Parenting in The Diamond (or the Digital) Age
While TDA may appear to be a book primarily about technology, there’s a compelling argument to be made that it hinges entirely on sociology and family dynamics. Nearly any discussion of children and media in the book is deeply tied to the social interactions that parents have with their children around or through the technology that stays put or passes through their homes.
Most of the parents and ‘parental figures’ (surrogate parents or sometimes children themselves acting as caregivers) in the book are emotionally and/or physically absent from their children’s lives. Their media choices and uses reflect this closeness/distance continuum. These fictional future projections of parenting in the late 21st century invoke reflection upon where we are in the early 21st century and the way families have negotiated their identities in relation to media and technology within and outside the home for hundreds of years.
In the scope of humankind, “leisure time” is a relatively recent construct. As mortality rates have decreased, due largely in part to technological advances in modern medicine and improved hygiene habits, more people spend time actually being children and parents. We’ve come a shockingly long way from nomadic parents not expecting their children to live past age ten, to parents of young children concerned about which toys/television/movies/DVDs/books/apps to purchase for their toddler’s use at home. “Family time” has been continuously redefined, that time consisting of laboring, relaxing, and/or playing together; the “quality” assigned to family time in a secular or religious sense; and taking place not only at home, but any place families go (e.g., within modes of transportation, at the large family picnics that pepper Los Angeles’ public parks on weekends, and in air-conditioned shopping malls globally).
There are many spheres of influence that shape the patterns of media and technology use inside/outside the home, as well as how that relates to textured relationships among families. This ecological view of child development posits that these spheres are interdependent (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Ecologies of learning with media and technology (Barron, 2004; Barron, Martin, Takeuchi, & Fithian, 2009) also move across time/space and between the communities (e.g., home, school, peers) with which children interact.
Within a convergence culture, in what ways are all kinds of families contributing to how children navigate consuming, creating, and spreading media across their social environments (including family members, friends, and people whom they may never have met in person)? There are many types of media and differing family configurations within TDA with which to explore this question. Such permutations of “child/caregiver” units to compare within the text include:
Nell/her biological parents
Nell’s stuffed animals/Nell
Nell/her “surrogate mother-friend-tutor” Miranda
Elizabeth/her biological parents/her biological grandfather Lord Finkle-McGraw
Fiona/her biological father Hackworth
The parentless Chinese orphan girls/Judge Fong and Hackworth
The “Mouse Army” of Chinese orphan girls/Nell
Three topics related to children, parenting, and media/technology nested within the book have external relevance for researchers, educators, policymakers, and families themselves. These areas are: 1) technologically enabled child rearing, 2) children’s restricted and unrestricted media use, and 3) surrogacy and alternative family media patterns.
Technologically enabled child rearing
We learn early on that Nell is a conceived due to a technological malfunction. Her working class mother’s secondhand “Freedom Machine” (a euphemism for nanotech birth control) is defective. The complicated relationship that parents and their future children have with technology begins even before conception (Balsamo, 1996; Davis-Floyd & Dumit, 1998; Taylor, 2008). Much of the material in TDA and the content of the Primer therein are complex, violent, and dark; full of what one character calls “unreconstructed Grimm Brothers” (Stephenson, 1995, p. 219). For example, the Primer instructs Nell on how to kill her biological mother Tequila’s abusive boyfriend with a screwdriver and how to defend herself against child molesters.
The Primer is a way for Nell to assert her own identity and agency against the harm and neglect done onto her by her domestic conditions – a way to acknowledge her victimization but denounce a sole status as victim. For example, the book begins to “bond” with Nell after an incident in which she is verbally and physically abused by her mother’s latest boyfriend/father figure – calling her the C— word and throwing the Primer at her head – to which the book reacts instantaneously:
The book fell to the floor at her feet, open to an illustrated page. The picture was of a big dark man and a little girl in a cluttered room, the man angrily flinging a book at the little girl’s head. “Once upon a time, there was a little girl named C—,” the book said. “My name is Nell,” Nell said. A tiny disturbance propagated through the grid of letters on the facing page (Stephenson, p. 94).
Nell is not the only child in TDA to be the recipient of emotionally and physically detached parenting. Adults in the book parent within emotional and physical boundaries, but their parenting also creates and reinforces these boundaries. For example, Hackworth morally justifies stealing the blueprint of the Primer on behalf of his daughter Fiona: “He was just trying to secure a better place in the world for his descendents, which was every father’s responsibility” (Stephenson, p. 79). But this paternalism results in Hackworth’s exile, paradoxically worsening Fiona’s emotional stability. He in turn becomes the ractor in Fiona’s copy of the Primer, though her mother is not privy to this bond:
“Oh, but to Fiona, he has never been gone,” Mrs. Hackworth said. “It is the book, you see, that ractive book. When John gave it to her, just before he departed, he said that it was magic, and that he would talk to her through it. I know it’s nonsense, of course, but she really believes that whenever she opens that book, her father reads her a story and even plays with her in an imaginary world, so that she hasn’t really missed him at all. I haven’t the heart to tell her that it’s nothing more than a computerized media programme” (Stephenson, p. 291).
This father and daughter’s virtual story time comes at a great emotional price. While families have been able to use communication devices to connect with one another from a distance (not just video chat and the telephone, but handwritten letters as a sort of technology too), objects such as books and toys may soon be conduits for remote interaction as well. Sesame Workshop and Nokia have been researching and prototyping Skype-like interfaces for children and grandparents to read interactive books together from a physical distance/close virtual proximity, using Elmo as an optional guide (Ballagas et al., 2010). Physical dollhouses have even become tangible user interfaces for virtual communication (Freed, 2010). Though the Primer replaces Hackworth and Fiona’s face-to-face interaction, these new technologies are designed to support communication and activities (e.g. far away grandparents supporting young children’s emerging literacy) that might not otherwise take place.
Children’s restricted and unrestricted media use
The norms for what is considered a “proper” amount or type of media use must be considered within specific cultural contexts, as is what is considered “restricted” or “unrestricted” media use, or somewhere in between. Nell and Harv’s temporary father figure banishes them from the living room while he plays video games, and their mother falls asleep to the TV after returning from nightly overtime shifts as a housekeeper. The upper-middle class Atlantans in the book exercise more “restrained” usage of media. TDA illustrates this bias during Hackworth’s handover of Elizabeth’s copy of the Primer to her grandfather Lord Finkle-McGraw and his wrapping of the present with animated nanotech paper:
There was a lull while Hackworth and Finkle-McGraw watched the little scenes; one of the hazards of living in a world filled with mediatrons was that conversations were always being interrupted in this way, and that explained why Atlantans tried to keep mediatronic commodities to a minimum. Go into a thete’s house, and every object had moving pictures on it, everyone sat around slackjawed, eyes jumping from the bawdy figures cavorting on the mediatronic toilet paper to the big-eyed elves playing tag in the bathroom mirror to… (Stephenson, p. 107-108).
There are class distinctions in being able to ‘opt-out’ of technological overload and distractions. The mediatronic commodities are cheap, and the simple handmade goods are beyond the means of Nell and Harv’s biological mother.
Though Nell blossoms because she is largely left alone with the Primer, TDA also illustrates some ethical complications of children’s wholly unrestricted media use. Early in the book, four-year-old Nell experiments with the screen of her home’s M.C. or matter compiler. After Nell grows too big for her crib mattress, she watches her brother Harv summon a larger one through the M.C. First, she emulates her Mother’s usage of the M.C., and tries to talk to it. The machine responds: “‘Please secure the permission of an adult,’ […] over and over again. Now [Nell] knew why Harv always poked at things rather than talking to them. She poked at the M.C. for a long time until she finally came to the mediaglyphics that Harv had used to choose her mattress” (Stephenson, p. 45).
Just because Nell can observe the interface, operate it, and work around the security setting meant to protect her/the machine/her Mother’s wallet, doesn’t mean that she has the ability to understand the impact of her actions. After Nell makes individual mattresses for all of her stuffed animal “children,” “much of the room was covered with mattresses, and she thought how fun it would be to have the whole room just be one big mattress, so she made a couple of the very largest size. Then she made a new mattress for Tequila and another new one for her boyfriend Rog” (Stephenson, p. 46). Her brother Harv panics upon returning home to the scene and destroys all evidence before their mother arrives home.
This fictional example echoes recent concerns about the ease of young children’s accidental or purposeful in-app purchases while using Apple iPhone or iPad apps that are enabled to automatically make monetary transactions at the push of a button, without the assistance of a parent or guardian (Kang, 2011; Svensson, 2010). The dexterity with which many children can navigate and workaround parental permissions point to the growing need for formal and informal media literacy education, especially while companies figure out self-regulation and the FCC considers policy reform. While not the same as, for example, children calling 1-800 numbers from landlines and racking up the bills with a credit card taken covertly from a parent’s wallet, the potential for these automatic purchases combined with the freedoms parents cannot necessarily police necessitates conversations within families about the ethics and consequences of children’s media use (James et al., 2009).
Parental concerns about media effects have a storied history, ranging from media such as early films, comic books, television, digital media (Wartella & Jennings, 2000), and in TDA, nanotech Primers. Many contemporary parents worry about displacement effects of media (using media instead of face-to-face interaction), replacing the time children spend in conversation with their parents or the time children spend being physically active. Interestingly, while the majority of parents of children ages 3-10 believe displacement effects are real, only 18% reportedly indicate that their own children spend too much time with digital technology (Takeuchi, 2011).
Of course, “mediated communication” and “face-to-face communication” or “physical activity” are not mutually exclusive. This is complicated both by physically interactive media such as the Kinect or Wii Fit, but also by media that technically facilitates face-to-face social interaction (e.g. Skype). Another consideration is the time parents make available to their children for shared media time, and the safety of the environments surrounding children in which to be physically active and/or their ease and ability to access these outlets.
Much of the research on children, parenting, and media has to do with parental mediation of school-age children’s TV use, though less so on other types of media and with younger children. There are different parental mediation strategies which caregivers employ: co-viewing/joint media engagement (parents watching/reading/playing with their children), instructive mediation (caregivers explaining media content/production for their child’s comprehension) and restrictive mediation (rule setting about duration/frequency/content of media and exercising these rules as reward or punishment) (Valkenburg, Krcmar, Peeters, & Marseille, 1999). Elizabeth’s parents use restrictive mediation in punishing her for being rude to the servants by taking away her Primer. Her father explains to Elizabeth’s grandfather, “We can’t let her spend her life between the covers of your magical book, Father. It is like a little interactive empire, with Elizabeth the empress, issuing all sorts of perfectly bloodcurdling decrees to her obedient subjects. It’s important to bring her back to reality from time to time, so that she can get some perspective” (Stephenson, p. 293). Fiona’s mother, watching the exchange between Elizabeth’s father and grandfather unfold, comes to the conclusion that “these girls weren’t any stranger than any other girls, and to blame their behavior on the Primers was to miss the point entirely” (Stephenson, p. 294). Does the Primer cause altered behaviors, or is the Primer a conduit for the girls’ inherent behavioral tendencies? The “media effects” debate is presented within TDA but without a definitive answer, as each girl’s experience with the Primer is shaped by her individual learning ecology.
Stephenson presents multiple perspectives on technological and human boundaries around children’s media use, parenting based on generalized perceived media effects on children, and parenting (as well as many other environmental factors) impacting children’s processing of media.
Surrogacy and alternative family media patterns
Thus far, I’ve primarily discussed the biological parents in the TDA, and would like to turn to surrogates and alternative family formations in the novel, and their relationships through shared mediated experiences. What really makes someone or something a parent, child, or family member? Nell self-identifies as a “mother” to her stuffed animals, comforting her transitional objects during periods of high fear and anxiety, as she would like to be comforted (Stephenson, p. 125). Like her biological mother, Nell is an accidental mother (to her toys) due to a technological malfunction as well. Her mother’s boyfriend at the time going on a rampage, stuffing all of Nell’s toys into the M.C. garbage disposal. But because the disposal rejects things made by hand, the handmade dolls (also stolen on Nell’s behalf by her brother Harv) survive (Stephenson, p. 69).
Miranda, though she is attracted to outlets for her maternal instincts, is a surrogate mother quite accidentally as well. Before she becomes a ractor, Miranda is a governess. [A bit of a non sequitur, but seeing as the steampunk genre is a sort of Victorian revival, imagine that Miranda is a sort of warped Mary Poppins. As Miranda serves in a corps of ractors dedicated to serving children’s intellectual and personal edification, what if Mary too derived from some skyward corps of nannies? Mary Poppins comes from unknown origins – what if there were a sisterhood of Mary Poppins’-like governesses, up in the clouds from which Mary descends, in the way that Miranda is dispatched to be a ractive in Nell’s Primer (or I supposed that other Julie Andrews nanny character Maria is in The Sound of Music.)] Miranda, who leaves the world of Victorian bourgeois governesses, literally takes her carpetbag in another direction, towards a career in racting (after she gets a sort of nanotech ‘plastic surgery’ over one Christmas vacation).
As her life becomes increasingly entwined with Nell’s, Miranda finds it difficult to be detached when interacting with Nell through the primer. Though her real voice is masked, Miranda stumbles in sentences and her voice gets thick and hoarse when Nell adds the layers of her and her brothers’ domestic abuse to a fable Miranda is narrating. With the Primer serving as Nell’s confessional, Miranda becomes her intimate, faceless, voiceless confidant.
“What it comes down to,” says Miranda as she starts to realize the precariousness of Nell’s home life, “is that I’m raising someone’s kid for them” (Stephenson, p. 219). Miranda’s protective instincts collide with the narrative and the real-life action. As Nell matures, she begins to realize that what she has experienced with the Primer is much more than “media effects,” of media doing onto her, for “she had always felt that there was some essence in the book, something that understood her and even loved her, something that forgave her when she did wrong and appreciated what she did right.” (Stephenson, p. 403). Nell is comforted by the notion that her Primer isn’t special because of magic or special computer programming, but that it takes the human mind to understand the human mind:
Could it be that the Primer was just a conduit, a technological system that mediated between Nell and some human being who really loved her? In the end, she knew, this was basically how all ractives worked. The idea was too alarming to consider it at first, and so she circled around it cautiously, poking at it from different directions, like a cavewoman discovering fire for the first time. But as she settled in closer, she found that it warmed her and satisfied her, and by the time her mind wandered into sleep, she had become dependent upon it and would not consider going back into the cold and dark place where she had been traveling for so many years (Stephenson, p. 403-404).
Stephenson here likens Nell to “a cavewoman discovering fire for the first time,” drawing a parallel regarding technological wonder and the fulfillment of basic human needs of warmth and love. He links the maternal with the technological, placing the true innovation not within the device, but within the human heart.
In the my last post on TDA, regarding the various “digital divides” within the book, I’ll spend more time discussing the population of orphaned Chinese girls in the book, recipients of their own Primers and of a highly problematic sort of parental/patriarchal “benevolence” as well.
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