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contexFurther Selected Essays on Productivity, Creativity, Parenting, and Politics in the 21st Century
By cory doctorow
tachyonCopyright © 2011 Cory Doctorow
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJack and the Interstalk: Why the Computer Is Not a Scary Monster
With a little common sense, parents have nothing to fear from letting young children share their screen time
"Daddy, I want something on your laptop!" These are almost invariably the first words out of my daughter Poesy's mouth when she gets up in the morning (generally at 5 a.m.). Being a lifelong early riser, I have the morning shift. Being a parent in the 21st century, I worry about my toddler's screen time—and struggle with the temptation to let the TV or laptop be my babysitter while I get through my morning email. Being a writer, I yearn to share stories with my two-year-old.
I can't claim to have found the answer to all this, but I think we're evolving something that's really working for us—a mix of technology, storytelling, play, and (admittedly) a little electronic babysitting that let's me get to at least some of my email before breakfast time.
Since Poe was tiny, she's climbed up on my lap and shared my laptop screen. We long ago ripped all her favorite DVDs (she went through a period at around 16 months when she delighted in putting the DVDs shiny-side-down on the floor, standing on them, and skating around, sanding down the surface to a perfectly unreadable fog of microscratches). Twenty-some movies, the whole run of The Muppet Show, some BBC nature programmes. They all fit on a 32GB SD card and my wife and I both keep a set on our laptops for emergencies, such as in-flight meltdowns or the occasional restaurant scene.
I use a free/open source video player called VLC, which plays practically every format ever invented. You can tell it to eliminate all its user interface, so that it's just a square of movable video, and the Gnome window-manager in Linux lets me set that window as "Always on top." I shrink it down to a postage stamp and slide it into the top right corner of my screen, and that's Poesy's bit of my laptop.
When she was littler, we'd do this for 10 or 20 minutes every morning while she went from awake to awake-enough-to-play. Now that she's more active, she usually requests something—often something from YouTube (we also download her favourite YouTube clips to our laptops, using deturl.com), or she'll start feeding me keywords to search on, like "doggy and bunny" and we'll have a look at what comes up. It's nice sharing a screen with her. She points at things in her video she likes and asks me about them (pausable video is great for this!), or I notice stuff I want to point out to her. At the same time, she also looks at my screen—browser windows, email attachments, etc.—and asks me about them, too.
But the fun comes when we incorporate all this into our storytelling play. It started with Jack and the Beanstalk. I told her the story one morning while we were on summer vacation. She loved the booming FEE FI FOE FUM! but she was puzzled by unfamiliar ideas like beanstalks, castles, harps, and golden eggs. So I pulled up some images of them (using Flickr image search). Later, I found two or three different animated versions of Jack's story on YouTube, including the absolutely smashing Max Fleischer 1933 version. These really interested Poesy (especially the differences between all the adaptations), so one evening we made a Lego beanstalk and had an amazing time running around the house, play-acting Jack and the Beanstalk with various stuffed animals and such as characters. We made a golden egg out of wadded up aluminium foil, and a harp out of a coat-hanger, tape, and string, and chased up and down the stairs bellowing giant-noises at one another.
Then we went back to YouTube and watched more harps, made sure to look at the geese the next Saturday at Hackney City Farm, and now every time we serve something small and bean-like with a meal at home, there's inevitably a grabbing up of two or three of them and tossing them out the window while shouting, "Magic beans! Magic beans! You were supposed to sell the cow for money!" Great fun.
Every parent I know worries about the instantaneously mesmerizing nature of screens for kids, especially little kids. I've heard experts advise that kids be kept away from screens until the age of three or four, or even later, but that's not very realistic—at least not in our house, where the two adults do a substantial amount of work, socialising, and play from home on laptops or consoles.
But the laptop play we've stumbled on feels right. It's not passive, mesmerised, isolated TV watching. Instead, it's a shared experience that involves lots of imagination, physically running around the house (screeching with laughter, no less!), and mixing up story-worlds, the real world, and play. There are still times when the TV goes on because I need 10 minutes to make the porridge and lay the table for breakfast, and I still stand in faint awe of the screen's capacity to hypnotise my toddler, but I wouldn't trade those howling, hilarious, raucous games that our network use inspires for anything.
My first young adult novel, Little Brother, tells the story of a kid named Marcus Yallow who forms a guerilla army of young people dedicated to the reformation of the U.S. government by any means necessary. He and his friends use cryptography and other technology to subvert security measures, to distribute revolutionary literature, to liberate and publish secret governmental memos, and humiliate government officials. Every chapter includes some kind of how-to guide for accomplishing this kind of thing on your own, from tips on disabling radio-frequency ID tags to beating biometric identity system to defeating the censorware used by your school network to control what kind of things you can and can't see on the internet. The book is a long hymn to personal liberty, free speech, the people's right to question and even overthrow their government, even during wartime.
Marcus is 17, and the book is intended to be read by young teens or even precocious tweens (as well as adults). Naturally, I anticipated that some of the politics and technology in the story would upset my readers. And it's true, a few of the reviewers were critical of this stuff. But not many, not overly so.
What I didn't expect was that I would receive a torrent of correspondence and entreaties from teachers, students, parents, and librarians who were angry, worried, or upset that Marcus loses his virginity about two-thirds of the way through the book (secondarily, some of them were also offended by the fact that Marcus drinks a beer at one point, and a smaller minority wanted to know why and how Marcus could get away with talking back to his elders).
Now, the sex-scene in the book is anything but explicit. Marcus and his girlfriend are kissing alone in her room after a climactic scene in the novel, and she hands him a condom. The scene ends. The next scene opens with Marcus reflecting that it wasn't what he thought it would be, but it was still very good, and better in some ways than he'd expected. He and his girlfriend have been together for quite some time at this point, and there's every indication that they'll go on being together for some time yet. There is no anatomy, no grunts or squeals, no smells or tastes. This isn't there to titillate. It's there because it makes plot-sense and story-sense and character-sense for these two characters to do this deed at this time.
I've spent enough time explaining what this "plot-sense and story-sense and character-sense" means to enough people that I find myself creating a "Teen transgression in YA literature FAQ."
There's really only one question: "Why have your characters done something that is likely to upset their parents, and why don't you punish them for doing this?"
Now, the answer.
First, because teenagers have sex and drink beer, and most of the time the worst thing that results from this is a few days of social awkwardness and a hangover, respectively. When I was a teenager, I drank sometimes. I had sex sometimes. I disobeyed authority figures sometimes.
Mostly, it was OK. Sometimes it was bad. Sometimes it was wonderful. Once or twice, it was terrible. And it was thus for everyone I knew. Teenagers take risks, even stupid risks, at times. But the chance on any given night that sneaking a beer will destroy your life is damned slim. Art isn't exactly like life, and science fiction asks the reader to accept the impossible, but unless your book is about a universe in which disapproving parents have cooked the physics so that every act of disobedience leads swiftly to destruction, it won't be very credible. The pathos that parents would like to see here become bathos: mawkish and trivial, heavy-handed, and preachy.
Second, because it is good art. Artists have included sex and sexual content in their general-audience material since cave-painting days. There's a reason the Vatican and the Louvre are full of nudes. Sex is part of what it means to be human, so art has sex in it.
Sex in YA stories usually comes naturally, as the literal climax of a coming-of-age story in which the adolescent characters have undertaken a series of leaps of faiths, doing consequential things (lying, telling the truth, being noble, subverting authority, etc.) for the first time, never knowing, really knowing, what the outcome will be. These figurative losses of virginity are one of the major themes of YA novels—and one of the major themes of adolescence—so it's artistically satisfying for the figurative to become literal in the course of the book. This is a common literary and artistic technique, and it's very effective.
I admit that I remain baffled by adults who object to the sex in this book. Not because it's prudish to object, but because the off-camera sex occurs in the middle of a story that features rioting, graphic torture, and detailed instructions for successful truancy.
As the parent of a young daughter, I feel strongly that every parent has the right and responsibility to decide how his or her kids are exposed to sex and sexually explicit material.
However, that right is limited by reality: the likelihood that a high-school student has made it to her 14th or 15th year without encountering the facts of life is pretty low. What's more, a kid who enters puberty without understanding the biological and emotional facts about her or his anatomy and what it's for is going to be (even more) confused.
Adolescents think about sex. All the time. Many of them have sex. Many of them experiment with sex. I don't believe that a fictional depiction of two young people who are in love and have sex is likely to impart any new knowledge to most teens—that is, the vast majority of teenagers are apt to be familiar with the existence of sexual liaisons between 17-year-olds.
So since the reader isn't apt to discover anything new about sex in reading the book, I can't see how this ends up interfering with a parent's right to decide when and where their kids discover the existence of sex.
Beyond Censorware: Teaching Web Literacy
Control over the way kids use computers is a real political football, part of the wide-ranging debates over child pornography, bullying, sexual predation, privacy, piracy, and cheating.
And if those stakes weren't high enough, consider this: The norms of technology use that today's kids grow up with will play a key role in tomorrow's workplace, national competitiveness, and political discourse.
The idea that kids can run technological circles around their elders is hardly new. In 1878, the newly launched Bell System was crashed by its operators, young messenger boys who'd been redeployed to run the nascent phone system and instead treated the nation's fragile communications infrastructure as the raw material for a series of pranks and ill-conceived experiments.
Today, kids are still way ahead of the grownups who supposedly control their school and home networks. In my informal interviews, I've discovered again and again that kids are a bottomless well of tricks for evading network filters and controls, and that they propagate their tricks like crazy, trading them like bubble-gum cards and amassing social capital by helping their peers gain access to the whole wide Web, rather than the narrow slice that's visible through the crack in the firewall.
I have to admit, this warms my heart. After all, do we want to raise a generation of kids who have the tech savvy of an Iranian dissident, or the ham-fisted incompetence of the government those dissidents are running circles around?
But I'm also a parent, and I know that it won't be long before my daughter is using her network access to get at stuff that's so vile, my eyes water just thinking about it. What's more, she's going to be exposed to a vast panoply of privacy dangers, from the marketing creeps who'll track her around the Web to the spyware jerks who'll try to infect her machine to the crazed spooks at agencies like the NSA who are literally out to wiretap the entire world.
Add to that the possibility that the disclosures she makes on the network are likely to follow her for her whole life, every embarrassing utterance preserved for eternity, and it's clear that there's a problem here. But I think I have the solution. Read on.
The Solution: No Censorware
Let's start by admitting that censorware doesn't work. It catches vast amounts of legitimate material, interfering with teachers' lesson planning and students' research alike.
Censorware also allows enormous amounts of bad stuff through, from malware to porn. There simply aren't enough prudes in the vast censorware boiler-rooms to accurately classify every document on the Web.
Worst of all, censorware teaches kids that the normal course of online life involves being spied upon for every click, tweet, email, and IM.
These are the same kids who we're desperately trying to warn away from disclosing personal information and compromising photos on social networks. They understand that actions speak louder than words: If you wiretap every student in the school and punish those who try to get out from under the allseeing eye, you're saying, "Privacy is worthless."
After you've done that, there's no amount of admonishments to value your privacy that can make up for it.
On the other hand, censorware provides a brilliant foil for a curriculum unit that teaches 21st century media literacy in ways that are meaningful, informative, and likely to make kids and the networks they use better and safer.
The Lesson Plan
Here's my outline for a curriculum of media literacy (addressed to the students):
1) Work with your teacher to select 30 important keywords relevant to your curriculum. Check the top 50 results for each on Google or another popular search engine, and record how many are blocked by your school firewall.
A study undertaken by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 2003 found that up to 50 percent of pages relevant to common U.S. curricula were blocked by various commercial censorware pro-ducts.
In this exercise, students learn comparative searching, statistical analysis, and gain greater familiarity with their own curricula.
Further study includes identifying those subjects that are more apt to be blocked—for example, sites relevant to reproductive health, breast cancer, racism, etc.
2) Keep a log of the inappropriate pages you encounter while browsing, including pornographic pages, adware, malware, and so on. Compile a chart showing how many times a day your school's censorware fails to protect the students in your class.
More stats here, introducing the idea of both "false positive" and "false negative." This also opens the debate on what is and is not a "bad" page, demonstrating how subjective this kind of classification is.
3) Interview your teachers about the ways that censorware interferes with their teaching.
Excerpted from contex by cory doctorow Copyright © 2011 by Cory Doctorow. Excerpted by permission of tachyon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Tim O'Reilly....................11
Jack and the Interstalk: Why the Computer Is Not a Scary Monster....................15
Nature's Daredevils: Writing for Young Audiences....................23
Beyond Censorware: Teaching Web Literacy....................29
Writing in the Age of Distraction....................34
How to Stop Your Inbox Exploding....................46
What I Do....................57
When I'm Dead, How Will My Loved Ones Break My Password?....................62
A Cosmopolitan Literature for the Cosmopolitan Web....................72
When Love Is Harder to Show Than Hate....................76
Think Like a Dandelion....................81
Digital Licensing: Do It Yourself....................91
New York, Meet Silicon Valley....................98
With a Little Help: The Price Is Right....................105
You Shouldn't Have to Sell Your Soul Just to Download Some Music....................108
Net Neutrality for Writers: It's All About the Leverage....................115
"Intellectual Property" Is a Silly Euphemism....................123
Saying Information Wants to Be Free Does More Harm Than Good....................126
Chris Anderson's Free Adds Much to The Long Tail, but Falls Short....................134
Why Economics Condemns 3D to Be No More Than a Blockbuster Gimmick....................137
Not Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining....................141
Why I Won't Buy an iPad (and Think You Shouldn't, Either)....................148
Can You Survive a Benevolent Dictatorship?....................154
Curated Computing Is No Substitute for the Personal and Handmade....................158
Doctorow's First Law....................165
Reports of Blogging's Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated....................168
Streaming Will Never Stop Downloading....................174
Search Is Too Important to Leave to One Company—Even Google....................177
Copyright Enforcers Should Learn Lessons from the War on Spam....................182
Warning to All Copyright Enforcers: Three Strikes and You're Out....................185
For Whom the Net Tolls....................190
How Do You Know If Copyright Is Working?....................200
News Corp Kremlinology: What Do the Times Paywall Numbers Mean?....................206
Persistence Pays Parasites....................211
Like Teenagers, Computers Are Built to Hook Up....................215
Promoting Statistical Literacy: A Modest Proposal....................220
Personal Data Is as Hot as Nuclear Waste....................224
Love the Machine, Hate the Factory....................231
Untouched by Human Hands....................234