Matt Richtel’s NY Times piece, Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction, is stirring up the blogosphere. If you haven’t read it: Richtel visits a school in Redwood City, CA, to explore how “wired” kids – – distracted, absorbed, addicted to texting, YouTube, video games, and other new media – – complicate the work of education. Richtel’s big topic: there’s a battle being waged over the brains of Johnny and Judy – – new technologies versus school! Game on.
First things first: high school sucks, and high school has alway sucked – – to borrow a mantra from skateboarding physics prof – – Dr. Yung Tae Kim. And to be honest, that’s not a bad thing. If school didn’t suck, our cultural losses might include: Catcher in the Rye, rock ‘n roll, surfing, and even the personal computer (Harvard drop-out – – Bill Gates, UC Berkeley drop-out – – Stephen Wozniak, etc.). That’s right, dialectically speaking: the ability of schools to bore, confine, and otherwise enervate youth has been a roaring engine of cultural and social innovation.
Second things second. I like Richtel’s piece which, as many bloggers have noted, puts aside the usual hysteria ignited by the conjunction of “youth” and “technology” in favor an openness to the issues and a real sympathy for teachers and students. However, escaping the jeremiad, Richtel’s article seems to slide into another, if less incendiary genre: class treason.
The best scholar of this genre is Barbara Ehrenreich, whose Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class savagely dissects the anxieties that fuel middle-class experience and identity. The spectre haunting Richtel’s account is the fear that cannot speak its name: if Johnny is so busy making YouTube videos or Judy is so consumed with texting, they’ll never crack 1400 on the SAT’s, they’ll never make it to Harvard, they’ll end up living at home in the basement! The fear of technology is this: new media’s seductions will derail all of our desires, fantasies, and myths of mobility and status. More particularly a la Richtel’s piece: technology attacks the weakest, pimpliest, most unstable link in the great chain of social reproduction – – adolescents.
The NY Times knows its readers. And like any great storyteller, the Times understands that stirring up anxiety among its professional-managerial class audience (PMC) is the key to fascination, that horribly pleasurable mix of repulsion and desire. Fascination sells stories. It is the most luxurious and powerful form of “attention” (for ex-youth who have graduated to wage-earning adulthood) available. So, forget headless bodies in topless bars, the tale of class treason is the dominant horror genre of the middle-class culture industries.
From the perspective of this genre, technology is the goose that lays the golden egg (or, in my favorite version, Balzac’s “la peau de chagrin“) for the PMC. Think about it: our culture tells us that we need technology to be better, faster, bigger, beefier, to leap ahead of our competitors, to win the race to the top, to skate frictionlessly from cubicle to office to boardroom; on the other hand, technology is undermining our marriages, rewiring our kids, opening our homes to predators and bunco artists, it’s microwaving our tender brains, it’s laying bare our dearest financial facts to vodka-besotted, ex-KGB, Russian crime syndicators and dot com billionaires, it’s leaking our deepest diplomatic thoughts to public scrutiny! Technology replenishes us, technology depletes us! It’s a force for good, it’s a force of evil!
In other words, “technology” is a churning urn of burning class funk. In the end, the contradictions and confusions surrounding technology speak less to our disabilities and more to the cracks in our dominant ideologies. And, cracks, as any neo-anarchist worth his black flag knows, are where resistance flourishes.
Gratuitous sidenote and multimedia episode: as in all things philosophical, cultural, political, and futurological, the King knew what we didn’t know long before we even knew that we didn’t know it.