January 29, 2015
Last week I attended a fantastic all-day event at the Brighton Dome, the first of a series of sessions under the banner “Our Future City”. The events are aimed at bringing together educators and creative practitioners to think about how services for children and young people in Brighton and Hove could be improved and sustained over the next few years. Our good friend Marc Jaffrey OBE, who’s designing and delivering “Our Future City”, asked me along to give a short presentation related to one of the initiative’s key themes: “digital”. Marc asked me to say something that would get a conversation going, and to be at least a little provocative. What follows, then, is a transcript of the talk (with a little polishing and a few additional references); I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether it succeeded in being a provocation.
Earlier this week, by way of stimulus for this talk, Marc sent over a recent piece from the Guardian, a fascinating interview with Ian Livingstone. I’m sure Livingston is known to many of you. He is, of course, the founder of Games Workshop and the man who gave the world Dungeons and Dragons and Lara Croft amongst much else.
But he’s also a man whose opinions about creativity and learning are highly sought after in policy-making circles. Crucially, right now he’s looking to start a free school in Hammersmith that would be based on his thinking. And that’s where it gets interesting, because there’s already a free school in Hammersmith – one founded by journalist and How to Lose Friends and Alienate People author Toby Young.
Livingstone and Young, I think it’s safe to say, have polarised opinions about education. The former is broadly a child-centred progressive who believes that technology should be used in the classroom to help children become more creative problem solvers (he also believes that coding should be taught in all schools). Young, on the other hand, believes in the kind of knowledge-based learning that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1950s grammar school. (These are somewhat broad brushstroke characterisations and I apologise if they’re a little crude, but you get the picture.)
You might expect me to incline to Livingstone’s view, what with me being a “digital media consultant”, and if you’d have asked me about it as little as five years ago I would have done so, unequivocally. Now I’m not so sure. Let me be clear about this: it’s not because I think we should return to a 50s grammar school education. I had one of those, albeit in the 70s and 80s, and it strikes me looking back that most of my time in school (and much outside it) consisted of moving words from a blackboard into an exercise book and then at periodic intervals, reproducing them on a piece of paper in an exam. It was, essentially, a process of moving words around different surfaces with the possible side effect of some of them sticking in my memory. A staggering waste of 10 years, in my opinion.
No, the reason I’m concerned about tech in schools is that I’m worried about what tech is doing to our young people full stop, and I would like our places of learning to be islands of respite from the digital storm. (One clarification from the get go, when I’m saying “tech” here I’m using it as a stand in for “ubiquitous, internet-connected tech”. I’m certainly not talking about the presence of computers in, say school music rooms or photography labs, where I think it’s hugely powerful.)
I believe that the last 10 years has seen an unprecedented experiment carried out on an entire generation: on the way that they think, behave, interact and, well, simply are. Of course it’s only metaphorically an experiment. In reality we’ve seen a series of technologies (web 2, social media, hand-held devices and so on), haphazardly developed and almost entirely driven by commerce (with a little bit of wide-eyed philosophical cheerleading from the sidelines). But it’s sure feels like an experiment to me, and I think it’s unconscionable for anyone who’s in the “digital industries” (that is, people like me) not to raise some of the concerns I’m about to raise. I’m not saying that any of my assertions are iron clad; instead I’m encouraging some genuine questioning about them. So let’s get to it.
A lot has been written about what the connected digital age has done to our ability to concentrate. Two of my favourite books on the topic are Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s The Distraction Addiciton. They’re very different books but interestingly start from similar positions: that of middle aged men, both working in the technology sphere, noticing their own ability to concentrate diminishing with their use of tech.
I think that’s something most of us past, say, our mid-30s would recognise if we were honest with ourselves. So I ask this: if this can happen to those of us who grew up before the advent of the worldwide web, let alone social media and the smart phone, then what’s going on with young people who’ve never known a world without them? There are some thinkers – Steven Johnson comes to mind – who believe that young people are simply developing new ways of thinking that are far more about parallel processing than about prolonged, single-task absorption, and that’s just the way it is. But I wonder if we’re not losing something vital here? Isn’t single-task absorption – think Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow states” – something we all seek as educators and creatives?
So this relates very closely, of course. In his early 90s book On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored, the psychotherapist and author Adam Phillips relays a case study about a young child who is developing behavioural problems, despite being healthy and being brought up in a loving, comfortable environment (I confess I’m relating this from memory, so some of the details may be a little off). Anyway, turns out the environment might be too loving, as this kid’s parents are pushy beyond belief, and there’s no extracurricular activity this child doesn’t pursue. Put simply, this child never has the opportunity to be bored, and surely being bored as a child is a crucial part of our learning and growth, and not least the spur to the development of a rich inner life.
But these days, no one is ever bored, not in a real way – they don’t allow themselves to be. Rather they seek constant stimulation, which I view to some degree as a running away from the self. Go up to Brighton Station now; I guarantee that anyone under 30 who’s on their own (and plenty that aren’t) will be staring at a handheld screen. Or get on a bus and try to find someone idly staring out of the window. What the hell happened to daydreaming? We used to get into trouble at school for it, but I’d be putting on the curriculum!
One area where I vaguely agree with Toby Young is on the importance of learning facts. Where I suspect we diverge is what facts we should learn; the problem with all fact-based learning is that it comes with an agenda (Dan Carlin has spoken eloquently on this matter – check out the “Controlling the Past” edition of his excellent Common Sense podcast). Furthermore, in a world of infinite facts, any choice of what to teach is going to be arbitrary and somewhat of a drop in the ocean. No less a figure than the great historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has argued that we should ditch the teaching of history in school and instead concentrate on skills (although he suggests algebra and Latin, which is where I suspect he might lose some).
But, again, I wonder if we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater here? I’m not so concerned about the specific facts that we learn – and hopefully remember – so much as that we develop the ability to do so. Socrates vehemently opposed the introduction of writing into academia as he thought it would negate our need to remember anything. What would he have made of Google?! I’m all for more creativity in the classroom and more attention given to problem solving and team work. But do they have to come at the expense of teaching kids to remember stuff?
Ok, they’re my big ones. Here are a few quickies to be going on with, although I could bore you to death for hours on several of them.
It’s generally accepted that the human adult needs something in the region of eight hours’ sleep a night, with a variance of 45 minutes or so either side. I have friends that poopoo this, but I would suggest that I’m backed up by a long history of dictatorial nut jobs who “got by” on five hours’ sleep or less. Take your pick. After all, if we were all getting enough sleep then every third ad on the tube wouldn’t be asking something along the lines of “Tired? Then you need X, “X of course being some dubious mixture of caffeine and multivitamins. No, you don’t need X, you need more sleep!
Anyhow, I digress. Teenagers have always needed more sleep. The 16-year old that stays in bed til late afternoon isn’t being lazy (or at least not entirely); he’s being a victim of hormones. The trouble we have now is that teenagers are getting less sleep than the rest of us, because the device(s) that accompany them all day long accompany them all night long too. I put it to you that we are raising a generation of massively sleep-deprived teenagers, and the results will be catastrophic. Probably already are.
The teenage years have always been about peer pressure. It’s the time when we first begin to grasp our place in a future adult world in which personal politics will be our life-long companion. But peer pressure used to stop if not at the school gate, at least at the front door. These days peer pressure is a constant companion, as eternally present as all the other babbling. I’m not talking about the edge cases here, either, the victims of cyber bullying campaigns who have tragically taken their own lives. I’m talking about all young people, perpetually on the lookout for likes, for virtual approval. Life in the face of raised or downturned thumb: how do they ever escape?
Porn Ok, let’s get on to the tricky one. I’m not going to get into the rights and wrongs of porn, feminists vs free speech libertarians and all that (in any case, this is a difficult week to debate the limits of free speech). Nor am I going to talk about the impact of pornography on relationships (although I’m convinced that it’s profound for all ages). In the context of today – a day in which we consider children’s creative lives – I’m concerned about the impact of pornography on the development of a creative imagination. Here’s why.
I’ve already discussed the development of imagination in young children in the context of boredom. I believe that the onset of puberty, with all its years of longing and loneliness, has traditionally been alleviated to a great extent by the development of a rich inner life – the life of sexual fantasy. The need to develop that life, however, is no longer there. When every conceivable sexual act – conducted between any possible combination of any kinds or number of people – is available at the touch of a button, what need is there to fantasize? Again, I’m not talking about the outliers here, all that Dark Net nasty stuff. I’m talking about freely available mainstream porn. I genuinely believe that the development of imaginative capacity (because imagining is a skill, that needs to be learned and practiced like any other) has been massively diminished by the advent of ubiquitous hardcore porn.
Tactility & leaning
One of my other concerns about porn is that it reduces sex to a largely visual (and partly auditory) experience. But this applies elsewhere too, not least to learning new physical skills. I’m a huge fan of forums and youtube threads as learning aids. Indeed, I’ve written on several occasions about a pet favourite: the sub-culture of heavy metal and “shred” guitar playing. For many, the web is a place of hugely accelerated learning.
But there are pitfalls here too. Some “naturals” may take to a skill just by watching some instructional videos and trading advice with fellow forum members. But most of us need hands on advice. And when it comes to physical skills, whether it be thwacking a golf ball or pulling off a pirouette, I really mean “hands on”. I know from personal experience that when I come out of my one-on-one classical guitar lessons, I feel that my entire body has been rebalanced. You might be able to learn to code C++ in a forum – but not something that actually involves your body.
And if I’m not already painfully in the grumpy old man bracket by now, this last one will finish me off. Put bluntly, I think we live in an age of shocking self-obsession. I don’t believe technology is the only – or even chief – driver here. A perfect storm of 60s individualism and 80s credit-led consumption (along with the dubious freedom of “choice”) certainly helped kick things off. But tech has been the icing of the cake: we are in every way the age of the selfie.
Why’s that important here, beyond it being generally repellant? Because I believe that both the act of learning and creative practice in general are about the loss of self. I doubt I would find much disagreement about that in this room. Indeed, a major component of creative practice is often to turn off that nagging “inner voice”. But how much more difficult is it to turn off the constant (and for what it’s worth, almost always woefully inaccurate) narrative of self for a generation who’ve been encouraged to think of little else?
So let me conclude with a caveat and finally some suggestions.
Firstly I want to make it clear that my observations about young people are not meant as criticism. I have children aged between 19 and 24; I’ve spent years in not only their company but in that of their excellent friends, too, and I’ve never failed to feel enriched by it. A clarity of thought, unencumbered by “grown up” (and largely very dull) concerns and a generally vibrant enthusiasm utterly makes up for a lack of experience in the world. My observations about young people, then, come from a position of profound concern – and to a great extent from a position of anger about what is being done to them to make a small number of men on the west coast of the USA stupendously rich.
Furthermore, I certainly don’t want to deny the untold riches brought by the Internet or the world wide web or even the social web. In any case, I’m certainly not a Canute: this stuff is here to stay. Indeed, in the words of 1Xtra DJ Charlie Sloth (whom I had the pleasure of hearing talk at a recent BBC event about music and tech), it’s only going to get worse.
So what do we do about it? Well, Marc has used the Buddhist term Loving-Kindness on several occasions this morning, so I’ll follow suit and use another: Skillfulness. I think it is incumbent on all of us who work with the young to think deeply about our relationship to, and uses of, digital technology. And then we need to develop greater Skillfulness in that relationship and those uses. For each of us, our “Skillful Digital Practice” will be different, as it will be profoundly personal. But it must be equally honest. Developing these practices will be a lifelong project. But only if we pursue them will we be in a fit state to help our young companions develop their own. Thank you.