Max Weber warned us long ago that we should always question expertise. Like Sagan after him, Weber saw science as a tool, more theoretically sophisticated than mere technology, but still an instrument to inform our choices, ethical and social, and not a messianic force. When CBC Ottawa implies to us this week that someone from the IT field is an expert as well in ethics, education, social relations and sexuality amongst other things, it caught my attention. Needless to say, from what was reported, none of those latent claims – either made by the staff writer or the expert himself, one Paul Davis – appeared to be the case. Admittedly, I was myself miffed. Uh, no, folks, I’m the expert on these other things, and the tech guy can stuff it. Let’s see if I can shelve that gut reaction for a few moments and speak to the issues involved.
I think Mr. Davis and I hail from the same generation. It was true, at least in my experience, that we spent all day outside sans souci. No pedophiles stalked us, and no cougars either, that is, of the natural feline variety. Growing up in paradise was a return to Eden, unbesmirched by adult knowledge and its corresponding loss of innocences. He states that it is crucial young persons have an active childhood. Agreed. But of what sort? I too share a personal disdain for video games and social media, gambling and erotica. What the media – all media mind you, and not merely the internet – teach youth is to consume and consume again. Everything you can, as fast as you can. This lurid daydream arguably bleeds over into human relationships in work or in the homes and schools. But it is also the leverage upon which our economy continues to rest. The alternatives that Mr. Davis suggests, including sports etc., are also vehicles for consumption, competition, bravado and fantasy, just like the internet is. The price for enrolling children in such activities is far higher than leaving them be using media. So what are we actually gaining from enacting such a shift?
Organized sports, also extremely rare in my generation, teaches teamwork, but also tribalism. Us versus them. It’s only a game, we say to ourselves, but the ‘sports parent’ is a notorious figure (as well as the sports fan cum fanatic), as can be the ‘arts parent’, or any other thing a young person becomes inured to through parental vicariousness. Such so-called adults seek to live again a childhood they wished they themselves had, and are amongst the most pathetic human beings on the planet today. Not so different from pedophiles themselves – psychology explains to us one of the patent features of such people is the desire to rob a child of his or her love of life and sense of wonder as the criminal in these cases has none himself or herself – vicarious parents do not so much ‘enrol’ their children in activities as rather enlist them. Such activities are no more authentic, or to use Mr. Davis’ term, ‘real’, than anything portrayed on media. Indeed, self-posted or even so-called ‘revenge porn’ contents are much more real and also more realistic. Actual people, not paid professional actors, did these things with and to one another. And the knowledge that we gain from encountering these sometimes sordid affairs is worth a great deal more than the fantasy paraded in official posts of any kind, including much of the news. Should very young people be exposed to such things? This a related, but other question from the one that is claimed to drive Mr. Davis’ statements. But kids aren’t concerned about data breaches, election fraud, and targeted marketing surveys. We can, and should teach them about these things and how all of us are entrapped by them, once again to use one of Mr. Davis’ own words. After all, young kids don’t post professional erotica or much of anything sexual at all, nor do they own and purvey gambling venues, nor run social media networks. These are all adult concerns and profit is the main if not the only goal. Mr. Davis’ expertise comes from being an IT consultant to the private sector. So we are to understand that he helped corporations protect themselves from their competition and also aided them in schemes to make money. A much-in-demand expert, no doubt, and a well remunerated one.
But the Ottawa school board should take a second look at what he is peddling publicly in their venues and now on state-sponsored media. He foists the moral panic surrounding cyber-bullying, which would include sexting amongst other things, as an essential concern. In our shared generation, when schools cared not a whit about bullying of any kind, it took place everywhere. On and off the school grounds, in the ‘dark sarcasm of the classroom’, and in the malls. On the playing fields, courtesy for the most part from ‘loving’ parents, and in the homes, when bullying your own children with real violence was still a socially accepted norm. His comment regarding ‘no tech at the dinner table’ calls to mind the vacant puritanism of the pater familias. My father had the TV news on throughout dinner, turning the antiquated stand around on its fragile wheels so we could all watch it together; his version of the internet, I suppose. This can be overdone, no doubt, but it did spark semi-educated conversation at the daily family gathering that would not have occurred otherwise, and was a variable in myself and my sister’s chosen vocations. He also advises that parents should be ‘in the vicinity’ when children are on the net. But at the same time he tells us that parents are generally incompetent with regard to technology, and the kids are the ones who are ‘tech-savvy’. Of course, he also informs us that in homes operated by IT people, this apparently isn’t an issue. Make me laugh. I would if it wasn’t such a serious deadpan.
No, the facts are these: 1. adults run the media; much of it is there to socialize consumer behavior and uncritical acceptance of our current political, educational, and other social institutions. We consume them as well by our very acceptance and use thereof and therein. 2. Children are both social and sexual beings. Ever since Freud’s discoveries, though part and parcel of the Victorian anxiety concerning sexuality in general, we have been liberated by the self-understanding that desire is not itself a sin, though it can produce evil, or if that word offends, at least negative consequences. His naïve comment asking children to ‘please be a kid’ after being on the net suggests the banal nostalgia of the ‘good old days’, which has long been known to be a fantasy itself. Are we then simply to tell our youth that they can only trade fantasy for fantasy? Where, exactly, is the reality in such commentaries as Mr. Davis’ and many other popular writers and speakers?
Let me submit that it lies in the effort to truncate any truly subversive aspects of experience young people might encounter. Some of that is even on the net. Thankfully, a person such as myself and my peers do not have to resort to the so-called ‘dark web’ to express our opinions. Dissidents in many states use this other venue to communicate and even simply to write. The governments of Iran, China and a host of other places force this upon them. But let’s look for a moment at how our own system of checks and balances marginalizes thinking and keeps its characteristic subversion suppressed. ‘Keep it real’, yet another tired tag Mr. Davis utilises, was also used in anti-drug campaigns and the like. Can we please apply it to our politics? Our curricula in our schools – why do schools who teach non-historical and non-factual religious beliefs still have a market, for instance? – and our fantasies about sports. Media coverage of organized professional and even amateur sports (more Olympics, anyone?) outdoes by far any analysis of geo-political issues, the enforced culture of poverty, the structures of capital and any other serious topic one cares to imagine. Boring as hell? That tells us one thing about contemporary socially and institutionally organized existence: it itself is a fantasy.
‘Who benefits?’, that time-honoured sociological question cleverly coined by Robert Merton, could be the very title of a daily news program in the genre of PBS’s Macneil-Lehrer, nightly viewing at the dinner table when I was growing up. Yes, who benefits and why. It is sage to note that Mr. Davis, an IT expert and private sector consultant lest it be too rapidly forgotten, is himself quick to note that when used ‘properly’, social media is ‘awesome, it’s great.’ Right, oh, like awesome as in ‘The Lego Movie’, got it.
I don’t often take umbrage at what’s going on with this or that hired gun or self-styled expert. There are far too many of them, echoing the ancient Mediterranean penchant for messiahs who were at that time a dime a dozen. Their level of discourse is shallow and unabashedly apologist, often puritanical and almost always nostalgic. They are, in a word, kindred spirits with almost all of our media. The internet, when it is real, expresses the human undertones that media and its vouchsafes consistently and conveniently remove from view: unscripted sexual desire and violence amongst and between actual people; jealousy as cruel as the proverbial grave projected in status seeking social media posts – how many ‘followers’ does one have is a question that rings itself of messianism – resentment projected at successful commercially attractive persons that shows up in comments sections in sports or entertainment columns and even in part fuels my own editorial today – I do resent the attention paid to uneducated ‘experts’ who walk blithely yet also with a kind of cunning calculation into arenas they seem to have no background in; and other shadowy motifs such as sites expressing the very ethnicism, bigotry, and hate speech that Mr. Davis says parents must protect children from viewing.
Utter nonsense. That is what’s real. Real people do feel this way or that, and we need, more than anything in our troubled times, to understand the reasons for the ongoing presence of all of these feelings that endanger all life on earth. Not exposing our children to these things and working with them daily to explicate them is an exercise in patent irresponsibility. It is unethical, fantasist, and pure laziness besides. It is poor parenting, not good parenting. And the person who makes plain his case that this is what we should be doing is someone who must be interrogated with all due vigilance. In spite of all of this, it remains true that the world is also a beautiful place, and that some small portion of that is due to the human endeavour. Where are the nightly broadcasts of a Mahler symphony, of a tour of the Louvre, of the ongoing revelations of archaeology and astronomy? YouTube will find them. How about that?
G.V. Loewen is an internationally recognized student of ethics, education, pedagogy and aesthetics. He was professor of the social sciences for over two decades in both Canada and the United States, and is the author of over thirty books.