Technology is transforming our nation’s youth into zombies! Technology is preparing our students for their glorious Tron future! Inspired by Matt Richtel’s NY Times article last month, the blogosphere has been twitching back and forth between euphoric and dysphoric takes on teenagers’ tech-induced “attention” deficit disorder. Cathy Davidson over at HASTAC agrees: our kids’ brains are being rewired, but that’s great job training for the “digital future”! Over at The American Scholar, William Zinsser laments the crisis of civility fomented by distracting technology. And so it goes . . .
Yesterday, however, I read an AP article that seemed to me to reframe the whole debate. A big-time game publisher, Capcom, has added a warning screen to “Smurfs’ Village,” one of the most popular iPad game apps (more popular even than “Angry Birds”).
Evidently, kids who play the game can, with two simple taps of the touchscreen, buy virtual commodities – – like “wheelbarrows” and “wagons” – – for real world prices as high as $99.99. These built-in, real money purchases are fairly common in game apps. Capcom claims the big ticket items are intended for adult “power players” of Smurfs Village. (Is Babylon burning? Look no further than the image of adult “power players” cultivating their Smurf villages late into the night.)
Disagree or agree, almost all of the debate about Richtel’s argument has focused on the cognitive effects of mobile technology. (Richtel’s piece belongs to a more extensive Times’ series – – “Your Brain on Computers“.) But the Smurf City incident reveals a deeper and more dangerous dynamic behind today’s explosion of mobile technology: we’re being wired for profit.
For companies like Capcom or Twitter or Facebook, brains are just an inconvenient means to bucks.
Whatever sacred or profane effects technology might have on our neurons, corporate capitalism sees mobile devices as, first and foremost, super-sized profit centers. Capital has a hungry heart. Capital is restless, always looking for new sites of accumulation and surplus – – from New England’s pristine forested shores to the humble adjustable-rate-mortgaged abode to the iPhone’s tiny screen. Historically, technology has been a primary component of this search – – rails and roads opening up new markets, motors and computers intensifying production. And, over the past century, human consciousness itself has become the new factory, mine, and field of surplus value.
Maybe technology is driving kids to distraction. But, focusing the debate on our tender gray matter, and its sophisticated architecture, shifts attention away from the only question that matters to Capcom, Apple, Facebook, and all the rest: how is capital reshaping our consciousness to maximize profit? How is technology, in its dominant form, integrating our kids into whole new regimes of accumulation, consumption, and consciousness? Understanding your brain on computers demands a politics, not just a crash course in cognitive science.