Archive | March, 2015

Kids These Days: Media Use and Parental Fear

24 Mar

My colleague Charlie Keil is worried that kids these days spend too much time with media of one sort or another (as detailed, e.g. in this report) – TV, computer, video games, whatever – and not enough time interacting directly with one another (in particular, not enough time engaging in music and dance). Meanwhile danah boyd has been researching teen media use and discovers that one reason they spend so much time online is that they can’t easily get together physically. Their lives are tightly scheduled and meeting places are few and far between.

So, is children’s media-use the result of adult micro-management? That is, kids aren’t over using media because they’re so seductive, but because their parents won’t let them play out-doors and play together.

Meanwhile, there’s a growing movement in favor of so-called “free-range childhood”. As far as I can tell that means growing up like I did. As long as I was home for dinner, for bed, practiced my trumpet, and got my homework done, I could roam the neighborhood as I wished. And I could take public transportation wherever I needed to go. Of course, this was calibrated to my age. I had more freedom at ten than at five, and more at fifteen than at ten. Still, within fairly generously limits, I could wander at will.

Over the past several years I’ve been reading that this kind of childhood is disappearing in favor of one where kids are taken everywhere by their parents and are slotted into all kinds of activities where they are supervised by adults, having less time for free play among themselves.

I have no sense of how prevalent such restrictions are. Over at Free Range Kids I found this: “Today, only 13 percent of U.S. children walk to school. One study found that only 6 percent of kids age 9-13 play outside in a given week.” I haven’t tried to track down that first number, but following the link for the second didn’t get me to the source document. If true, it’s shocking.

Over at Inhabitots I find this:

Once in a while I see question like this on Facebook, “At what age is it safe to let your children play outside alone?” Without fail, many parents will answer, “After 13 years,” and “After 15 years,” and most alarmingly, “Never.” You always see a few parents who disagree, but not many. The fact that the majority of parents on Facebook think that kids require adult supervision at all times, matches up with national statistics. Surveys collected by Christie Barnes, author of The Paranoid Parents Guide, found that the biggest worry among parents is kidnapping. Another study by pediatricians at the Mayo Clinic, showed that nearly 3/4 of parents said they are afraid that their children may be abducted. In fact, parents in the Mayo Clinic study were more worried about kidnapping than car accidents, sports injuries, or drug addiction. Many other surveys show that as many as half of American parents worry about kidnapping often, which in turn prevents these moms and dads from letting their kids go outside to play.

And that takes us back to danah boyd, who is concerned that exaggerated fears of online sexual predation distorts our sense of real dangers.

So, we keep kids indoors because we fear what will happen to them outdoors and, once we’ve driven them to media, we worry about what will happen to them there.

Meanwhile another bunch of folks are concerned about not getting enough contact with nature:

Although human beings have been urbanizing, and then moving indoors, since the invention of agriculture, social and technological changes in the past three decades have accelerated that change. Among the reasons: the proliferation of electronic communications; poor urban planning and disappearing open space; increased street traffic; diminished importance of the natural world in public and private education; and parental fear magnified by news and entertainment media. An expanding body of scientific evidence suggests that nature-deficit disorder contributes to a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity and overweight, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses. Research also suggests that the nature deficit weakens ecological literacy and stewardship of the natural world. These problems are linked more broadly to what health care experts call the “epidemic of inactivity,” as well as to a devaluing of independent play. Nonetheless, we believe that society’s nature-deficit disorder can be reversed.

What’s going on?

Why is there so little opposition to the hegemony of the super-rich?

21 Mar

What we have here is a failure of political memory and imagination.

In 2014, when Oxfam arrived in Davos, it came bearing the (then) shocking news that just 85 individuals controlled as much wealth as half of the world’s population combined. This January, that number went down to 80 individuals.

Fraser terms out current era the second Gilded Age. The first ran from the end of the Civil War through to the stock market crash of 1929. In that first Gilded Age:

American elites were threatened with more than embarrassing statistics. Rather, a “broad and multifaceted resistance” fought for and won substantially higher wages, better workplace conditions, progressive taxation and, ultimately, the modern welfare state (even as they dreamed of much more).

So far there is little popular resistance in the current Gilded Age. What’s missing?

Fraser offers several explanations for the boldness of the post-Civil War wave of labor resistance, including, interestingly, the intellectual legacy of the abolition movement. The fight against slavery had loosened the tongues of capitalism’s critics, forging a radical critique of the market’s capacity for barbarism. With bonded labor now illegal, the target pivoted to factory “wage slavery.” This comparison sounds strange to contemporary ears, but as Fraser reminds us, for European peasants and artisans, as well as American homesteaders, the idea of selling one’s labor for money was profoundly alien.

This is key to Fraser’s thesis. What ­fueled the resistance to the first Gilded Age, he argues, was the fact that many Americans had a recent memory of a different kind of economic system, whether in America or back in Europe. Many at the forefront of the resistance were actively fighting to protect a way of life, whether it was the family farm that was being lost to predatory creditors or small-scale artisanal businesses being wiped out by industrial capitalism. Having known something different from their grim present, they were capable of imagining — and fighting for — a radically better future.

It is this imaginative capacity that is missing from our second Gilded Age, a theme to which Fraser returns again and again in the latter half of the book. The latest inequality chasm has opened up at a time when there is no popular memory — in the United States, at least — of another kind of economic system. Whereas the activists and agitators of the first Gilded Age straddled two worlds, we find ourselves fully within capitalism’s matrix. So while we can demand slight improvements to our current conditions, we have a great deal of trouble believing in something else entirely.

Are we ruining our children by micromanaging their lives?

20 Mar
Clemens Wergin and his family had just moved from Germany to America, where he’d taken a new job. On the family’s first day here his 8 year-old daughter slipped out to explore the neighborhood. Writing in The New York Times, he tells us that, when she’d returned, “Beaming with pride, she told us and her older sister how she had discovered the little park around the corner, and had made friends with a few local dog owners.” It seems, though, that their new American friends “are horrified by the idea that their children might roam around without adult supervision.” He goes on to point out that:
In Berlin, where we lived in the center of town, our girls would ride the Metro on their own — a no-no in Washington. Or they’d go alone to the playground, or walk a mile to a piano lesson. Here in quiet and traffic-safe suburban Washington, they don’t even find other kids on the street to play with. On Halloween, when everybody was out to trick or treat, we were surprised by how many children actually lived here whom we had never seen.
A study by the University of California, Los Angeles, has found that American kids spend 90 percent of their leisure time at home, often in front of the TV or playing video games. Even when kids are physically active, they are watched closely by adults, either in school, at home, at afternoon activities or in the car, shuttling them from place to place.
Such narrowing of the child’s world has happened across the developed world. But Germany is generally much more accepting of letting children take some risks. To this German parent, it seems that America’s middle class has taken overprotective parenting to a new level, with the government acting as a super nanny.
Just take the case of 10-year-old Rafi and 6-year-old Dvora Meitiv, siblings in Silver Spring, Md., who were picked up in December by the police because their parents had dared to allow them to walk home from the park alone. For trying to make them more independent, their parents were found guilty by the state’s Child Protective Services of “unsubstantiated child neglect.” What had been the norm a generation ago, that kids would enjoy a measure of autonomy after school, is now seen as almost a crime.
Danah boyd discusses the same phenomenon in It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (Yale UP 2014), where it’s the flip side of intense use of social media by teens.

Is that where the modern world is headed, to lives controlled by authority where action is limited to choosing which media channel to consume? Are we preparing to turn ourselves over to our computer overlords?

Software Mysteries: Roll over Beethoven, let Satchmo come over!

9 Mar

I spent a fair amount of time in the last decade of the previous century working in the software industry (see this post for example) and reading popular prescriptions for improving America’s management style, many of those inspired by Japan. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that these new organizational ideas were more like an improvising jazz quintet and basketball than like the classical symphony and football. That is to say, that, stylistically, high-tech owes a debt to African-America even if African-Americans are not widely employed in the high tech world.

That’s what my current piece in 3 Quarks Daily is about: Cultural Styles in the 21st Century, or the High Tech Debt to Africa. This is the kind issue I’ve looked at elsewhere as well. Here’s a passage from Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities:

During the 1960s the late Alan Lomax (1968) decided to investigate folk song styles against the background of cultural complexity. Lomax and his colleagues prepared a sample of over 3000 songs, representing 233 cultures from 5 continents plus the Pacific islands, and had judges code the songs on features of style — nature of the performing group, relationship between vocal part and instrumental parts, melodic style, rhythmic style, wordiness, tone quality, tempo, and so on. They correlated style traits with measures of social complexity and found that the simpler the society, the simpler its song lyrics. The simplest societies used a great deal of repetition and nonsense syllables. Similarly, the precision of enunciation varies with social complexity; the more complex the society, the more precise the enunciation. The prevalence of solo singers was also associated with complexity. In the simplest societies, everyone sang; no one was given or took a solo role. It is only in more complex societies, with permanent leaders and social stratification, that we see ensembles divided into a soloist and accompanists.

This is an empirical finding. And, while it may seem intuitively obvious that complex cultures create a collective ambiance that favors expressive forms that are different from those of less complex cultures, one would like an explanation for this “fit.” I would expect a robust account of cultural evolution to provide such an explanation.

In a similar vein, John Roberts, Brian Sutton-Smith, and Adam Kendon (1963) were interested in the relationship between child-rearing practices, community size, types of games, and folk tales. In particular, they were interested in what they have called the strategic mode. Strategy plays minor role in games of physical skill, but a dominant role in games such as chess and poker, which also has strong elements of chance. In folk tales, we can examine how the outcome is achieved, whether through physical skill, chance (guessing, casting lots, magic), or strategy (e.g. evaluating a situation, deception, out-witting an opponent). They discovered that games of strategy are likely to co-occur with folktales having a strong strategic element and that both are more likely in politically complex societies (chiefdoms and above).

The general point is simple: Expressive culture, how and what we sing, dance, and tell stories, is not just about entertainment. It pervades our society and all that we do. The cultural requirements of high tech industries are quite different from those of ‘classical’ industrial revolution. The fact that high tech culture evolved in a society pervaded by jazz, rock and roll, and hip-hop is not incidental. It is foundational.

The East India Company: Capitalism and Colonialism Hand-in-Hand

6 Mar
For the corporation – a revolutionary European invention contemporaneous with the beginnings of European colonialism, and which helped give Europe its competitive edge – has continued to thrive long after the collapse of European imperialism. When historians discuss the legacy of British colonialism in India, they usually mention democracy, the rule of law, railways, tea and cricket. Yet the idea of the joint-stock company is arguably one of Britain’s most important exports to India, and the one that has for better or worse changed South Asia as much any other European idea. Its influence certainly outweighs that of communism and Protestant Christianity, and possibly even that of democracy.
Companies and corporations now occupy the time and energy of more Indians than any institution other than the family. This should come as no surprise: as Ira Jackson, the former director of Harvard’s Centre for Business and Government, recently noted, corporations and their leaders have today “displaced politics and politicians as … the new high priests and oligarchs of our system”. Covertly, companies still govern the lives of a significant proportion of the human race.
The 300-year-old question of how to cope with the power and perils of large multinational corporations remains today without a clear answer: it is not clear how a nation state can adequately protect itself and its citizens from corporate excess. As the international subprime bubble and bank collapses of 2007-2009 have so recently demonstrated, just as corporations can shape the destiny of nations, they can also drag down their economies. In all, US and European banks lost more than $1tn on toxic assets from January 2007 to September 2009. What Burke feared the East India Company would do to England in 1772 actually happened to Iceland in 2008-11, when the systemic collapse of all three of the country’s major privately owned commercial banks brought the country to the brink of complete bankruptcy. A powerful corporation can still overwhelm or subvert a state every bit as effectively as the East India Company did in Bengal in 1765.

H/t 3QD.