PPeople worry that the world will end and think it’s over. I did, but it’s now a fait accompli. My little brother is watching YouTube cartoons about dinosaurs while my son is next to me. They were directed to this app because they have seen another cartoon about dinosaurs.
The tangible differences between their streaming a cartoon in 2022 versus my watching one on television in 1982 are incidental, and the concerns I have about screen time on their cognitive development were anticipated by my own parents back then (in those days, “TV rots your brain” was the less sophisticated but generally accurate argument). However, their delivery system makes it seem more sinister, even dystopian. The data harvesting, algorithmic feeding of the next entree and seamless stitching of end credits to the first episode make the entire enterprise look much darker and less sane. It’s an unholy alliance of addictive spectacle, surveillance capitalism, and will-sapping technology—even if the network executives of 1982 were in it for the same reason, selling sugar and toys between segments of “Scooby-Doo,” albeit with less precisely targeted but still surprisingly effective ads.
Many people worry that their children will be brought into the world because they believe it is over. My parents convinced me that I would be introduced to the planet at the edge of World War Three when the Sino-Vietnamese War began a month before my 1979 birth. The reality is that a potential deadly virus can quickly be transmitted to a child and toddler by air. This makes it difficult for parents to make the right historical decisions. Since World War Two, I’m not sure there’s been a more harrowing period for tending to children—in America, at least—than these last few years, with the pandemic, the teetering of democracy here and abroad, school shootings, and the ever-sharpening Sword of Damocles that is climate change. These subjects are often what I read and then imagine my children’s lives. Just as often I skip over the gloomy articles because it’s too painful.
As parents tend to do, I’ve thought back a lot on my childhood, comparing my kids’ experiences to my own. The 1980s were far from paradisiacal; Reaganism wasn’t too far off from Trumpism, just with a friendlier smile and politer rhetoric, and the threat of nuclear annihilation was always just a nervous trigger finger away. I find these years, despite my nostalgia, far more innocent than they were for humanity and childhood. I get a warm feeling from photographs and videos of the era, the already antiquated locutions and accents, the dated fashions and hairstyles; Americans seem so naive in hindsight, blissfully ignorant of what’s to come. Their low-resolution graininess makes me feel like it was a simpler, more tranquil time.
Future Tense is a column that I wrote four years ago for The New York Times. It was based on my belief that analog lives are generally better. New York Times, and it’s central to the curmudgeonly protagonist’s complaints in my new novel, The Great Man Theory. (He’s writing a nonfiction book titled The Luddite Manifesto.) Many of my articles highlighted the challenges faced by children today, from too many photographs and videos taken, to parents lacking enough media, to the loss of privacy online, to the effect of having too many images of them. While there are certainly some benefits to modern devices when it comes to rearing kids—I’ve been grateful more than once for the ability to entertain mine with movies on long car rides—if I had to raise them in any technological era, it wouldn’t be today’s. I’m not eager for them to discover the superficial, competitive, and cruel arena of social media. They should only have a few unappealing channels that they can flick through and soon get bored of, on a tiny TV that they must move around to change a dial. Not all the movies or shows they could ever see. I hope they’ll continue exploring the outdoors instead of retreating to a dark room to hunch over a laptop. I’d prefer they develop the attention span to listen to an entire album instead of skipping around commercial-interrupted singles. It would be great to see them talk with a friend over the phone late at night, instead of texting. And most of all, I’d rather they stay up half the night reading a book, as I so frequently did in my youth, instead of what I know will someday happen, because I now do it myself: meandering the internet on their phones, trying to distract themselves from their thoughts, searching for a satisfaction that will never come.
I fear that some of life’s mystery, its grainy magic, is permanently gone.
Before bed tonight, I’ll read a few books to my son. I’ve gotten him into The Church MiceI remember loving the British TV series, “The British Series”, when I was younger. Its illustrations depict a charmingly imperfect 1970s England that I love even more. He’ll go to sleep and wake up in the morning for school. Before letting him in, his teacher checks the foreheads with a thermometer. He was excited to wear a T.Rex-print mask that I had bought, and he understands it is for preventing the spread of viruses, but he doesn’t fully grasp its implications. He and his classmates don’t seem to mind them as much as I do; it’s all they know, and kids are resilient. When asked by her school what she would like for Christmas last year, the girl requested a new face mask. They’re just happy to be here, and forty years from now, they’ll look back on this time with the same rosy retrospection I do for my own youth. Although people worry that the world will end, they continue to have children.
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