Cosplaying adulthood

    I discovered this article published at The Cut while browsing Hacker News. I was immediately drawn to it, because one of the main examples it uses is ‘cosplaying’ adulthood while at kids' sporting events.

    There’s a few things to say about this, in my experience. The first is that status tends to be conferred by how good your kid is, no matter what your personality. Over and above that, personal traits — such as how funny you are — make a difference, as does how committed and logistically organised you are. And if you can’t manage that, you can always display appropriate wealth (sports kit, the car you drive). Crack all of this, and congrats! You’ve performed adulthood well.

    I’m only being slightly facetious. The reason I can crack a wry smile is because it’s true, but also I don’t care that much because I’ve been through therapy. Knowing that it’s all a performance is very different to acting like any of it is important.

    It’s impressive how much parents’ beliefs can seep in, especially the weird ones. As an adult, I’ve found myself often feeling out of place around my fellow parents, because parenthood, as it turns out, is a social environment where people usually want to model conventional behavior. While feeling like an interloper among the grown-ups might have felt hip and righteous in my dad’s day, it makes me feel like a tool. It does not make me feel like a “cool mom.” In the privacy of my own home, I’ve got plenty of competence, but once I’m around other parents — in particular, ones who have a take-charge attitude — I often feel as inept as a wayward teen.

    The places I most reliably feel this way include: my kids’ sporting events (the other parents all seem to know each other, and they have such good sideline setups, whereas I am always sitting cross-legged on the ground absentmindedly offering my children water out of an old Sodastream bottle and toting their gear in a filthy, too-small canvas tote), parent-teacher meetings, and picking up my kids from their friends’ suburban houses with finished basements.

    I’ve always assumed this was a problem unique to people who came from unconventional families, who never learned the finer points of blending in. But I’m beginning to wonder if everyone feels this way and that “the straight world,” or adulthood, as we call it nowadays, is in fact a total mirage. If we’re all cosplaying adulthood, who and where are the real adults?

    Source: Adulthood Is a Mirage | The Cut

    Parenting the parents

    This article in The Guardian discusses the challenges and opportunities of “parenting” one’s own parents, especially as people live longer.

    It highlights the importance of encouraging older parents to engage with technology, as studies show it can improve cognition and memory. The article also talks about the importance of social engagement, physical activity, and nutrition.

    Thankfully, my parents, both in their mid-seventies, are doing pretty well :)

     

    Parenting no longer starts and stops with our children. Nor is it confined to those who have children. In a time of unrelenting change and ever-extending life, most of us will – at some stage – find ourselves “parenting” our own parents.

    Indeed, many of us – particularly those who had families later – will find ourselves simultaneously parenting our kids and our parents. In one breath we’ll be begging our children to swap French fries for vegetables, and in the next breath we’ll be urging our parents to exchange cake for sardines. Little wonder today’s midlifers are known as the sandwich generation.

    [...]

    Dr Eamon Laird, researcher in health and ageing at Limerick university, agrees that we should be encouraging older parents to try new things. And the further out of their comfort zone they feel, the better. “It’s always good to keep the mind active and fresh,” he told me. “New challenges can help build and maintain new brain connections and can be good for brain and overall health.”

    […]

    As well as a daily walk, Laird recommends vitamin D and B12 supplements – both of which appear to moderate the chance of depression in older people. “Depression matters,” he added. “Not just because it reduces quality of life, but because in older people there seems to be a link between depression and dementia which we’re still unpacking.”

    […]

    In truth, anyone over 50 would do well to follow these simple guidelines: engage with something new every day, take a daily walk of at least 20 minutes, socialise regularly, take a daily multivitamin for seniors and check the protein content of our meals. Perhaps we should think of it as self-parenting.

    Source: Walks, tech and protein: how to parent your own parents | The Guardian

    Screens, addiction, and parenting

    I spent my lunchtime packaging up my beloved PlayStation 5. I’m going to send it to my brother-in-law and his family until my son heads off to university. This directly impacts me and my extra-curricular activities, but I’m at my wits end.

    He can’t control his use of it, sadly. Combined with his use of a smartphone, I feel like I’ve failed as a parent despite all of the things I’ve tried. I wrote my doctoral thesis on digital literacies, for goodness sake.

    Ben Werdmuller’s at the other end of the spectrum with his son. I wish him the best of luck.

    Kid under chair looking at screens
    We walk our son to daycare via the local elementary school. This morning, as we wheeled his empty stroller back past the building, a school bus pulled up outside and a stream of eight-year-olds came tumbling out in front of us. As we stood there and watched them walk one by one into the building, I saw iPhone after iPhone after iPhone clutched in chubby little hands. Instagram; YouTube; texting.

    It’s obvious that he’ll get into computers early: he’s the son of someone who learned to write code at the same time as writing English and a cognitive scientist who does research for a big FAANG company. Give him half a chance and he’ll already grab someone’s phone or laptop and find modes none of us knew existed — and he’s barely a year old. The only question is how he’ll get into computers.

    […]

    He’s entering a very different cultural landscape where computers occupy a very different space. Those early 8-bit machines were, by necessity, all about creation: you often had to type in a BASIC script before you could use any software at all. In contrast, today’s devices are optimized to keep you consuming, and to capture your engagement at all costs. Those iPhones those kids were holding are designed to be addiction machines.

    Source: Parenting in the age of the internet | Ben Werdmuller

    The patchwork progress of maturity

    This short post outlines in a pithy way how being an adult is so difficult: we mature in different aspects of our lives at different rates. In turn, this makes relationships difficult — especially as a parent.

    AI art. Midjourny prompt: "calm, male parent consoling a crying child --aspect 16:9 --v 5 --no text words letters signatures"

    We tend to think of immaturity and maturity as dichotomous, uniform states. Once you leave behind the former and enter the latter, you’re mature through and through. 

    Yet, in reality, maturation follows a patchwork pattern of progress.

    [...]

    Maybe you react to receiving criticism with stoic equilibrium, but respond to having your birthday forgotten with perturbed petulance. 

    Maybe you can give a presentation at work with perfect confidence, but can’t approach an attractive woman without sweat-inducing fear. 

    [...]

    As the midcentury writers Harry and Bonaro Overstreet put it, “All through life we have to take turns, as it were, being ‘parents’ to one another — because we all take turns at being children.” 

    Source: Sunday Firesides: Parent the Immature in Others | The Art of Manliness

    Image: Midjourney (prompt in alt text)

    The laziness of helicopter parenting

    This article in The Cut by Kathryn Jezer-Morton is fantastic. There’s a tension in parenting between, on the one hand, giving your kids space to grow, be themselves, and make mistakes — and, on the other, looking out for them, being time-efficient, and avoiding the opprobrium of other parents.

    Illustration of kid being followed by helicopter with a face

    As my kids get older, I am learning how labor-intensive it is to teach them to be independent, and I’m beginning to think that we have the helicopter-parent/hands-off-parent binary all wrong. Maybe helicopter parenting is a form of neglect, one that might even be comparable in its harmfulness to the kind of neglect that forces kids to grow up by their own wits. The crisis of teen mental health in the wake of COVID can be explained in all sorts of ways, but a common denominator is that many teenagers feel that they have no control over their lives, which is distressing for any human. When you teach a kid to be safely independent, you give them some of that control. Denying a kid that opportunity is cruelty disguised as parental virtue – it’s beyond fucked up and dark, when you really think about it.

    I also wonder if we misunderstand some of the motivations for helicopter parenting. We assume it’s an anxiety response, and I’m sure that explains a lot of it, but it’s also the path of least resistance.

    […]

    “Parents who are very involved, wanting to know what their child is doing in the world — that is often considered part of helicopter parenting, but that isn’t necessarily a problem,” said [Dr. Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and host of the How Can I Help? podcast from iHeartRadio]. “Being involved is distinct from wanting to help a child make all of their decisions. The problem is ‘I will help you do all the things. I will get involved in your conflicts. I will not let you make any mistakes.’” According to Saltz, even parents of young children should avoid approaching parenting as a troubleshooting exercise. Children become accustomed to this degree of parental involvement. The more time parents spend clearing the path for their offspring, the harder it is for children to adapt to facing obstacles on their own.

    [...]

    Helicopter parenting is also a way of protecting yourself from the judgment of other parents. In fact, its specter can loom even larger than actual threats to children’s safety. The off-piste vigilance of strangers can make an otherwise safe, ordinary situation spiral into conflict and defensiveness.

    [...]

    It doesn’t take only energy and attention to teach your kids to navigate independence safely. It takes a certain willingness to accept that someone out there might think you’re a bad parent. Allowing imagined judgment to cloud our decision making is like letting an internet comments section make our choices for us. Helicopter parenting is the manifestation of overlapping anxieties about the hazards of the world and about the opinions of other people. It’s also a product of the narcissistic delusion that our children’s (inevitable, developmentally necessary) failures are our own.

    Source: Are Helicopter Parents Actually Lazy? | The Cut

    Illustration: Hannah Buckman

    Study shows no link between age at getting first smartphone and mental health issues

    Where we live is unusual for the UK: we have first, middle, and high schools. The knock-on effect of this in the 21st century is that kids aged nine years old are walking to school and, often, taking a smartphone with them.

    This study shows that the average age children were given a phone by parents was 11.6 years old, which meshes with the ‘norm’ (I would argue) in the UK of giving kids one when they go to secondary school.

    What I like about these findings are that parents overall seem to do a pretty good job. It’s been a constant battle with our eldest, who is almost 16, to be honest, but I think he’s developed some useful habits around technology.

    Parents fretting over when to get their children a cell phone can take heart: A rigorous new study from Stanford Medicine did not find a meaningful association between the age at which kids received their first phones and their well-being, as measured by grades, sleep habits and depression symptoms.

    […]

    The research team followed a group of low-income Latino children in Northern California as part of a larger project aimed to prevent childhood obesity. Little prior research has focused on technology acquisition in non-white or low-income populations, the researchers said.

    The average age at which children received their first phones was 11.6 years old, with phone acquisition climbing steeply between 10.7 and 12.5 years of age, a period during which half of the children acquired their first phones. According to the researchers, the results may suggest that each family timed the decision to what they thought was best for their child.

    “One possible explanation for these results is that parents are doing a good job matching their decisions to give their kids phones to their child’s and family’s needs,” Robinson said. “These results should be seen as empowering parents to do what they think is right for their family.”

    Source: Age that kids acquire mobile phones not linked to well-being, says Stanford Medicine study | Stanford Medicine

    Making adulthood more desirable

    I definitely feel this at the moment. As a parent, your kids mostly follow what you do rather than what you say, which confers quite a bit of a responsibility about how you choose to live your life…

    Young woman with lights

    For many, adulthood means trading a life entirely devoted to learning for one in which you only read (maybe) two books a year. It means swapping a full schedule of sports, clubs, and music lessons for having exactly zero hobbies (unless watching Netflix counts). It means going from hanging out with peers for the bulk of each day to (maybe) seeing friends a few hours a month. It means shifting from experiencing plenty of firsts to being stuck in a hamster wheel of thousandths.

    […]

    Adulthood means taking on more responsibilities, and in turn, receiving more privileges. Unless we do something worthwhile — fun, interesting, desirable — with those privileges, young people won’t want to apply to the society of grown-ups, and adults won’t be able to wholeheartedly encourage them to join its ranks.

    Source: Sunday Firesides: We Need to Make Adulthood More Desirable | The Art of Manliness

    Image: Henri Pham

    Yes, parenting matters

    Parenting is the hardest job I have ever had. It never stops, and I seldom think I’m doing a good job at it.

    That’s why it can be comforting to see ‘scientific studies’ indicate that it doesn’t really matter how you parent, in the long-run. The trouble is, as this article shows, that’s not actually true.

    We can’t experimentally reassign children to different parents — we’re not monsters, and please don’t call to offer us your teenager — but sometimes real life does that anyway. Here’s an example: some Korean adoptees were assigned to American adopters by a queueing system which was essentially random. So there was no correlation between adoptees’ and parents’ genes. Yet, adoptees assigned to better educated families became significantly better educated themselves. Adopters made a difference in other ways too: for instance, mothers who drank were about 20% more likely to have an adoptive child who drank. This can’t be genetics. It must be something about the environment these parents provided. Other adoption studies reach similar conclusions.

    More evidence comes from the grim events of death and divorce. If your parent dies while you are very young, you end up less like that parent, in terms of education, than otherwise. Again, that can’t be genetics. And children of parents who divorce become more like the parent they stay with. In other words, when parents spend time with their children, their behaviours and values rub off.

    […]

    The bottom line is this: how much and what you say to your child from their first few days literally carves new paths in their brain. We know this from research on speech development. When mothers responded to their babies’ cues with the most basic vocalisations, they accelerated their children’s language development. So go ahead and babble along with your toddler.

    Source: No wait stop it matters how you raise your kids | Wyclif’s Dust

    Microcast #087 — Back in the game!

    Overview

    It's been a long time since the last microcast, but they're back! Comments? Questions? Add them below!

    Show notes


    Image: Erik McClean

    Background music: Shimmers by Synth Soundscapes (aka Mentat)

    Friday fumings

    My bet is that you've spent most of this week reading news about the global pandemic. Me too. That's why I decided to ensure it's not mentioned at all in this week's link roundup!

    Let me know what resonates with you... 😷


    Finding comfort in the chaos: How Cory Doctorow learned to write from literally anywhere

    My writing epiphany — which arrived decades into my writing career — was that even though there were days when the writing felt unbearably awful, and some when it felt like I was mainlining some kind of powdered genius and sweating it out through my fingertips, there was no relation between the way I felt about the words I was writing and their objective quality, assessed in the cold light of day at a safe distance from the day I wrote them. The biggest predictor of how I felt about my writing was how I felt about me. If I was stressed, underslept, insecure, sad, hungry or hungover, my writing felt terrible. If I was brimming over with joy, the writing felt brilliant.

    Cory Doctorow (CBC)

    Such great advice in here from the prolific Cory Doctorow. Not only is he a great writer, he's a great speaker, too. I think both come from practice and clarity of thought.


    Slower News

    Trends, micro-trends & edge cases.

    This is a site that specialises in important and interesting news that is updated regularly, but not on an hour-by-hour (or even daily) basis. A wonderful antidote to staring at your social media feed for updates!


    SCARF: The 5 key ingredients for psychological safety in your team

    There’s actually a mountain of compelling evidence that the single most important ingredient for healthy, high-performing teams is simple: it’s trust. When Google famously crunched the data on hundreds of high-performing teams, they were surprised to find that one variable mattered more than any other: “emotional safety.” Also known as: “psychological security.” Also known as: trust.

    Matt Thompson

    I used to work with Matt at Mozilla, and he's a pretty great person to work alongside. He's got a book coming out this year, and Laura (another former Mozilla colleague, but also a current co-op colleague!) drew my attention to this.


    I Illustrated National Parks In America Based On Their Worst Review And I Hope They Will Make You Laugh (16 Pics)

    I'm an illustrator and I have always had a personal goal to draw all 62 US National Parks, but I wanted to find a unique twist for the project. When I found that there are one-star reviews for every single park, the idea for Subpar Parks was born. For each park, I hand-letter a line from the one-star reviews alongside my illustration of each park as my way of putting a fun and beautiful twist on the negativity.

    Amber Share (Bored Panda)

    I love this, especially as the illustrations are so beautiful and the comments so banal.


    What Does a Screen Do?

    We know, for instance, that smartphone use is associated with depression in teens. Smartphone use certainly could be the culprit, but it’s also possible the story is more complicated; perhaps the causal relationship works the other way around, and depression drives teenagers to spend more time on their devices. Or, perhaps other details about their life—say, their family background or level of physical activity—affect both their mental health and their screen time. In short: Human behavior is messy, and measuring that behavior is even messier.

    Jane C. Hu (Slate)

    This, via Ian O'Byrne, is a useful read for anyone who deals with kids, especially teenagers.


    13 reads to save for later: An open organization roundup

    For months, writers have been showering us with multiple, ongoing series of articles, all focused on different dimensions of open organizational theory and practice. That's led to to a real embarrassment of riches—so many great pieces, so little time to catch them all.

    So let's take moment to reflect. If you missed one (or several) now's your chance to catch up.

    Bryan Behrenshausen (Opensource.com)

    I've already shared some of the articles in this roundup, but I encourage you to check out the rest, and subscribe to opensource.com. It's a great source of information and guidance.


    It Doesn’t Matter If Anyone Exists or Not

    Capitalism has always transformed people into latent resources, whether as labor to exploit for making products or as consumers to devour those products. But now, online services make ordinary people enact both roles: Twitter or Instagram followers for conversion into scrap income for an influencer side hustle; Facebook likes transformed into News Feed-delivery refinements; Tinder swipes that avoid the nuisance of the casual encounters that previously fueled urban delight. Every profile pic becomes a passerby—no need for an encounter, even.

    Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)

    An amazing piece of writing, in which Ian Bogost not only surveys previous experiences with 'strangers' but applies it to the internet. As he points out, there is a huge convenience factor in not knowing who made your sandwich. I've pointed out before that capitalism is all about scale, and at the end of the day, caring doesn't scale, and scaling doesn't care.


    You don't want quality time, you want garbage time

    We desire quality moments and to make quality memories. It's tempting to think that we can create quality time just by designating it so, such as via a vacation. That generally ends up backfiring due to our raised expectations being let down by reality. If we expect that our vacation is going to be perfect, any single mistake ruins the experience

    In contrast, you are likely to get a positive surprise when you have low expectations, which is likely the case during a "normal day". It’s hard to match perfection, and easy to beat normal. Because of this, it's more likely quality moments come out of chance

    If you can't engineer quality time, and it's more a matter of random events, it follows that you want to increase how often such events happen. You can't increase the probability, but you can increase the duration for such events to occur. Put another way, you want to increase quantity of time, and not engineer quality time.

    Leon Lin (Avoid boring people)

    There's a lot of other interesting-but-irrelevant things in this newsletter, so scroll to the bottom for the juicy bit. I've quoted the most pertinent point, which I definitely agree with. There's wisdom in Gramsci's quotation about having "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will".


    The Prodigal Techbro

    The prodigal tech bro doesn’t want structural change. He is reassurance, not revolution. He’s invested in the status quo, if we can only restore the founders’ purity of intent. Sure, we got some things wrong, he says, but that’s because we were over-optimistic / moved too fast / have a growth mindset. Just put the engineers back in charge / refocus on the original mission / get marketing out of the c-suite. Government “needs to step up”, but just enough to level the playing field / tweak the incentives. Because the prodigal techbro is a moderate, centrist, regular guy. Dammit, he’s a Democrat. Those others who said years ago what he’s telling you right now? They’re troublemakers, disgruntled outsiders obsessed with scandal and grievance. He gets why you ignored them. Hey, he did, too. He knows you want to fix this stuff. But it’s complicated. It needs nuance. He knows you’ll listen to him. Dude, he’s just like you…

    Maria Farrell (The Conversationalist)

    Now that we're experiencing something of a 'techlash' it's unsurprising that those who created surveillance capitalism have had a 'road to Damascus' experience. That doesn't mean, as Maria Farrell points out, that we should all of a sudden consider them to be moral authorities.


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    Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again

    Today's title comes courtesy of Nobel prize winner André Gide. For those with children reading this, you've probably got a wry smile on your face. Yep, today's article is all about parenting.

    I'd like to start with a couple of Lifehacker interviews: one with Mike Adamick, author of Raising Empowered Daughters, and the other is with Austin Kleon, best known for Steal Like An Artist. Adamick makes a really important point for those of us with daughters:

    Kids, and I think especially girls, are expected to be these perfect little achievers as they get older. Good grades, good at sports, good friends. There’s so much pressure and I wanted her to know, and I think I make a compelling example, that everyone messes up all the time and it’s okay.

    Mike Adamick

    Towards the end of the interview, Adamick goes on to say:

    You get to define what your circles look like, and you can do tremendous good in your social, work, and family circles by playing a more active role in helping our girls not have to navigate a sexist society and by helping our boys to access their full emotional selves, not just a one-size-fits-all masculinity that can so easily slide into anger and entitlement. We’re all in this together, and we have a lot more power than we imagine we do.

    Mike Adamick

    It's hard to realise, as a straight white man that, despite your best intentions, you're actually part of the problem, part of the patriarchy. All you can really do is go out of your way to try and square things up through actions, not just words. And that includes in your role as son and husband as much as parent.

    Austin Kleon, being an author and artist, frames things in terms of children and his work. This image he shares (which I've included as the header for this article) absolutely slayed me. Although I try to explain to my own children what I'm doing when I'm using my laptop, I'm pretty sure they just see the very different things I'm doing as just 'being on the computer'.

    He gives the kind of advice that I sometimes give to soon-to-be fathers:

    During a birthing class, my father-in-law, who was a veteran parent at that point, was asked if he had any advice for the rookie parents. He stood up and said, “You’re going to want to throw them out the window. And that’s okay! The important thing is that you don’t.”

    Austin Kleon

    Parenting is the hardest, but probably most rewarding, job in the world. You always feel like you could be doing better, and that you could be providing more for your offspring. The truth is, though, that they actually need to see you as a human being, as someone who experiences the ups and downs of life. The vicissitudes of emotional experience are what makes us human — and, perhaps most importantly, our children learn from us how to deal with that rollercoaster.


    Also check out:

    • You Don't Have to Define What Type of Parent You Are (Offspring) — "My standards vary based on the day of the week, the direction of the wind and my general mood. I have absolutely no idea what kind of parent I am other than hopefully a decent one."
    • Parents: let your kids fail. You’ll be doing them a favor (Quartz) — "The dirty secret of parenting is that kids can do more than we think they can, and it’s up to us to figure that out."
    • Parents Shouldn’t Spy on Their Kids (Nautilus) — "Adolescence is a critical time in kids’ lives, when they need privacy and a sense of individual space to develop their own identities. It can be almost unbearable for parents to watch their children pull away. But as tempting as it may be for parents to infiltrate the dark corners of their children’s personal lives, there’s good evidence that snooping does more harm than good."

    What UK children are watching (and why)

    There were only 40 children as part of this Ofcom research, and (as far as I can tell) none were in the North East of England where I live. Nevertheless, as parent to a 12 year-old boy and eight year-old girl, I found the report interesting.

    Key findings:
    • While some children took part in organised after school clubs at least about one a week, not many of them did other or more spontaneous activities (e.g. physically meeting friends or cultivating hobbies) on a regular basis
    • Many children used social media and other messaging platforms (e.g. chat functions in games) to continually keep in touch with their friends while at home
    • Often children described going out to meet friends face-to-face as ‘too much effort’ and preferred to spend their free time on their own at home
    • While some children managed to fit screen time around other offline interests and passions, for many, watching videos was one of the main activities taking up their spare time
    • YouTube was the most popular platform for children to consume video content, followed by Netflix. Although still present in many children’s lives, Public Service Broadcasters Video On Demand] platforms and live TV were used more rarely and seen as less relevant to children like them
    • Many parents had attempted to enforce rules about online video watching, especially with younger children. They worried that they could not effectively monitor it, as opposed to live or on-demand TV, which was usually watched on the main TV. Some were frustrated by the amount of time children were spending on personal screens.
    I've recently volunteered as an Assistant Scout Leader, and last night went with Scouts and Cubs to the ice-rink in Newcastle on the train. As I'd expect, most of the 12 year-old boys had their smartphones out and most of the girls were talking to one another. The boys were playing some games, but were mostly watching YouTube videos of other people playing games. Ofcom report table

    All kids with access to screen watch YouTube. Why?

    • The appeal of YouTube also appeared rooted in the characteristics of specific genres of content.
      • Some children who watched YouTubers and vloggers seemed to feel a sense of connection with them, especially when they believed that they had something in common
      • Many children liked “satisfying” videos which simulated sensory experiences
      • Many consumed videos that allowed them to expand on their interests; sometimes in conjunction to doing activities themselves, but sometimes only pursuing them by watching YouTube videos
      • These historically ‘offline’ experiences were part of YouTube’s attraction, potentially in contrast to the needs fulfilled by traditional TV.
    Until I saw my son really level up his gameplay by watching YouTubers play the same games as him, I didn't really get it. There's lots of moral panic about YouTube's algorithms, but there's also a lot to celebrate with the fact that children have a bit more autonomy and control these days.
    The appeal of YouTube for many of the children in the sample seemed to be that they were able to feed and advance their interests and hobbies through it. Due to the variety of content available on the platform, children were able to find videos that corresponded with interests they had spoken about enjoying offline; these included crafts, sports, drawing, music, make-up and science. Notably, in some cases, children were watching people on YouTube pursuing hobbies that they did not do themselves or had recently given up offline.
    Really interesting stuff, and well worth digging into!

    Source: Ofcom (via Benedict Evans)

    Why the internet is less weird these days

    I can remember sneakily accessing the web when I was about fifteen. It was a pretty crazy place, the likes of which you only really see these days in the far-flung corners of the regular internet or on the dark web.

    Back then, there were conspiracy theories, there was porn, and there was all kinds of weirdness and wonderfulness that I wouldn’t otherwise have experienced growing up in a northern mining town. Some of it may have been inappropriate, but in the main it opened my eyes to the wider world.

    In this Engadget article, Violet Blue points out that the demise of the open web means we’ve also lost meaningful free speech:

    It's critical... to understand that apps won, and the open internet lost. In 2013, most users accessing the internet went to mobile and stayed that way. People don't actually browse the internet anymore, and we are in a free-speech nightmare.

    Because of Steve Jobs, adult and sex apps are super-banned from Apple’s conservative walled garden. This, combined with Google’s censorious push to purge its Play Store of sex has quietly, insidiously formed a censored duopoly controlled by two companies that make Morality in Media very, very happy. Facebook, even though technically a darknet, rounded it out.

    A very real problem for society at the moment is that we simultaneously want to encourage free-thinking and diversity while at the same time protecting people from distasteful content. I’m not sure what the answer is, but outsourcing the decision to tech companies probably isn’t the answer.

    In 1997, Ann Powers wrote an essay called "In Defense of Nasty Art." It took progressives to task for not defending rap music because it was "obscene" and sexually graphic. Powers puts it mildly when she states, "Their apprehension makes the fight to preserve freedom of expression seem hollow." This is an old problem. So it's no surprise that the same websites forbidding, banning, and blocking "sexually suggestive" art content also claim to care about free speech.
    As a parent of a 12 year-old boy and eight year-old girl, I check the PEGI age ratings for the games they play. I also trust Common Sense Media to tell me about the content of films they want to watch, and I'm careful about what they can and can't access on the web.

    Violet Blue’s article is a short one, so focuses on the tech companies, but the real issue here is one level down. The problem is neoliberalism. As Byung-Chul Han comments in Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Powerwhich I’m reading at the moment:

    Neoliberalism represents a highly efficient, indeed an intelligent, system for exploiting freedom. Everything that belongs to practices and expressive forms of liberty –emotion, play and communication –comes to be exploited.
    Almost everything is free at the point of access these days, which means, in the oft-repeated phrase, that we are the product. This means that in order to extract maximum value, nobody can be offended. I'm not so sure that I want to live in an inoffensive future.

    Source: Engadget (via Noticing)

    Let's (not) let children get bored again

    Is boredom a good thing? Is there a direct link between having nothing to do and being creative? I’m not sure. Pamela Paul, writing in The New York Times, certainly thinks so:

    [B]oredom is something to experience rather than hastily swipe away. And not as some kind of cruel Victorian conditioning, recommended because it’s awful and toughens you up. Despite the lesson most adults learned growing up — boredom is for boring people — boredom is useful. It’s good for you.

    Paul doesn't give any evidence beyond anecdote for boredom being 'good for you'. She gives a post hoc argument stating that because someone's creative life came after (what they remembered as) a childhood punctuated by boredom, the boredom must have caused the creativity.

    I don’t think that’s true at all. You need space to be creative, but that space isn’t physical, it’s mental. You can carve it out in any situation, whether that’s while watching a TV programme or staring out of a window.

    For me, the elephant in the room here is the art of parenting. Not a week goes by without the media beating up parents for not doing a good enough job. This is particularly true of the bizarre concept of ‘screentime’ (something that Ian O’Byrne and Kristen Turner are investigating as part of a new project).

    In the article, Paul admits that previous generations ‘underparented’. However, in her article she creates a false dichotomy between that and ‘relentless’ modern helicopter parents. Where’s the happy medium that most of us inhabit?

    Only a few short decades ago, during the lost age of underparenting, grown-ups thought a certain amount of boredom was appropriate. And children came to appreciate their empty agendas. In an interview with GQ magazine, Lin-Manuel Miranda credited his unattended afternoons with fostering inspiration. “Because there is nothing better to spur creativity than a blank page or an empty bedroom,” he said.

    Nowadays, subjecting a child to such inactivity is viewed as a dereliction of parental duty. In a much-read story in The Times, “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting,” Claire Cain Miller cited a recent study that found that regardless of class, income or race, parents believed that “children who were bored after school should be enrolled in extracurricular activities, and that parents who were busy should stop their task and draw with their children if asked.”

    So parents who provide for their children by enrolling them in classes and activities to explore and develop their talents are somehow doing them a disservice? I don't get it. Fair enough if they're forcing them into those activities, but I don't know too many parents who are doing that.

    Ultimately, Paul and I have very different expectations and experiences of adult life. I don’t expect to be bored whether at work our out of it. There’s so much to do in the world, online and offline, that I don’t particularly get the fetishisation of boredom. To me, as soon as someone uses the word ‘realistic’, they’ve lost the argument:

    But surely teaching children to endure boredom rather than ratcheting up the entertainment will prepare them for a more realistic future, one that doesn’t raise false expectations of what work or life itself actually entails. One day, even in a job they otherwise love, our kids may have to spend an entire day answering Friday’s leftover email. They may have to check spreadsheets. Or assist robots at a vast internet-ready warehouse.

    This sounds boring, you might conclude. It sounds like work, and it sounds like life. Perhaps we should get used to it again, and use it to our benefit. Perhaps in an incessant, up-the-ante world, we could do with a little less excitement.

    No, perhaps we should make more engaging, and provide more than bullshit jobs. Perhaps we should seek out interesting things ourselves, so that our children do likewise?

    Source: The New York Times

    The dangers of distracted parenting

    I usually limit myself to three quotations in posts I write here. I’m going to break that self-imposed rule for this article by Erika Christakis in The Atlantic on parents' screentime.

    Christakis points out the good and the bad news:

    Yes, parents now have more face time with their children than did almost any parents in history. Despite a dramatic increase in the percentage of women in the workforce, mothers today astoundingly spend more time caring for their children than mothers did in the 1960s. But the engagement between parent and child is increasingly low-quality, even ersatz. Parents are constantly present in their children’s lives physically, but they are less emotionally attuned.
    As parents, and in society in general, we're super-hot on limiting kids' screentime, but we don't necessarily apply that to ourselves:
    [S]urprisingly little attention is paid to screen use by parents... who now suffer from what the technology expert Linda Stone more than 20 years ago called “continuous partial attention.” This condition is harming not just us, as Stone has argued; it is harming our children. The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning. We’re in uncharted territory.
    'Continuous partial attention' is the term people tend to use these days instead of 'multitasking'. To my mind it's a better term, as it references the fact that you're not just trying to do different things simultaneously, you're trying to pay attention to them.

    I’ve given the example before of my father sitting down to read the newspaper on a Sunday. Is there really much difference to the child, I’ve wondered, between his being hidden behind a broadsheet for an hour, and his scrolling and clicking on a mobile device? In some ways yes, in some ways no.

    It has never been easy to balance adults’ and children’s needs, much less their desires, and it’s naive to imagine that children could ever be the unwavering center of parental attention. Parents have always left kids to entertain themselves at times—“messing about in boats,” in a memorable phrase from The Wind in the Willows, or just lounging aimlessly in playpens. In some respects, 21st-century children’s screen time is not very different from the mother’s helpers every generation of adults has relied on to keep children occupied. When parents lack playpens, real or proverbial, mayhem is rarely far behind. Caroline Fraser’s recent biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of Little House on the Prairie, describes the exceptionally ad hoc parenting style of 19th-century frontier parents, who stashed babies on the open doors of ovens for warmth and otherwise left them vulnerable to “all manner of accidents as their mothers tried to cope with competing responsibilities.” Wilder herself recounted a variety of near-calamities with her young daughter, Rose; at one point she looked up from her chores to see a pair of riding ponies leaping over the toddler’s head.

    To me, the difference can be summed up quite easily: our mobile devices are designed to be addictive and capture our full attention, in ways that analogue media and experiences aren't.
    Short, deliberate separations can of course be harmless, even healthy, for parent and child alike (especially as children get older and require more independence). But that sort of separation is different from the inattention that occurs when a parent is with a child but communicating through his or her nonengagement that the child is less valuable than an email. A mother telling kids to go out and play, a father saying he needs to concentrate on a chore for the next half hour—these are entirely reasonable responses to the competing demands of adult life. What’s going on today, however, is the rise of unpredictable care, governed by the beeps and enticements of smartphones. We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable—always present physically, thereby blocking children’s autonomy, yet only fitfully present emotionally.
    Physically present but emotionally unavailable. Yes, we need to do better.
    Under the circumstances, it’s easier to focus our anxieties on our children’s screen time than to pack up our own devices. I understand this tendency all too well. In addition to my roles as a mother and a foster parent, I am the maternal guardian of a middle-aged, overweight dachshund. Being middle-aged and overweight myself, I’d much rather obsess over my dog’s caloric intake, restricting him to a grim diet of fibrous kibble, than address my own food regimen and relinquish (heaven forbid) my morning cinnamon bun. Psychologically speaking, this is a classic case of projection—the defensive displacement of one’s failings onto relatively blameless others. Where screen time is concerned, most of us need to do a lot less projecting.
    Amen to that.

    Source: The Atlantic (via Jocelyn K. Glei)

    The dangers of distracted parenting

    I usually limit myself to three quotations in posts I write here. I’m going to break that self-imposed rule for this article by Erika Christakis in The Atlantic on parents' screentime.

    Christakis points out the good and the bad news:

    Yes, parents now have more face time with their children than did almost any parents in history. Despite a dramatic increase in the percentage of women in the workforce, mothers today astoundingly spend more time caring for their children than mothers did in the 1960s. But the engagement between parent and child is increasingly low-quality, even ersatz. Parents are constantly present in their children’s lives physically, but they are less emotionally attuned.
    As parents, and in society in general, we're super-hot on limiting kids' screentime, but we don't necessarily apply that to ourselves:
    [S]urprisingly little attention is paid to screen use by parents... who now suffer from what the technology expert Linda Stone more than 20 years ago called “continuous partial attention.” This condition is harming not just us, as Stone has argued; it is harming our children. The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning. We’re in uncharted territory.
    'Continuous partial attention' is the term people tend to use these days instead of 'multitasking'. To my mind it's a better term, as it references the fact that you're not just trying to do different things simultaneously, you're trying to pay attention to them.

    I’ve given the example before of my father sitting down to read the newspaper on a Sunday. Is there really much difference to the child, I’ve wondered, between his being hidden behind a broadsheet for an hour, and his scrolling and clicking on a mobile device? In some ways yes, in some ways no.

    It has never been easy to balance adults’ and children’s needs, much less their desires, and it’s naive to imagine that children could ever be the unwavering center of parental attention. Parents have always left kids to entertain themselves at times—“messing about in boats,” in a memorable phrase from The Wind in the Willows, or just lounging aimlessly in playpens. In some respects, 21st-century children’s screen time is not very different from the mother’s helpers every generation of adults has relied on to keep children occupied. When parents lack playpens, real or proverbial, mayhem is rarely far behind. Caroline Fraser’s recent biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of Little House on the Prairie, describes the exceptionally ad hoc parenting style of 19th-century frontier parents, who stashed babies on the open doors of ovens for warmth and otherwise left them vulnerable to “all manner of accidents as their mothers tried to cope with competing responsibilities.” Wilder herself recounted a variety of near-calamities with her young daughter, Rose; at one point she looked up from her chores to see a pair of riding ponies leaping over the toddler’s head.

    To me, the difference can be summed up quite easily: our mobile devices are designed to be addictive and capture our full attention, in ways that analogue media and experiences aren't.
    Short, deliberate separations can of course be harmless, even healthy, for parent and child alike (especially as children get older and require more independence). But that sort of separation is different from the inattention that occurs when a parent is with a child but communicating through his or her nonengagement that the child is less valuable than an email. A mother telling kids to go out and play, a father saying he needs to concentrate on a chore for the next half hour—these are entirely reasonable responses to the competing demands of adult life. What’s going on today, however, is the rise of unpredictable care, governed by the beeps and enticements of smartphones. We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable—always present physically, thereby blocking children’s autonomy, yet only fitfully present emotionally.
    Physically present but emotionally unavailable. Yes, we need to do better.
    Under the circumstances, it’s easier to focus our anxieties on our children’s screen time than to pack up our own devices. I understand this tendency all too well. In addition to my roles as a mother and a foster parent, I am the maternal guardian of a middle-aged, overweight dachshund. Being middle-aged and overweight myself, I’d much rather obsess over my dog’s caloric intake, restricting him to a grim diet of fibrous kibble, than address my own food regimen and relinquish (heaven forbid) my morning cinnamon bun. Psychologically speaking, this is a classic case of projection—the defensive displacement of one’s failings onto relatively blameless others. Where screen time is concerned, most of us need to do a lot less projecting.
    Amen to that.

    Source: The Atlantic (via Jocelyn K. Glei)

    Finding friends and family without smartphones, maps, or GPS

    When I was four years old we moved to the North East of England. Soon after, my parents took my grandmother, younger sister (still in a pushchair) and me to the Quayside market in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

    There’s still some disagreement as to how exactly it happened, but after buying a toy monkey that wrapped around my neck using velcro, I got lost. It’s a long time ago, but I can vaguely remember my decision that, if I couldn’t find my parents or grandmother, I’d probably better head back to the car. So I did.

    45 minutes later, and after the police had been called, my parents found me and my monkey sitting on the bonnet of our family car. I can still remember the registration number of that orange Ford Escort: MAT 474 V.

    Now, 33 years later, we’re still not great at ensuring children don’t get lost. Yes, we have more of a culture of ensuring children don’t go out of our sight, and give kids smartphones at increasingly-young ages, but we can do much better.

    That’s why I thought this Lynq tracker, currently being crowdfunded via Indiegogo was such a great idea. You can get the gist by watching the promo video:

    youtu.be/eLKimNWfw…

    Our family is off for two weeks around Europe this summer. While we’ve been a couple of times before, both involved taking our car and camping. This time, we’re interrailing and Airbnbing our way around, which increases the risk that one of our children gets lost.

    Lync looks really simple and effective to use, but isn’t going to be shipping until November, — otherwise I would have backed this in an instant.

    Source: The Verge

    Alexa for Kids as babysitter?

    I’m just on my way out if the house to head for Scotland to climb some mountains with my wife.

    But while she does (what I call) her ‘last minute faffing’ I read Dan Hon’s newsletter. I’ll just quite the relevant section without any attempt at comment or analysis.

    He includes references in his newsletter, but you’ll just have to click through for those.

    Mat Honan reminded me that Amazon have made an Alexa for Kids (during the course of which Tom Simonite had a great story about Alexa diligently and non-plussedly educating a group of preschoolers about the history of FARC after misunderstanding their requests for farts) and Honan has a great article about it. There are now enough Alexa (plural?) out there that the phenomenon of "the funny things kids say to Alexa" is pretty well documented as well as the earlier "Alexa is teaching my kid to be rude" observation. This isn't to say that Amazon haven't done *any* work thinking about how Alexa works in a kid context (Honan's article shows that they've demonstrably thought about how Alexa might work and that they've made changes to the product to accommodate children as a specific class of user) but the overwhelming impression I had after reading Honan's piece was that, as a parent, I still don't think Amazon haven't gone far enough in making Alexa kid-friendly.

    They’ve made some executive decisions like coming down hard on curation versus algorithmic selection of content (see James Bridle’s excellent earlier essay on YouTube, that something is wrong on the internet and recent coverage of YouTube Kids' content selection method still finding ways to recommend, shall we say, videos espousing extreme views). And Amazon have addressed one of the core reported issues of having an Alexa in the house (the rudeness) by designing in support for a “magic word” Easter Egg that will reward kids for saying “please”. But that seems rather tactical and dealing with a specific issue and not, well, foundational. I think that the foundational issue is something more like this: parenting is a very personal subject. As I have become a parent, I have discovered (and validated through experimental data) that parents have very specific views about how to do things! Many parents do not agree with each other! Parents who agree with each other on some things do not agree on other things! In families where there are two parents there is much scope for disagreement on both desired outcome and method!

    All of which is to say is that the current design, architecture and strategy of Alexa for Kids indicates one sort of one-size-fits-all method and that there’s not much room for parental customization. This isn’t to say that Amazon are actively preventing it and might not add it down the line - it’s just that it doesn’t really exist right now. Honan’s got a great point that:

    “[For example,] take the magic word we mentioned earlier. There is no universal norm when it comes to what’s polite or rude. Manners vary by family, culture, and even region. While “yes, sir” may be de rigueur in Alabama, for example, it might be viewed as an element of the patriarchy in parts of California.”

    Some parents may have very specific views on how they want to teach their kids to be polite. This kind of thinking leads me down the path of: well, are we imagining a world where Alexa or something like it is a sort of universal basic babysitter, with default norms and those who can get, well, customization? Or what someone else might call: attentive, individualized parenting?

    When Alexa for Kids came out, I did about 10 seconds' worth of thinking and, based on how Alexa gets used in our house (two parents, a five year old and a 19 month old) and how our preschooler is behaving, I was pretty convinced that I’m in no way ready or willing to leave him alone with an Alexa for Kids in his room. My family is, in what some might see as that tedious middle class way, pretty strict about the amount of screen time our kids get (unsupervised and supervised) and suffice it to say that there’s considerable difference of opinion between my wife and myself on what we’re both comfortable with and at what point what level of exposure or usage might be appropriate.

    And here’s where I reinforce that point again: are you okay with leaving your kids with a default babysitter, or are you the kind of person who has opinions about how you want your babysitter to act with your kids? (Yes, I imagine people reading this and clutching their pearls at the mere thought of an Alexa “babysitting” a kid but need I remind you that books are a technological object too and the issue here is in the degree of interactivity and access). At least with a babysitter I can set some parameters and I’ve got an idea of how the babysitter might interact with the kids because, well, that’s part of the babysitter screening process.

    Source: Things That Have Caught My Attention s5e11

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