Thursday, 14 May 2009

Growing up digital

I went to a talk at my son's school in Cambridge today called Growing Up Digital. Not a talk about grammar, as you might already have guessed.

It was actually very good. The speaker was Stephen Carrick-Davies and he had already spoken to my son's year during the day. My son came back from school very eager to show me this film about cyber-bullying they had been shown (as were we). It's very good (albeit upsetting).

The talk was about various aspects of the digital age and how it affects children and their parents and carers. An awful lot of it was deeply depressing, and I was less buoyed by the supposed benefits of this golden age than either the speaker or most of the younger world.

One of the slides showed a picture of Ghandi with a text box that said something like 'What might Ghandi have achieved with a MySpace account?' I think we were supposed to marvel at what a force for good the internet can be. But how often is this the case? We know it is a magnet for conspiracy theorists and holocaust deniers, but I'm not aware that it is very effective in disseminating life-enhancing political or philosophical thought.

But the point is - with Ghandi more than anyone surely - that it is what we do in the real (or Stephen kept referring to it - the 'offline') world, not what we say in the virtual world. If Ghandi had been yet another internet blogger or MySpace show-off, then the chances are we would never have heard of him - or if we had, suspected him of some ulterior motive. Ghandhi did things. He wasn't simply famous. There is no substitute for action and real, personal contact. You can spread a message with the internet, but what is the worth of that message without the basis in a tested truth? There is a big difference between signing an online petition and risking a baton blow to the head. What might Ghandi have achieved with a MySpace account? Anonymity probably.

I feel a great deal of helplessness - as I know lots of parents do - when dealing with these things. My age disallows me from having a worthwhile opinion. I liked this Douglas Adam quote that was used, in which he sets out a horribly recognisable rule of thumb with new technology:

1) everything that's already in the world when you're born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you're thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it's been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

The idea that children sit inside looking at YouTube videos, uploading dodgy photos and endlessly chatting to each other on social networking sites is depressing enough without the dangers we know are present. And ironically the reason they are sitting in the house rather than in the local park is that we want them safe.

Might not this dislocation from the 'offline' world be part of the reason why we have such a high rate of mental illness in the developed world? Online gaming and social networking are substitutes for, not improvements to, real human contract. It is this impersonal world that encourages the cowardice of cyber-bullying surely. It is just too easy.

I am reading Tom Sawyer with my son at the moment and we are both enjoying it enormously. The language is confusing - made doubly so by my wandering American accent (Missouri one minute, New Jersey the next - via Scotland)

Mark Twain gets that age of boy absolutely bang on. It doesn't matter that we have no real connection with that age or part of the world, the way that Tom relates to Huck Finn, to Aunt Polly, to Becky Thatcher is so well observed that the jokes still work. I think my son has laughed more at this book than any other.

But the thing that really separates that world from ours, is not the language or the steamboats or the alarmingly casual use of the word 'nigger' - no, it is the freedom the boys enjoy and the intensity of the world they create for themselves.

The fact is that I grew up in a world much closer to Tom Sawyer's than to my son's. I did not have a murderous Injun Joe after me, but I certainly recognise the vibrancy of his childhood world. I grew up away from adults, in the company of children. We played, we invented games, we did stupid and dangerous things, we got into scrapes, we strayed far from home without recourse to mobile phones. That world seems gone for good. The truth is, there is no adventure left in childhood now that is not pre-packaged or risk-assessed. And the world is a lesser place for it.

Of course I am the same. I don't want my son to be in danger. But then neither did my parents want me to face dangers. And I have to say - I would rather he got hurt standing by a friend than escaped unscathed by deserting that friend. Sometimes you have to get hurt. There's a big difference between a Facebook 'friend' and a friend who is there when you need them.

It is always going to be what you do 'offline' that really counts.

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