan and its immediate sequel, the newly-released Behemoth. There have also been other sundry responses lurking about the webnologies, notably this piece by Kirstyn McDermott, who agrees with Valente, and a critique of the anti-steampunk position by jadegirl (props to marydell for the link). But in case you’d rather skip the links, here is my breakdown of both camps:

Anti-Steampunk

1. As a sub-genre, steampunk is more concerned with the visual aesthetics of sticking goggles and cogs on top hats than dealing with the actual, complex and fascinating social issues of the era in question, a complaint which is best expressed by this comic. (Sidenote: no matter who you agree with, Kate Beaton is awesome.)

2. That this preoccupation is not only detrimental in terms of encouraging the production pulp, adventuristic works rather than meaningful narrative, but actively problematic in terms of glamourising a deeply flawed Empire: a Dickensian time characterised by the oppression of women, minorities and anyone not actually an Earl; an expansionist and militarised culture; the gruesome rise of industrialisation and crippling factory-work as was frequently undertaken by the disenfranchised masses, especially children; and prohibitive sexual mores. Furthermore, the -punk suffix of the genre itself should imply an innate receptivity to counterculture, and that by ignoring these issues, steampunk is effectively betraying itself.

3. That the end result of all of the above is yet another fad being pounced on by the Great Marketing Machine, resulting in the premature cheapening of something that could have been good, if it had only been kept in the hands of those interested in doing it well, but which has instead become a cheap, conglomerate, prepacked affair with as much sub- and counter-cultural cred as Ronald McDonald, pandering to steampunks who all dress the same while trying to be different. There are no more heroes, etc. (See again Kate Beaton, re: hipsters ruin everything.)

Pro-Steampunk

1. Yes, there is a visual element to steampunk. And it involves goggles! But the presence of a coherent aesthetic style does not prevent meaningful social discussion within the genre, any more than wearing a pretty pink dress prevents a woman from holding intelligent opinions. By critiquing steampunk foremost on the basis of how it looks, rather than providing concrete examples of what it does – and by using aristocratic female fashion as the lynchpin of this argument – its detractors are committing the same sin against which they are endeavouring to protest, viz: the use of corsetry to conceal a lack of substance.

2. Examining mainstays of the current canon, such as Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, Neil Stephenson’s The Diamond Age or Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius, it is undeniable that steampunk is far from inimical to adventure. However, these are also stories with a strong focus on female characters negotiating the perils of Victorian society, which question militarism and the potentially perilous uses of science, the consquences of poverty and industrialisation on children, and the place of minorities within that society. On this latter point, it is also important to note that steampunk afficionados are by no means exclusively white/privileged, and that there is a great deal of discussion on all of these issues within the community itself.

3. All genres have problems. To contend otherwise is ludicrous. Specifically within the wider fantasy/SF subset, however, to act as though issues of class privilege, race and suffrage are unique to steampunk purely by virtue of its relationship to Victorian society is deeply inaccurate. Beginning with the works of Tolkein and moving forward from there, these are questions that the entire SFF fandom is concerned with on all fronts, and has been for some time. That doesn’t mean that none of the criticisms leveled specifically at steampunk are invalid, but in the current climate of people claiming genre fatigue, such apostasy begins to smack of the elitist proposition that once something has become mainstream, it is made fundamentally irredeemable, or at least deeply untrustworthy, and therefore void of meaning.

So!

Allow me to lay my own cards on the table. Some of my favourite stories of recent times have been steampunk – not only the titles mentioned above, but also Michael Pryor’s fabulous Laws of Magic series (featuring a female character who is both a suffragette and a ninja); Stephen Hunt’s ongoing Jackelian sequence, which begins with The Court of the Air; and Sydney Padua’s brilliant and stunningly researched comic 2D Goggles, about the further adventures of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. There has also been Gail Carriger’s Soulless, which is unashamedly a lighthearted mashup of romance, steampunk and urban fantasy; and, at the other end of the stylistic spectrum, Kate Elliott’s brilliant Cold Magic, which the author describes as an “Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency fantasy with Bonus! airship, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons.”

Re this last, and specifically the word icepunk: it is not uncommon nowadays for certain members of the geek community to flinch and/or start foaming at the mouth whenever -punk is appended to something else in order to – hopefully – coin a new genre term. Others, like Valente, have no objection to the practise, so long as the work in question, in her words, “is as punk as it says on the tin.”

Which is fine: but as many a pub debate about the motion of linguistics has long since made clear to me, what a word means originally and how it develops over time are two different things, and while there are some instances where fighting against the change is a fine and noble thing, there are some battles better left unfought. I’m not yet sure into which category steampunk (and all the other suffixd -punks) will eventually fall, but being as how I’m not consciously a fan of punk music and have never particularly noticed any connection between the one and the other – unless we’re talking in a generic, rebelling-against-the-norm sort of way, rather than as is specifically relevant to stories about countercultures fighting the dominant trend – then my money is, for now, on the former. The point being, I’m not really fussed about the whole suffixing issue in this instance, because for whatever reason, it’s never flicked my Rage Switch. But I get that it does for other people, and so am willing to credit their outrage as something more than just preferential aggravation. (By way of solidarity, the record is fairly clear on my hatred for -gate being appended to not even mildly shocking political scandals. I mean, seriously. GAH!)

All of which, to come to a point, puts me in the pro-steampunk category. Yes, there are problems. Authors and fans alike are working on them, thinking about them and generally paying attention. Yes, steampunk often involves adventure. That’s not a sin! Part of what I love so much about fantasy is its versatility in this respect: that what would otherwise be a purely issues-based story if set in the real world can take on a dimension of swashbuckling, humour and magic to balance out the social grief and piercing moments of inequality. Also: the fact that Tor.com has struck its flag is less a sign of the Apocalypse than it is the turning of the world. What was once an obscure subgenre is now a more well-known and popular subgenre, with all the attendant perils and pleasures that implies. That’s all.

And you know what? I like the goggles.

Here’s an uncontroversial statement: different people find different things sexy, just as different people find different things repulsive, outrageous, risque or tawdry. This is why so much of the porn industry nowadays is devoted to kink and specialisation. People are weird, and so, quite often, are our fantasies. It’s a thing.

When I walk into a newsagency and glance at the lads’ magazine section – Zoo and Maxim and so on – I’m usually blinded by a sea of very large bosoms in very small bikinis, hoisted proudly on the torsos of half a dozen tanned and pouting women. These mags are sold over the counter, but while I’m not grossly offended by the sight of mostly bare women, I tend to think the content is more pornographic than not. That’s less a moral judgement than it is a statement of fact: no matter how much skin they may or may not be showing compared to their hardcore counterparts, the models are there to be looked at in a lustful context.

When trying to determine whether something is pornographic, it’s certainly logical to consider why it was created in the first place, and for what audience. In many respects, I’d argue, this is actually more important than what is (or isn’t) on display, but there’s always going to be dissonance between the reaction an image is intended to provoke and the reactions is actually provokes. Because people, as has been mentioned, are weird. We get turned on by weird and unexpected and – sometimes – terrible things. And that’s what throws a spanner in the works when it comes to the current debate on child pornography.

Paedophilia is an awful thing, one that leads to awful crimes and ruined lives. It is a violation of trust and a sexual circumstance in which it is actually impossible for one of the parties to consent, meaning that it should never be condoned or legitimised. We have a social responsibility to protect children from sexual predators. And yet, in trying to do this, we have managed to paint ourselves into a legislative corner, one  in which any image of a child becomes pornographic, regardless of the context in which it was taken.

Because children – and children’s bodies – aren’t the problem. Taking a photo of a child is no more synonomous with making child pornography than being a child is synonomous with being a sexual creature. This is an instance where only two things are capable of making an image pornographic: the perspective of the viewer, which is entirely removed from the original context of the photo, and those disgusting occasions on which an abuser has recorded images of their crime. The latter instance is both vile and undeniably sexualised. But the former is where we hit a snag: because it forces people to be concerned, not with the content of a given picture, but the likelihood that someone will view it in a sexual context.

At the moment, in our zeal to protect children, we are dangerously close to smothering them. It is no longer acceptable to show up to your child’s school sports day and take photos: parents are concerned with how the images might be viewed later. But do we stop the sports day entirely for fear of what perverts on the sidelines might take away in their memories? No: and yet, this is exactly the same logic used to justify the current stance on photographing children. The more we behave as though the general populace cannot be trusted to be in the same room with our children on the offchance of what they might be thinking, the more we buy into the mindset that children need to be locked up, protected, sheltered, kept from the public eye.

On the surface, that might not sound so bad. But take that last sentence and replace the word ‘children’ with the ‘women’, and you have a viable description of the logic behind societies whose female populations are required to stay covered up at all times. Men cannot be trusted in the presence of women, this argument goes: it is futile to pretend otherwise, and much easier to make the women invisible than it is to change the attitudes of the men. This is a mentality which ultimately punnishes those whom it claims to protect, by restricting their actions and, by default, assuming that they exist in a constant sexual context. For many reasons, this is not a perfect analogy, but given our current social struggle to decide how much freedom children should have online, outside the home and in their decision-making, it strikes me that our debate over the definition of child pornography stands as a parallel issue.

Ultimately, we live in a changing world. We worry about online predators grooming or luring children away; we worry about the digial distribution of photos of children, and how our knowledge of their possible misuse might taint our perception of their contents; we worry about stranger danger, and whether it’s better to let our kids walk home by themselves and gain a bit of independence, or whether we should constantly be holding their hand. We are making decisions with the best of intentions, but I also worry that we are approaching things the wrong way. Life will always hold dangers, no matter how effectively we seek to curb them: nothing will ever be entirely safe. With new technology opening up the world in an unprecedented way, our instinct has been to clutch tightly at what we hold most dear, trying to protect it from these new, expanded threats. But the more we grip and shelter, the harder it eventually becomes to let go, and the more difficult it is for children to grow up into confident, capable adults. There is both nobility and necessity in our desire to preserve the sanctity of childhood, but in so doing, we should never forget that childhood is something to eventually be outgrown. The real world never goes away, and the more fearful we are of its dangers, the closer we come to never understanding it at all.

Growing up in the 90s, I learned to use the internet at the same time I was entering adolescence. Arguably, the internet was also entering its teenage years: that awkward, teeming period when modems ceased to be the exclusive perview of geeks and big business and started finding find their way into private homes. After listening to the ludicrous crrrk bing-bong! bing-bong! ksssssshk of 56k dial-up, I’d log in to MSN Chat, check my various Hotmail accounts, surf poetry forums, look at fantasy pictures, type search queries into Yahoo: all the preoccupations of my thirteen-year-old Gen-Y self. Then as now, there were legion free sites and services to join, which I, glorying in the creative freedom of multiple online handles, was only too happy to test-drive, only rarely contributing under my own name. The internet being what it is, many of those sites no longer exist, the accounts I created and any content published thereon long since vanished into the electronic ether. But twelve years later, despite the myriad accounts I’ve let lapse, a handful still remain.

Like salmon returning upstream to spawn, I find myself revisiting these earlier haunts. To my now twentysomething self, they are cringeworthy reminders of my teenage years: that penchant for writing everything in lowercase, the often-bad poetry, the meaningless rants and banal social commentaries. But rather than abandoning these realms altogether, I find myself logging back in, culling the crap and instating new, up-to-date bios. Partly, it’s because of the book: I’ve worked long and hard to become a published author, and am therefore unable to resist shouting my triumph across every available server. It’s also a kind of catharsis, closing off the old efforts my younger self made towards the goal I’ve subsequently achieved: validating her efforts, even though she-then, as distinct from me-now, will never see it. Mostly, though, I feel a kind of allegiance to these places. I owe them the honesty of an up-to-date status, even if it’s only to proclaim the reason for my absence. Call it a strange, personal scrap of netiquette, but I find it disquieting when someone I’m following online in whatever capacity suddenly stops updating without any mention of why. It’s like holding a phone conversation in which the line abruptly goes dead at the other end. To delete the account, rather than locking it into explanatory stasis, would be like pretending the conversation never took place at all.

I still sign up for things and forget about them, of course. Everyone does. By and large, it’s harmless. Either the site is large enough that you can eventually come back and unsubscribe, or small enough that when it dies, there’s nothing left hanging about for unwary friends to find.

Unless, of course, you wrote an ill-informed, poorly constructed rant at age eleven and posted it to a site which, though many years dead, is still Googleable, left to drift eternally through the seas of Internet like some Goddamn Marie Celeste of prepubescent idiocy. Of course.

First, some links:

Clay Shirky on the collapse of traditional newspapers and the need to find alternative means of journalism;

Natalia Morar, who organised an anti-government flashmob on Twitter and is now hiding from arrest;

Oprah and other celebrities battling to be the first on Twitter with a million followers; and

SR7,  a company for hire that specialises in digging up dirt on employees for other companies.

Now, some thoughts, in no particular order:

 1. Journalism is essential. People both like and need to know what’s going on. However, journalism is not a naturally occuring resource. People must go out, obtain information, then analyse, write and relay it, a time-consuming process traditionally deemed deserving of monetary compensation. No matter how easy it is to copy an existing source online, that source first needs to come from somewhere; and before that, someone must decide that the source itself is newsworthy.

2. As has always been true of all creative endeavours (singing, painting, dancing), there are vastly more people who participate in these activities than are paid to do so. Largely, this is a question of enjoyment, creative expression and ease. Blogs have tapped into this in a big way. Most bloggers make no money. Many blogs are read by only a tiny handful of people known to the writer, or not at all. And yet, they are prolific, because even without monetary compensation, the vast majority of people simply enjoy writing them. Many readers employ a similar logic.

3. Despite having been around for a number of years, Twitter has only just hit the collective journalistic hivemind. Recent weeks have seen an explosion of articles on how it is being used, why it is damaging people, whether the concept is utterly pointless, and the implications of its ongoing development. Diverse examples of all these include:

– the now-notorious #amazonfail incident and its aftermath;

the Times bemoaning Twitter as a ‘rolling news service of the ego’ and then promptly signing up;

a warning that social networking sites are damaging kids’ brains at the same time Twitter is being added to the Brittish school curriculum; and

– the use of Twitter in both the Mumbai bombings and hyperlocal news sites.

4. Writing on the collapse of newspapers as we know them, Clay Shirky sums up the process of social revolutions thusly: “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.” He concludes by saying that what we need is a “collection of new experiments” to help us figure out how journalism – as distinct from newspapers – can keep working.

5. TV news isn’t going anywhere. Neither is radio, which has survived bigger technological upheavals. Print journalism is failing because the internet has ruined its monopoly on exclusive media. Unlike free-to-air radio and television, which have always had to contend with the notion that a majority of listeners won’t be paying directly for their content, newspapers have thrived as a one-to-one exchange: a set amount of money per customer per paper, with very few exceptions. It’s not that the internet devalues the written word, or that making journalism freely available is inimical to notions of profit: it’s that, without being able to charge on that one-to-one basis, newspapers cannot command anything like their previous volume of revenue. They’ve simply never had to compete with a medium that could do the same thing, better, for a fraction of the cost. And now they’re floundering.

6.  Spare a moment to consider the notion of Digital Rights Management – DRM – and its relationship to the newspaper fiasco. Although concerned parimarily with digital music copyright, the ongoing debate about encryption for games and, with the advent of the Kindle and other such devices, the pirateability of digital books and audiobook rights, the underlying problem is the same in both instances: defining notions of ownership for both users and creators in an era where digital copies are readily available. Books in particular have always been subject to the whims of borrowing and lending without falling apart, but might their new digital formats change that? Or are they an exception to the rule? For long stints of time, it’s nicer to read on a page than a screen, but what if screens are improved, or some other technology developed that is just as comfortable to use as paper? Will we still crave tactile connections

7. People might not like to pay for content, but as WikipediaYouTube and Linus Torvalds have already proven, many are ready, willing and able to create content for free. Open source principles clearly predate the current revolution, and consciously or not, they’re informing it. Remove money from the equation (or at least, give it a drastically reduced emphasis) and gaze anew at the crisis of print journalism. Blogs, tweets, viral news: many of the new news staples are ungoverned, unruly, disparate products of the hivemind – flashmobs, crowdsourcing – but that doesn’t mean they go utterly unpoliced or work without change or criticism. Hey, it’s a revolution, folks. We’re breaking and making at the speed of thought. Give us time to learn the ropes.

8. Way back in 1995,  Major Motoko Kusanagi once mused, “And where does the newborn go from here? The net is vast and infinite.” In 2006, she reaffirmed the sentiment. We’re not yet ghosts in the shell, but let’s keep an open mind. The future rests in us.

A poem for contribution here, and learned of here.

Nine Things About Oracles

 

first, there is blindness. like the white moon

in her witching sky, this oracle is prone to concealment.

lidless, pearls

 

scale on her milk-eyes, iridescent, each blink

sharp as an oyster shell.

 

secondly,

 

note her childish hands, slimwristed, fair,

ravelling the unseen silk. third is her voice,

keening like a lost hawk,

 

wild as a rose-wind. fourth, fifth, sixth:

count the nubs of her curving spine, warped

under salt. a sulphurous ocean

blooms in her, firebright anemones cling

 

to the tight-lipped carapace of her soul, waving

their soft fronds.

 

seventh is a mystery

as in the deeps of ancient caves she stares

at the blank wall, scratches darkness, weeps.

 

eighth is a syllable, sibyl-tongue

stuck

to the mouth-roof, breathing

the thick air, sighing go from here,

 

question the night sky, demand answers of the owls

and rivers, go,

 

but at the last, the ninth bell

 

wisdom is lacking. we stagger out,

clutching a small death over our hearts,

snared by a net of tears

 

but do not learn.  

Consider the following four articles on the dangers of youth exposure to too much digital culture:

iPod Safety: Preventing Hearing Loss in Teens;

Twittering brains withering, expert warns;

Teens flaunt sex, drugs on MySpace; and

Too much PlayStation causes painful lumps,

all of which cropped up in today’s online news. Together, they pretty much exemplify the fears of the Builders, the Baby Boomers and, to a certain extent, the elder members of Generation X, not just as regards their own offspring, but concerning all of modern society. Loud and clear, they’ve been wringing their hands for the past few years over the perils of digitisation, and every time, I’ve experienced a disqueting lurch of anger. It’s taken today’s media quartet for me to understand why this is: after all, cynic though I may be, I still put a certain base faith in the opinions of scientists and sociologists, especially when backed up by established studies. As a member of Generation Y, I’m hardly an impartial observer, and to a large extent, my negative reactions stem from a sense of being personally maligned, even where certain behaviours or criticisms don’t apply either to me as I am now, or to my historic teenage self. Rather, I feel outraged on behalf of my generation and those younger: that we are, in some sense, being fundamentally misunderstood. I can hack criticism, yes; but the sheer weight of professional authorities whose time has been purposefully devoted to proving that almost everyone under the age of 25 is steering themselves on a course towards social oblivion has begun to seem less like the amalgamated findings of unbiased research and more like an unconscious desire to demonise technology.

When it comes to growing up, it’s human nature to get fixed in whatever era raised us. Modern society is shaped, by and large, to ensure this happens – advertising and television timeslots, for instance, aren’t shown at random, but painstakingly catered to particular demographics. Thus, once we lose interests in the trappings of a given age and progress to playing with a new kind of gadget or watching a different kind of film, we effectively graduate from one type of newsfeed to another. Not watching weekend and afterschool cartoons, for example, means that we no longer learn which shows are cancelled and which will replace them, and that certain products, like the latest toys and games, will no longer form part of our daily media experience. Because our interest in such things has waned, we don’t notice the dissonance: rather, we assume that things have remained static in our absence, and are often startled in a moment of later nostalgia when, flipping on the TV at 3pm, we recognise none of the cartoon characters, none of the hosts, and none of the merchandise. Such disorientation provokes outrage: who are these strangers, and what have they done with our childhood? This biases our opinion of the new product towards hostility and skepticism from the outset; and even when we take the time to watch these new shows, the magic is missing, because we are no longer children. Wrongheadedly, however, we don’t immediately identify this as the problem, and tend to believe, rather, that the product itself is at fault. In fact, it becomes difficult to fathom what kind of person such programmes are catered to, and so, by extension and quite unselfconsciously, we have already taken the first steps towards discrediting the intelligence and taste of the next generation. This outrage slumbers in us, omnipresent but quiescent, until we have children of our own, or are forced to deal with someone else’s. Nonetheless, it is there.

Consider, then, that the technological advances of the past few decades have leapt ahead at unprecedented speeds. In the space of twenty years, we have moved from cassette tapes and walkmans to CDs and discmans to the now-ubiquitous mp3s and iPods of the new millenium. For a generation who started out buying their albums on LP, this is triply disconcerting, while for the generation who thought themselves blessed by the miracle of radio, it seems like a kind of magic. This is all common knowledge, of course, and therefore glossed with the shiny patina of frequent repetition: by itself, the comparison doesn’t provide an explanation for the hostility of older generations. Until, that is, we combine it with the above example about treasured childhood cartoons, because in this instance, not only are the new characters unrecognisable, but they don’t even appear on the same device.

And adults struggle with this. They are disconnected from their offspring, from their students; more important than connectivity and reminiscence, however, is the loss of firsthand advice. They simply cannot guide today’s teenagers through the digital world, which leads most youth to discover it on their own. Most of us who grew up with computers and videogames are either several years away from reproducing or blessed with children still in early primary-school: in other words, we are yet to witness what happens when a generation of adolescents is reared by a generation of adults anywhere near as technologically literate as their teenage progeny, who remember what it was like to hang out on Trillian or MSN chat all night, to experiment with cybersex, to write achingly of school crushes in their LiveJournal or to download music at home. Members of Generations Y and Z, in other words, in addition to being burgeoning iFolk, are also a social anomaly: a group whose own adolescence is so far removed from the experience of their caretakers as to prevent their parents and teachers, in many instances, from adequately preparing them for the real (digital) world.

But the gap will close. Already there are children in the world whose parents own game consoles, who will guide them online from a young age, and whose joint mannerisms both in real and virtual company will be drawn from a single parental source. Navigating away from certain parts of the internet will be taught in the same way as stranger danger and the implict lesson to avoid dangerous parts of the local neighbourhood. We teach what we know, after all, and yet large number of commentators seem not to have realised this – which is why I react badly to their writings. They never purport to be talking about teenagers now so much as teenagers always, or from this point on, a frustrating alarmism that takes no account of what will happen when such adolescents leave home, stumble into the bright sunlight, go to university, get jobs, fall in love and maybe have children of their own. In short, they have no sense of the future, or if so, they picture a world populated by antisocial digital natives, uprooting the fruits of their hard labour out of ignorance, apathy and poor management. Either they can’t imagine us growing up, or fear what we’ll turn into.

I’m speaking here in broad-brush terms. Obviously, the distinction between those who are technologically literate and those who aren’t can’t simply be reduced to their year of birth. Every generation has its Luddites (and, if we remember the political motivations of those original iconoclasts, this is often a good thing) as well as its innovators, its geeks and scientists. And many such worried articles, irksome though I may find their tone, are still correct: listening to your iPod on full volume will probably damage your hearing, just as it’s not a wise idea to post intimate details of your sex life on MySpace. The latter concern is markedly new, and something teens certainly need to be made aware of – indeed, professionals new to Facebook are still themselves figuring out whether to friend coworkers or employers, thereby allowing them to view the results of various drunken nights out, or to keep a low digital profile. Such wisdom is new all round, and deeply appreciated. On the other hand, parents have been telling their kids to turn down their damn music in one form or another ever since Elvis Presley first picked up a guitar, and while the technology might’ve become more powerful in the intervening decades and the studies into auditory damage more accurate, the warning remains identical (as does the inter-generational eye-roll with which it tends to be received).

In short, the world is changing, and people are changing with it, teachers, teens and parents alike. And I cannot help, in my own curious optimism, to see this as a positive thing: that in a world where technology moves so swiftly, older generations must constantly remain open to the idea of learning from their younger counterparts, while those in the know must become teachers earlier. There is so much to be gained in the coming years, and so many problems, both great and small, to be solved. The gap between adults and adolescents has never been so large, but while it always behooves those in the former category to teach and aid the latter, this should never be at the expense of at least trying to understand their point of view. And this, ultimately, is what causes me to bristle: whether playing videogames can hurt your hands or spending too much time online can damage your real world social skills, such passtimes aren’t going anywhere. Rather than condemning or sneering at such things outright or tutting sadly, the more productive path is to consider how best they can be incorporated into modern life without causing harm, or to study how they work in confluence with real-world interactions, and not just fret about what happens if they’re used exclusively.

Because technology – and future generations – aren’t going anywhere. We might not look like Inspector Gadget, but baby, we’re his heirs. Or rather, Penny’s. You get the idea.

Cruising through the New York Times today, I did a double-take on the following headline:

Teenagers’ Internet Socializing Not a Bad Thing

As this is a blatantly obvious observation akin to announcing that Chocolate Is Bad For You But People Eat It Anyway, I spent a good minute staring at the link, trying to figure out what I was missing. My instinctive reaction was that, for reasons unknown, the Times and the Onion had somehow contrived to swap stories. Or maybe those fake headline guys had struck again – who knows? Unable to come up with a better theory, I decided to read on.

Frighteningly, it appears the story is genuine. How anyone could remain oblivious as to why teenagers – or, for that matter, adults – use MySpace and Facebook is beyond me, while the idea that the MacArthur Foundation actually put money towards proving the bleeding obvious causes a small but vital part of my cerubellum to bulge in a worrying fashion. Seriously, dudes? Young folk nowadays use of the Internets. They send of the text messags, speak on the cellular phones and jive to the rock’n’ roll musics. Deal with it. (I have a sneaking suspicion that the author, Tamar Lewin, is a modern-day Luddite. Only someone completely out of touch with reality could put quotation marks around the phrase “geeking out” and hope to be taken seriously about either technology or youth culture.)

In other unintentionally-self-mocking news, Germaine Greer, that grumpy old feminist, has lambasted Michelle Obama’s election-victory dress with the kind of angry, colourful prose normally reserved for botched military campaigns. The irony of a feminist icon slagging a powerful, intelligent, prominent woman purely on the basis of her clothes – and, stranger still, complaining that Malia and Sasha’s dresses weren’t “girly” – is disturbingly potent. Especially now that actual fashion designers have called Greer’s own wardrobe into question (lordy!), the whole ludicrous incident is eerily reminiscent of something the Monty Python pepperpots might have done.

Now there’s a thought – try a photo of Germaine Greer next to Terry Jones in drag and see what you think. To quote the quintessential Python/Pepperpots exchange:

“Shh. It’s satire!’

“No it isn’t – this is zany madcap humour!”

Also, there’s a two-faced kitten.

Fourth wall, anyone?

As a child, there are few things more heady than playing without adult supervision, and few things more crucial to healthy development. It’s a big part of learning to gauge social situations: particularly, the idea that it’s often necessary to behave differently depending on the circumstances. Looked at purely in terms of running around or socialising while adults read in the next room, it’s a sensible – even obvious – assumption. Kids need to be on their own. Should they start picking up bad habits – for instance, acting like hoydens all the time – then parents must rightly step in and explain why this behaviour is inappropriate. The very last resort is banning play itself, or forbidding a child to see certain friends, not just because it’s an extreme measure, but because of the difficulties in enforcing it. 

Now, however, the rise in digital gamespaces has created a phenomenon that many parents are yet to recognise as significant: adolescent participation in virtual and online communities. Time was, punishing bad behaviour by revoking a child’s TV, computer, phone or game-playing privileges was a parental standard: the ace up the adult sleeve. But with so many kids and teenagers relying heavily on new technology for social interaction, blacklisting internet use or taking away consoles has become the equivalent of prohibiting contact with friends. Unintentionally, some parents are upgrading their retaliatory arsenal from standard bombs to nuclear, and are therefore miffed and furious by turns when their child’s reaction seems over the top. The worst-case scenario is, undoubtably, that of Brandon Crisp, a 15-year-old who ran away after being banned from playing X-Box and was later found dead. His father, who’d imposed the ban, is understandably grieved by the tragedy, but has also said that he now understands his son’s reaction.

“I just took away his identity, so I can understand why he got mad and took off. Before, I couldn’t understand why he was taking off for taking his game away,” he said.

It’s a notably drastic example, but one which does, perhaps, exemplify the problem: how do parents withold technological privilege now without simultaneously removing avenues of social contact? It’s a tough question, and one I don’t have an answer to, despite being sympathetic to both positions. It is also, however, something I’ve experienced myself.

When I was about twelve or so, my mother took me to coffee with one of her friends. This friend had a daughter, Michelle, who, apart from being my age, was a born technology geek, and in this respect utterly dissimilar to her mother. The women chatted while I drank my hot chocolate; and then, quite suddenly, my mother’s friend mentioned how angry and irrational Michelle had been acting ever since she banned her from using the internet. Curious, I asked why she’d banned her; the friend replied that Michelle had been leaving a program open that used up their bandwidth. After a short discussion, it became apparent that the program in question was Kazaa, a two-way music download site of the old, pre-iTunes-and-collapse-of-Napster ouevre, and that the bandwidth was being used up because Michelle was allowing other users to download songs from her.

‘So why not just say she can’t use the site?’ I asked, puzzled and a little indignant on Michelle’s behalf. ‘Or that she can’t let other people download songs? Because taking away the internet, I mean, that’s a big thing. That means she can’t check her email, or chat to friends – ‘ both crucial when we were twelve – ‘or anything like that. It’s a big punishment.’ I tried very hard to stress this.

My mother’s friend frowned, shrugged and waved a hand.

‘Oh, but I don’t care about any of that,’ she said, and promptly changed the subject.

In the scheme of things, it wasn’t a big incident, but the injustice of it frustrated me for some time afterwards. The punishment was grossly disproportionate to the crime, and what was worse, Michelle’s mother didn’t seem to care, even after it was explained and even though it explained her daughter’s behaviour. To her, the importance of chat and internet were nil, and so removing them oughtn’t have been a problem: my protest (and, presumably, Michelle’s) was just another sign of unwarranted complaint. Now, of course, I’m free to use teh interwebnologies as I please; Kazaa is long since gone, and I haven’t used Trillian for years. But it makes me wonder: when I have kids of my own, will I understand what’s important to them?

And, more importantly, will I be willing to learn?

Digital Dilemmas

Posted: October 24, 2008 in Good News Week
Tags: , , , , , ,

In news today, a drunk Sydneysider has been caught taking sickie thanks to his Facebook status, while elsewhere, a woman has killed her virtual online husband – or rather, his avatar.

Clearly, despite mounting anecdotal evidence to the contrary, we have yet to form total symbiosis with the World-Wide Web.

For some reason known only to the various technological demons, lares and penates governing this modern age, my computer has recently decided to stop recognsing the wireless modem. Not entirely, of course: it lets me log on, then drops out a minute later. There is no discernable pattern to these occurrences, but when they strike, it usually proves impossible to log on again. Which is why this blog has been scatty lately: I can’t often stay on long enough to post. So, apologies. I’m working on it.