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My three children—Clate, Kellin and Bryce—in the 80s

As a species, we’ve been about parenting for a long, long time. For all the effort we have put in to rearing and raising our young, we still don’t agree on how best to do that job. But then again, there is little agreement on how to pick a partner (and who should do it), how to choose where to live, what to do for a job and how to optimize our health. Let’s face it: There’s a lot of basic stuff we don’t understand.

Trends in parenting are particularly fascinating because more than the other great unanswered questions, these tend to change with every generation. And it is so bloody loaded. How you raise your children speaks to the moral and lifestyle issues that everyone in every generation has to navigate for themselves. Anyone who grew up during the Mad Men era of the 60s remembers the easy disregard that children garnered, so boomers tried to raise their children with lots of self esteem and personal expression (while searching for that for themselves at the same time—with predictably mixed results). “Baby on Board” Gen-Xers, referred to by some as the “mommy war soldiers” go postal with each other over formula and diapers. For many of the young mothers coming up behind them there is a return to older values. These younger women, many of them part of the Mommy blogger subcluture, value the “New Domesticity”, crafting Martha Stewart perfect worlds for themselves and their children with fierce drive and determination. And then there are the books that become lightning rods for a particular parenting point of view such as Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer; Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua; The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin; and Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood by Michael Lewis.

At the same time these parenting issues are being vociferously discussed,* other books question the core values of our culture in general. Just a few recent titles addressing these larger issues include You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier; Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle; and The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.

So David Brooks’ is right in line with the trend with his soon to be released book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. In his recent piece in the New Yorker, Brooks questions the qualities that we value most in our culture by profiling those individuals who did it all right, “by the book,” and are now considered successful members of the “Composure Class.” Brooks isn’t so sure, nor am I, that these values produce the types of individuals our world desperately needs now. A sampling from that article:

The young achievers are tutored in every soccer technique and calculus problem, but when it comes to their most important decisions—whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise—they are on their own. Nor, for all their striving, do they understand the qualities that lead to the highest achievement. Intelligence, academic performance, and prestigious schools don’t correlate well with fulfillment, or even with outstanding accomplishment. The traits that do make a difference are poorly understood, and can’t be taught in a classroom, no matter what the tuition: the ability to understand and inspire people; to read situations and discern the underlying patterns; to build trusting relationships; to recognize and correct one’s shortcomings; to imagine alternate futures. In short, these achievers have a sense that they are shallower than they need to be…

Harold was gripped by the thought that, during his lifetime, the competition to succeed—to get into the right schools and land the right jobs—had grown stiffer. Society had responded by becoming more and more focussed. Yet somehow the things that didn’t lead to happiness and flourishing had been emphasized at the expense of the things that did. The gifts he was most grateful for had been passed along to him by teachers and parents inadvertently, whereas his official education was mostly forgotten or useless.

Moreover, Harold had the sense that he had been trained to react in all sorts of stupid ways. He had been trained, as a guy, to be self-contained and smart and rational, and to avoid sentimentality. Yet maybe sentiments were at the core of everything. He’d been taught to think vertically, moving ever upward, whereas maybe the most productive connections were horizontal, with peers. He’d been taught that intelligence was the most important trait. There weren’t even words for the traits that matter most—having a sense of the contours of reality, being aware of how things flow, having the ability to read situations the way a master seaman reads the rhythm of the ocean. Harold concluded that it might be time for a revolution in his own consciousness—time to take the proto-conversations that had been shoved to the periphery of life and put them back in the center. Maybe it was time to use this science to cultivate an entirely different viewpoint.

And this memorable passage:

During the question-and-answer period, though, a woman asked the neuroscientist how his studies had changed the way he lived… “I guess I used to think of myself as a lone agent, who made certain choices and established certain alliances with colleagues and friends,” he said. “Now, though, I see things differently. I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.

* For a glimpse into the level of passion with which these issues are being discussed, you might want to read Why I can’t stop reading Mormon housewife blogs by Emily Matchar (on Slate) and then scroll through the comments (over 300 as of this posting). Whoa. Hit a nerve or what?

The interface between the self and the Web has been a topic that I think about a lot. I’ve written previously about Sherry Turkle’s work and her new book, Evocative Objects, and some of the ways the porous membrane between a cyber persona and a physical self can almost disappear.

The generational implications of the last ten years of technological development are also provocative. Who knows what will shift and change for my children and their deviced and gadgeted cohorts?

The following excerpt is from an article by Clive Thompson in Wired and suggests some interesting twists on these themes.

This summer, neuroscientist Ian Robertson polled 3,000 people and found that the younger ones were less able than their elders to recall standard personal info. When Robertson asked his subjects to tell them a relative’s birth date, 87 percent of respondents over age 50 could recite it, while less than 40 percent of those under 30 could do so. And when he asked them their own phone number, fully one-third of the youngsters drew a blank. They had to whip out their handsets to look it up.

That reflexive gesture — reaching into your pocket for the answer — tells the story in a nutshell. Mobile phones can store 500 numbers in their memory, so why would you bother trying to cram the same info into your own memory? Younger Americans today are the first generation to grow up with go-everywhere gadgets and services that exist specifically to remember things so that we don’t have to: BlackBerrys, phones, thumb drives, Gmail.

I’ve long noticed this phenomenon in my own life. I can’t remember a single friend’s email address. Hell, sometimes I have to search my inbox to remember an associate’s last name. Friends of mine space out on lunch dates unless Outlook pings them. And when it comes to cultural trivia — celebrity names, song lyrics — I’ve almost given up making an effort to remember anything, because I can instantly retrieve the information online.

In fact, the line between where my memory leaves off and Google picks up is getting blurrier by the second. Often when I’m talking on the phone, I hit Wikipedia and search engines to explore the subject at hand, harnessing the results to buttress my arguments.

My point is that the cyborg future is here. Almost without noticing it, we’ve outsourced important peripheral brain functions to the silicon around us.

And frankly, I kind of like it. I feel much smarter when I’m using the Internet as a mental plug-in during my daily chitchat. Say you mention the movie Once: I’ve never seen it, but in 10 seconds I’ll have reviewed a summary of the plot, the actors, and its cultural impact. Machine memory even changes the way I communicate, because I continually stud my IMs with links, essentially impregnating my very words with extra intelligence.

You could argue that by offloading data onto silicon, we free our own gray matter for more germanely “human” tasks like brainstorming and daydreaming. What’s more, the perfect recall of silicon memory can be an enormous boon to thinking. For example, I’ve been blogging for four years, which means I’ve poured out about a million words’ worth of my thoughts online. This regularly produces the surreal and delightful experience of Googling a topic only to unearth an old post that I don’t even remember writing. The machine helps me rediscover things I’d forgotten I knew — it’s what author Cory Doctorow refers to as an “outboard brain.”

Still, I have nagging worries. Sure, I’m a veritable genius when I’m on the grid, but am I mentally crippled when I’m not? Does an overreliance on machine memory shut down other important ways of understanding the world?

There’s another type of intelligence that comes not from rapid-fire pattern recognition but from slowly ingesting and retaining a lifetime’s worth of facts. You read about the discoveries of Madame Curie and the history of the countries bordering Iraq. You read War and Peace. Then you let it all ferment in the back of your mind for decades, until, bang, it suddenly coalesces into a brilliant insight. (If Afghanistan had stores of uranium, the Russians would’ve discovered nuclear energy before 1917!)

We’ve come to think of human intelligence as being like an Intel processor, able to quickly analyze data and spot patterns. Maybe there’s just as much value in the ability to marinate in the seemingly trivial.

Of course, it’s probably not an either/or proposition. I want both: I want my organic brain to contain vast stores of knowledge and my silicon overmind to contain a stupidly huge amount more.

At the very least, I’d like to be able to remember my own phone number.

My post earlier this week referenced Sherry Turkle. Here is more about her from a review of her new book, Evocative Objects: Things We Think With. In this book she pursues more than the psychological/sociological implications of computers and life on line. She has extended the concept of the “evocative object” to computers as well as other objects.

A number of other scholars have explored the implicit power of things. Two examples are James Elkins’ The Object Stares Back and What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, by W. J. T. Mitchell. Then there is my own ongoing research into the highly evocative objects of my personal life. This is a very real domain for me and for most artists.

Here’s an excerpt from Penelope Green‘s review:

Objects and artifacts have long been Professor Turkle’s stock in trade. When she arrived at M.I.T. in the 1970s…Professor Turkle brought a humanist’s eye to the device that her new colleagues had become enamored of: the computer.

To her, it was an “evocative object,” a “companion to emotion, and a provocation to thought.” She looked beyond what the computer could do for us to what it might do to us, as individuals and as a society. As a sociologist of science, she spent years studying hacker culture, child programmers and gamers…Her new book uses a similar approach to illuminate more familiar objects. A vacuum cleaner, a closet, photographs, a linty pill in an old wallet — each is examined through varying lenses of anthropology, philosophy and psychoanalysis.

For instance, a datebook and that linty pill, an antidepressant no longer taken by its owner, together bring to life Michel Foucault’s and Roland Barthes’s ideas about a disciplinary society and how its members learn to discipline themselves. As indigestible as this premise sounds, the book is actually a very tasty read…Gifts and heirlooms hold particular power for social theorists like Professor Turkle. She writes about how a gift retains something of its giver and so becomes animate, and about gift-giving as an ancient form of social glue.

This morning I posted an excerpt on Slow Painting from a New York Times article, Yours for the Peeping. Penelope Green reports on the new trend of glass apartment buildings with little or no concern for privacy, from pedestrians on the street to the residents in the spaces themselves. I have been thinking about her article ever since I read it on Sunday morning. It nags at me.

Much has been written about the generation now coming of age and the shift towards a collective sense of unselfconsciousness. Because of inexpensive and ubiquitous video cameras, digital photography that is virtually disposable, and tell-it-all sites like Facebook and YouTube the argument goes, the Net Generation has adopted an uncensored, “living out loud” style of communicating.

Like most trends that are skewed along generational lines, there is more going on than a simple “response to technology” story line. The changes all of us have seen in the way we live our lives now—private vs. public persona, the rise in voyeurism coupled with a rise in exhibitionism, transparency vs. secrecy, TMI (too much information) vs. the edited, succinct response, the drive for connection as well as the need to be alone, the difference between who we are online and who we are in rl (real life), communities and what they mean, both real and virtual—there are many issues that can be discussed in relation to the rise of UC me/ICU apartment buildings in New York City.

Local luminary and passionate observer of all things online, Sherry Turkle of MIT has written at length about the ongoing implications of these themes. I admired her years ago when she was one of the few academics to endorse MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online role-playing games.) Her argument: Many MIT students are socially challenged, and role playing games teach them important social skills. (I believed her.) She saw value in many of the trends that others were too quick to criticize.

But lately she seems to have become a bit more cautious. She recently described the hallway scene at a recent conference on robotics:

In the hallway outside the plenary session attendees are on their phones or using laptops and pdas to check their e-mail. Clusters of people chat with each other, making dinner plans, “networking” in that old sense of the term–the sense that implies sharing a meal. But at this conference it is clear that what people mostly want from public space is to be alone with their personal networks. It is good to come together physically, but it is more important to stay tethered to the people who define one’s virtual identity, the identity that counts. I think of how Freud believed in the power of communities to control and subvert us, and a psychoanalytic pun comes to mind: “virtuality and its discontents.”

Turkle talks about other hidden costs. For example, she sees a possible connection between a lack of concern about the government’s citizen spying and the willingness to tell all online:

High school and college students give up their privacy on MySpace about everything from musical preferences to sexual hang-ups. They are not likely to be troubled by an anonymous government agency knowing whom they call or what Web sites they frequent. People become gratified by a certain public exposure; it is more validation than violation.

My proclivity is to minimize differences between my children’s generation and my own. But the place where we have the least amount of overlap is privacy. I crave it. I need it like sleep and food. And I have to have it on my terms. Is this correlated with my rage at a government that spies on its citizens?

Turkle makes another point:

The virtual life of Facebook or MySpace is titillating, but our fragile planet needs our action in the real. We have to worry that we may be connecting globally but relating parochially.

This observation is not aimed at just the younger generation. More and more of our lives is lived in that meta state of online, and the center of gravity is shifting for all of us. I don’t have a definitive position or answers to what this all means. But it does matter that we are observing these changes and that we can discuss the implications. As an rl painter, with a dependence on rl widgets like art supplies, a studio space, galleries and patrons, I want to be clear and precise about what in this world is worth fighting for.