Childhood, Computers, and Hi!

Hello fans of the Internet. It's been over a month since I last clicked post, and I'm way overdue. You'd think I'd be teeming with witty observations and insights after all this time, but no. I think my internal operating system is still in newborn mode, which means I can't even post 140 characters or less to twitter very often. It's my own personal kernel panic.

I mentioned last time that I was reading The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman, and I recently finished it. Here's a quick summary. Postman argues that the idea of childhood as a distinct, protected time in a person's life is a social construction that came into being shortly after the printing press was invented. By locking information into the fairly inaccessible, abstract form of written language that requires years of study to master, a distinction was formed between young and old that didn't exist in oral cultures. He mentions the idea of shame makes childhood possible by making certain information taboo to children. Basically, literate adults had access to vital information that wasn't available to young people, and an elaborate system of education was invented to train children to read and write so they could eventually participate. Children could be brought into adulthood gradually with structured guidance. Postman then says that the invention of the telegraph was the beginning of the end for the concept of childhood. (And perhaps formalized education along with it.)
...the telegraph began the process of making information uncontrollable...News from nowhere means news from everywhere, about everything, and in no particular order. The telegraph created an audience and a market not only for news but for fragmented, discontinuous, and essentially irrelevant news, which to this day is the main commodity of the news industry.
What does this have to do with childhood? The telegraph, telephone, photography, and finally television have made literacy less important, and information available to everyone, everywhere. Today's children encounter—and are forced to process—the adult world throughout our visual culture that moves information at the speed of light.
...if we turn over to chidren a vast store of powerful adult material, childhood cannot survive. By definition adulthood means mysteries solved and secrets uncovered. If from the start the children know the mysteries and secrets, how shall we tell them apart from anyone else?
Postman goes on to lament the diminishing idea of adulthood as well, blaming electronic media. He feels that fully literate culture has "...tolerance for delayed gratification, a sophisticated ability to think conceptually and sequentially, a preoccupation with both historical continuity and the future, a high valuation of reason and hierarchical order." Postman calls the new period between infancy and senility the adult-child.

Throughout the book I couldn't help but think of Postman yelling, "you kids get my off my lawn!" But his history of communication technology is worthwhile, and while his arguments aren't scientific, they're fun to mull over. The question I can't shake after reading the book: what does it mean to be an adult? Postman wrote the book in 1982, before the Web. I think the Web has definitely helped the cause of literacy, if only briefly. Broadband is turning the Web into a video-delivery device, and sites like YouTube are an intermediate step back toward a visually-dominated culture. Maybe?

To counter Postman a bit, I'm currently reading Mindstorms by Seymour Papert. Papert also believes formalized education is on its way out, computers are responsible, but this is a good thing. I'm only 50 pages into the book, but I'm struck by Papert's metaphors for teaching. He believes the best type of learning is similar to how we learn spoken languages, and he blames some education problems such as mathophobia on parents not "speaking math" around the house. Just as an English-speaking child learns French faster if they're surrounded by native speakers, so other skills such as reading literature and geometry are helped along by "native speakers" of those skills. He argues that children can learn to program computers, and in the process learn subjects "without being taught". Specifically, without being taught in the classic teacher/classroom sense. I'm also interested in his view of children as builders rather than consumers.

Mindstorms is from 1993, also pre-Web, and some of the ideas feel dated. But his prediction of computing ubiquity was correct, and his fears about how computers are used in the classroom as pre-programmed test-administers are also correct, I'm afraid. But I'm guessing there, and like I mentioned I'm just starting this book. It is comical to go from reading a Luddite to a Techno-Utopian so quickly. Papert's statement that, "what is good for professionals is good for children" would probably horrify Postman.

(Oh, and this book is where the name Lego Mindstorms comes from: The Origins of Mindstorms.)

In personal news the Oregonian had a nice article that mentioned ORblogs the other day: Portland is No. 2 in blogging, and I was quoted going on and on about the local blogosphere. I don't have as much time as I'd like to work on the site right now, but I get a few hours here and there every once in a while. I'm glad people are still interested in it, and I think it's still valuable to have community aggregators even though personal feed-readers are ubiquitous.

Until January (I suppose), take care.

Comments

Both of those sound like great books. It's so funny to me that, like you, I sometimes think of books in pre-Web/post-Web categories. Things CHANGED, seriously, just a little while ago. It blows my mind.

On a slight tangent, Postman's thoughts on adulthood remind me of an economist & political theorist I really like, Hans Hoppe. http://www.hanshoppe.com In his book Democracy: The God That Failed, Hoppe writes about anarchy and liberty and society and the state.. One of the big ideas is that mature people (and societies) are characterized by their ability to delay gratification. Really interesting stuff.
That was a good article and I continue to be grateful for OrBlogs.
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