Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
I had a thought after last class and decided to try and condense it here before I forget. Could adapt this into one of the class essays later, but I think I'd rather do something else for that.

In 1970, a made-for-TV-movie was produced called Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town. It played on the anxiety in children that evil adults(1) will take away their toys. 48 years later, Toys'R'Us, an unassailable retail giant in the 90s, is on the verge of bankruptcy and is considering closing all of their stores.(2) If we are going to take seriously and accept the duty to teach children about what is happening to their world, we owe it to them to explain that children were once very afraid the adults would take away all their toys, and soon there will be no toys left. I am responsible. I helped kill them.

The toys in Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town are rigid, physical objects. Many are child-size replicas of entities in the adult world, a China doll or a model train, which engage the imaginative capacities of the toy's users as they play out roles and situations existing in the world. Two potential villains are redeemed when given toys as this role-playing awakens their basic human kindness - one plays out motherhood with a doll, the other plays out being a conductor with a train.(3) Other toys exist as vehicles for mastering one's own physicality - a yo-yo is the most salient example. But all of these toys are completely inert on their own, and are entirely subject to the imagination and desires of the user. The doll does not cry out of hunger unless you imagine it. The yo-yo can be a weapon, but only if you choose to employ it that way. In 1970, when the movie was filmed, the most advanced children's toys were probably the Chatty Cathy and its derivatives, dolls containing a phonograph record which spoke a random series of phrases when a string was pulled.

Six years later, with the release of the Atari 2600 and the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set, the toy as a physical object began to face its first serious challenges. Both the Atari 2600 and the D&D Basic Set provided the user with elaborate rules for their imaginative play. The D&D Basic Set, though, with no electronic components, did not enforce these rules, and in fact required substantial imaginative play to do much of anything.(4) But the Atari 2600 strictly enforced its rules on imaginative play using software, and there was no way for the user to edit the code and make the game play out differently. You cannot create additional rooms of the Adventure castle, nor can you engage in diplomatic negotiations with the Space Invaders. For the first time, the operative rules of the imaginative world are set out and enforced by the toymaker, rather than the user.

Video games enjoyed a stratospheric rise throughout the next few decades.(5) I was born in December 1989. At that time, video games had already eclipsed the movie industry as the biggest produced entertainment business in the United States, but most adults did not realize it. The most popular Christmas presents requested by boys of my age in an upper-middle class suburb were products of Sega, Nintendo, and Sony. Girls were discouraged from liking them on the basis of gender, and both genders realized they had the patina of nerdiness about them, but in my neighborhood, almost none of the boys really abstained.(6) Some parents obliged more than others, and when they realized we congregated at the houses of the boys whose parents most obliged, some parents obliged more.(7) But at Christmas, everyone's parents seemed to insist on buying them some of the old kind of toys. Sometimes they got tried for a day or two and then ignored, and sometimes they were never even opened. This made our parents sad. We didn't understand why - what was wrong with what we liked?

As we got older, it made a little more sense to us, as the ones who had been made to join sports or participate in boy scouts were better-looking and had an easier time with middle school socializing.(8) Until recently, I thought socialization was the whole story, and that may have been all the parents understood, but there was also some sort of lack of open-ended and ideative play going on. Part of why games were so enticing to us was that we were all very competitive, and games typically involve winning and losing. Part of why we spent so long on them was the notion of progress - the idea that advancing in the game is accomplishing something, advancing towards a worthwhile end goal.(9) This goal-setting is at the heart of how the toy is dying.

Herbert Marcuse explained that capitalism manufactures new wants. The game is perhaps the ultimate capitalist entertainment medium, as it presents desires to the player and encourages the player to adopt them as their own. Whereas a child in the 1970s with a toy would have to invent their own rules, their own situations, and their own goals, a child of the 1990s had those things presented to them, and no one had a precisely good enough argument about why we should refuse them. But, at least, at that time, the best games were sort of like reading a book, and could often involve far deeper reading and mathematics for one's age than is typically presented in elementary school. With the advent of the smartphone, a market emerged for games that functioned as a very simple dopamine channel. Do repetitive tasks, get rewards, repeat. Whereas the game itself makes ideative behavior an incidental result rather than the formal cause of play, the degenerated game involves no ideative behavior at all.(10) And the logic of the market dictates that whatever is most addictive, whatever is most able to keep the player playing without any outside intrusive thoughts, will prevail. When I teach high school students now, many can more readily recall their favorite childhood phone game more quickly than their favorite childhood toy. And, while elaborate games with more ideative capacity tend to be more niche or expensive, the dullest ones work on virtually any smartphone. Even the video, with the advent of Youtube and its algorithms, now has a sort of responsiveness and interactivity which can make it as engrossing as the game, and it has the upside of requiring more effort. Youtube tells you what to watch next, and is unbelievably popular with tiny children who do not know what to watch next.

If we want children to read, to imagine, to have the interiority which I have some of and past generations undoubtedly have more of, we must do a better job than my parents' generation at heading off the new trends. We cannot solely rely on reflexively pushing them into what we liked and what benefited us. I do not have the full answer yet, but I believe it involves finding a way to engage children's own imaginations to get them to see the limits of what they are presented with. Youtube does not let you imagine the characters however you like. Games force you to play by their rules.(11)

A child will be able to imagine toys out of the things around them as long as their attention isn't stolen by anything else. The toy of the 1970s is just an aid to that process invested with some art, branding, and emotion. A child can pick up a group of rocks and give each one a name, a history, and a personality, and create very entertaining character dramas involving all of them.(12) Maybe Eben has scared me too much, but we risk creating children who don't know how to do that any more. And when we tell them we live in a world where evil adults got rid of all the toys, they won't be able to understand why that makes people sad.

-- JoeBruner - 09 Mar 2018

notes from office hours -

A. interactivity between multiple children and objects. possible topics include: 1. one console for 4 kids to every kid at home on their own console 1.5 maybe elaborate on the nature of the early 90s arcade 2. the political theory of collective rule-making when playing pretend

B. Homo Ludens - read

C. Wittgenstein on games+play probably deserves a reread

D. local knowledge geertz - may be relevant?

Hi Joe, thanks for posting this piece. You are an incredible writer, and I especially enjoyed your anecdotal notes.

Born in 91, I can relate to your experience of what I would call "video game takeover". My older brother was also born in 1989 and since his teens has battled with some form of video game addiction. It's different, though, because we couldn't afford to have the newest console, so both his obsession and mastery of video games were on computer games such as WoW? , and LoL? ... but it did start with the video games you discuss above.

When I was growing up, my all male cousins and I would congregate at my grandmother's home every weekend and would come up with games to play like doctor, or house, or my personal favourite, race-cars. These games didn't need anything - no toy, no ball, just our bodies and our minds. We came up with all of the rules, and modified them as we played. After some time, however, my cousins were gifted a playstation, and then everything changed. Suddenly, I wasn't included in the queue for the 2 controllers, nor was anyone interested in shifting even a seconds worth of attention away from the screen. It was as quick and as simple as that.

I see what you mean when you say that you are a perpetrator for "killing toys" - and I guess my brother and I are too. I also think that "toys" don't exactly mean what they used to when we were younger, and that the toys of the 21st century are tech gadgets, both wearable tech and laptops/ipads/iphones. I think that people are subconsciously, or maybe even consciously redefining the place of the "toy" in their children's lives. Those toys that we once played with are now seen as some cheaply made painted objects that definitely don't come with any kind warranty or protection. Will they last? If so, how long? What's the point if children are going to grow out of them anyway?

Part of the appeal of tech toys is how seamlessly they can adapt to meet the needs of the growing child. From toddler to grade school, parents can simply download an undiscovered age-appropriate app, and the toy/gadget/device is basically new again for little to no additional cost.

I agree with you, this is really scary, it worries me too. I still have all of the toys I played with growing up. A pink power ranger, a single barbie doll for which I sewed many different outfits out of fabric scraps from my mom's sewing projects. When I look at them, I admire them because they are a part of my identity. I grew with them, I learned lessons with them by my side, and they taught me more than a few things about the privilege that comes with owning a toy, and what means to respect it and care for it.

I see the same kind of apathy you describe (from your experience with high school students) in the public library system where I work with kids and teens. It's all the same. It's all about instantaneity, about colours and hyper-mediated experience. What's worse is that we can indefinitely count on the Evan Spiegel's of the world to continue distorting and harassing the minds of impressionable youth.

-- MadihaZahrahChoksi - 19 Mar 2018

Thank you for your praise and the deep and thoughtful response. I should probably include anecdotes more often.

I'm sorry to hear about your brother. I didn't deeply touch on the massively multiplayer games like WoW? and LoL? because I never liked them much myself, and they target a specific hardcore audience, but there is a particularly pernicious aspect to them. While the single-player game presents you goals, WoW? and LoL? also provide you a community where you are sufficiently alienated and anonymized from your day-to-day self that you can maintain a separate existence. And because the goals are group goals (have our LoL? team go pro, be the top PvP? guild on our WoW? server) so you have to continue playing out of loyalty to the group. One of my high school friend groups essentially lost a member to WoW? because he always blew us off to do raids or something. His grades suffered, it got worse, and he never finished college. Fortunately, that technology could only hook a minority, but it can hook them really badly.

For growing children, an iPad is a lot cheaper and provides higher user satisfaction than a black or brown nanny. I am probably being painfully southern and painfully blunt when I say that, but in a world where adults have little face-to-face community, domestic help is prohibitively expensive for the middle class, and we have failed to adequately socialize child-care, market demand for a sedative for kids seems inevitable. There was a really interesting pediatric study ( out of India about how smartphones and tablets interest kids, but they become surprisingly passive and learn very little. By 12 months, they only watch the video of a music video instead of dancing. It's a difficult problem, made worse by the fact that the new generation of devices aren't meant to be shared at all. At least with the playstation there is a collective experience around the playstation.

I was about to close with the remark that I don't know how you make children demand higher-quality experiences, but I remembered an essay I wrote a couple of months ago year about food culture among children and teenagers (put up a copy at and, upon reflection, I think the two basic things you need to do are to force them to actually try a wide variety of other things and then disrupt the cultural hegemony among the children to the point where everyone is making radically different choices. But the first one takes a lot of time and effort on the part of caregivers, and the second gets much harder as the child gets older.

Difficult problems. Again, thank you for your heartfelt response.

-- JoeBruner - 21 Mar 2018

Hi Joe and Madiha,

I've really enjoyed this discussion as well. I have so many thoughts in this area but they basically distill down to the challenge of parenting in a "toy-less" world. At the moment my kids are little so I’m focused on building the foundation - I get to be the dominant influence in their lives in these initial lives. I am trying to cultivate imagination, curiosity and a desire for play. I’m concerned about exactly the effect you talk about – gaming happens within its own rules, gives that dopamine hit for achieving goals rather than “just playing”. I can see why your parents forced you to swim Joe – it really does feel like sport is a good balance to gaming – besides obvious health benefits it provides a social structure, goals, skills like perseverance and drive, and rewards in the “winning”.

There were two things I wanted to add to the conversation. First, another thing that console and mobile based gaming steals from us these days is boredom. I think boredom is essential to our society and we are eliminating it from our lives. Boredom is a driver of innovation, of imagination, of creation and of social connection. Did you ever just go over to a friend’s place and do nothing together? Or create elaborate dance routines that you then forced your family to sit through (just me?). Or tinker with lego or meccano with no real purpose because you had time? We live in a society that attempts to maximize use of everything. Our spare spaces are AirBnB? ’d out, our spare time is pulled into the Gig economy, we can stream anything at anytime on any device to fill that five minute space that we were forced to wait for something. Gaming – be it sophisticated or dopamine ridden candy-crush style – is another filler. We are become terrified about being bored and in doing so we are losing all the potential that the boredom could have created. I think we are going to have a poorer society for the loss of boredom.

The fear of boredom ties into my next point regarding the screen being a good nanny. In the first two years of my son's life he barely saw a screen. I was at home for one of them (where I come from your job is held for 12 months by law), and for the second he went to a local early childhood center where screens weren’t a feature. During this time I regularly took him on short airplane trips in domestic airlines. I would be armed to the teeth with books, snacks, drawing activities, and various other things like buttons on strings. We would chat and look out the window, read and eat the airplane cookies. There were only a few occasions all my preparations were insufficient. On one particular occasion despite my best efforts my son was screaming blue-murder at the indignity of having to sit still for a long period of time. As time went on I was feeling increasingly aware of the accosted ears of the passengers around me. A man across the aisle leaned over, smiled and passed me an ipad playing some animated movie about helicopters. My son's screams slowed and everyone visibly relaxed. He watched the movie for the rest of the flight. The reason I tell this story is that my observation is we live in a world where increasingly a parent seems to be given two options to address bored or upset kids - to "plug them in" so to speak, or to avoid being in that public situation. I'm not suggesting the other passengers should be subject to the screaming, or enjoy it or anything, but in the "everyone is a reporter with a camera" age we have seen parent-shaming where a child is being... well an upset child. Having a society react so publicly about a child creating a flight from hell or whether loud kids deserve to be banned from restaurants just pushes parents towards the digital nanny in these situations. If we want to encourage kids to engage with the world around them then we have to give them space and acknowledge sometimes that is going to mean letting them be loud and annoying without expecting an instant fix in a screen.

Anyway, finally I thought I'd leave you with this sweet roundup - there are no devices in here: children around the world show their favorite toys.

-- RebeccaBonnevie - 21 Apr 2018



1 : In this particular case, the evil adults resemble a stereotypical bombastic German leader and a magic-using warlock. The Warlock is redeemed; Receiving a single toy warms his heart. However, the heart-warming counteracts his magical powers, and once he is a kind old man, he becomes tragically incapable. Perhaps there is something about Eben's undead going on here.

2 : At least one person has asserted this is primarily because big-box retailers are all failing due to Jeff Bezos and the Walton family. While that is likely the efficient cause of this particular bankruptcy, the formal cause decline of the toy industry is also real and is still worth examining.

3 : The giving of toys is an important part of gender socialization - how to deal with the fact that I wanted the Play-Doh jewelrymaking set was a matter of great consternation for my father.

4 : The revival of Dungeons and Dragons gives me a fair amount of hope in these matters.

5 : I will not fully address here the rise and fall of the Video Arcade, which has been written about numerous times, but a summary for those not familiar: During the 1980s and early 1990s the majority of video game revenue came from people visiting video arcades or other places with machines, like bars, movie theatres, and restaurants. This was partly because home console and home computer use was less widespread and partly because a larger cabinet could provide a more technically advanced experience both in terms of the hardware and the display. Sales of video games to home consoles revenue surpassed arcade revenues around 1995. However, in countries where owning powerful PCs or video game consoles is cost-prohibitive for much of the population, 'PC Bangs', 'Internet Cafes', or 'LAN Centers' operate under a similar business model.

6 : The rise in the popularity of video games corresponds to a fall in the performance of suburban North Carolina high schools in the more competitive and somewhat heavy-contact sports, like football and basketball.

7 : I was a special case, as I did not get a video game console until 13, but due to my father's mechanical engineering consulting practice, we had a wealth of powerful PCs lying around, and by 2nd grade I had figured out how to get them to emulate some of the older consoles. And there were a lot of games on PC, but they generally involved more reading and were targeted at an older audience. This was probably good for me.

8 : I was made to do a sport, and ended up swimming for 12 years despite not really liking the physical act of doing it. I liked that I could be lost in my own thoughts while doing it instead of having to be alert and coordinated all of the time. Having to be in a pool or outdoors was not a terrible imposition, but having to follow around a stupid black-and-white ball and kick it was very offensive to me.

9 : I once saw my younger brother wandering around aimlessly in a game; I was about 11, he was about 6. I told him he was going the wrong way and needed to do a particular thing to advance. He responded, "I'm just playing for fun." At the time, I thought this was very childish and stupid.

10 : People who spend lots of time playing repetitive phone games often report doing the same repetitive game-tasks in their sleep.

11 : Some children do get into programming, creating art, and other things of that nature through gaming, but it is a tiny minority. The vast, vast majority just play the games and never examine the underlying mechanics unless they are pushed to do so.

12 : My sister and I had an acorn we named Grandma Oldfarm. She was a better recurring character than most supporting actors on TV could pull off.


Webs Webs

r7 - 21 Apr 2018 - 02:54:03 - RebeccaBonnevie
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