We’ve taken a few plane trips lately, in the course of moving to Chicago for the summer, coming back to Colombia, moving to DC, and now visiting Colombia once again. These plane trips have inspired me to reflect on the ubiquity of electronic media, and how this affects our society.
This Christmas break we had a decent pair of flights from Washington, DC to Bogota, Colombia. They were harrowing insofar as we were traveling with two kids and a lot of luggage, but there were really no major incidents along the way.
In the first flight we were “treated” to an episode of the TV show “Parks and Recreation” on the overhead screens. There was no sound, since we didn’t want to see it and didn’t have headphones, but from time to time we couldn’t help catching a scene here or there. We had also seen an episode in this way on a prior flight a few months ago. Caro finds this show extremely offensive. She doesn’t get worked up about much in life, and again, all she or I caught of the show were stray scenes, with no sound. But this perhaps amplified what offends Caro. Watching the exaggerated facial expressions of the characters, their exaggerated eye makeup and mustaches and hair, just gets under my wife’s skin. One of the very clearly defined values of the general culture in our provincial peasant region of Colombia, and even more pronounced in my wife’s upbringing in an austere, borderline Marxist household, is an appreciation for modesty and simplicity. Anything that seems excessive, be it clothes or mannerisms or ways of talking, whips my wife into a frenzy of annoyance. The mere presence of jewelry or perfume makes it difficult for my wife to be around someone!
Caro’s annoyance with this show that we’ve barely even seen struck me as doubly funny. First off, it is rare and entertaining to see her break out of her normal, quiet reserve and really get angry at something. Secondly, it occurred to me that Parks and Recreation is one of those shows that’s supposed to be ironic, subtle, the height of our sophisticated humor in the US. But Caro sees it more like someone in the US might look at one of those ridiculous, over-the-top Mexican joke programs with people dressed up in silly outfits and acting stupid. She sees shows like Parks and Recreation as a real cultural nadir!
On many of these plane rides, there is a lot of violent fare, big-budget action movies and the sequels thereof. I saw most of Iron Man 3 on one flight, again in silence. It struck me as so silly and preposterous, representative of an entirely mistaken tack that much of modern entertainment has taken. It seems that many filmmakers have an industrial mechanization vision of art—the more, newer technology you put in, the better it will be. Of course this is silly. The great drama of Classical Greece or Elizabethan England, the great novels of the modern US or Latin America, these cannot be improved upon by adding more gadgets or explosions. Great art speaks to the timeless traits of humanity, the existential questions, and these remain similar throughout history, regardless of the technological context in which the art is made. Technology does indeed have a place in art—the Kindle makes books easier to access for certain people, the Internet allows any old Joe to post his thoughts on a blog to share with the world, and improved manufacturing techniques have brought musical instruments within the economic reach of more people. The raised stage, the moving camera, the piano, these were technologies that indeed redefined entire segments of artistic expression. I can even appreciate the fascination and joy caused by really well-done special effects in a film or a live concert. But when you build art entirely around a technology, when a film is little more than a platform to showcase bigger and better explosions, then it ends up not being worth the price of admission, and will certainly not endure in time as a great work that speaks to people on a deep level. The returns to technology diminish very quickly in art.
In the second leg of the trip, from Miami to Bogota, we were in a bigger plane, with personal TV monitors in front of every seat. We turned off our monitors as soon as we could, though Sam was interested in putting on the free headphones they gave to us. He has seen people use headphones, and has used them long ago with his cousin and his sister, but he isn’t that familiar with them. So he just put them on his ears, and I’m not sure if he knew music was supposed to come out, and certainly not how to make it come out. It made my wife and me feel sort of bad, because we don’t want Sam to be some kind of wolf child raised in the wilderness and unaware of the mores and technology of the society surrounding him. I know lots of parents want to make sure their kids are electronically savvy; this isn’t a prime concern of mine, though I realize that technology comprises an important part of the medium and the language in which our lives take place these days. I just figure our sons will learn whatever they need to about headphones and electronics and the lot, as new situations present themselves. I don’t want Sam to be maladapted, but if he is, I’d rather it be in the sense of underexposure to technology, and not the more common maladaptation of a kid who is constantly hooked up to one or more electronic devices, thus cut off from the real world around him.
After sleeping for a while, Sam started coloring in these special books we’d bought him. They’re coloring books with just one marker, and if you color the pictures with that marker, different colors and hidden shapes come out. I had gotten him these books specially for the plane trip, and they were very effective at keeping him busy. I imagine you could argue that such a coloring book stifles creativity, since the kid doesn’t choose what colors to use nor where to put them. It’s true too that they advertise on their cover that they make for “no-mess coloring”, and usually when a kid’s product tries to satisfy parents by eliminating mess, it does so at the expense of the child’s ability to experiment and be in charge of his own creations. At any rate, these coloring books are just an occasional novelty for Sam—I wouldn’t want him to color exclusively in pre-fab workbooks like that. At the same time, I laugh at myself for worrying about stifling my son’s creativity with a coloring book, when all around us on the plane there were kids staring at iPad screens, playing video games, and watching the in-flight TVs!
Eventually the flight crew took away the little bit of autonomy that we had to choose our own, non-electronic entertainment. Around 5pm, they inexplicably turned off all lights in the cabin, and the individual overhead lights didn’t work. For a while Sam and I both nobly tried to work in the dark, he coloring in his book and I reading my John LeCarre novel. But eventually it was too dark even for that. When I got up to ask the flight attendants about the overhead lights, I marveled at the view from the back of the plane: a fleet of glowing screens floating through a sea of darkness. This is the future we are creating for ourselves—no choice but to stare passively at screens in the night of our unthinking.
Anyway, Sam and I started to watch Mulan on my movie screen. He liked it, and finally had his headphones connected, though often he would take them off and just preferred to watch the screen in silence! When the cabin lights came back on, he got excited and said, “Now I can color!”
It’s not that Sammy doesn’t like TV. He is crazy about a show called Handy Manny, about a Latino repairman with a box of talking tools. I actually like this program. It presents a positive Latino role model who values working with his hands. His being a repairman isn’t a bad or shameful thing, a result of a lack of other options, or a fulfillment of a stereotype. No, his choice of profession is based on his values, his belief in being autonomous and resourceful and not wasting anything. He is a valued member in his neighborhood, because he helps everyone fix their problems. Furthermore, the show is explicitly educational, but with concrete applications to daily life. In the course of fixing things, Manny explains how screws go in, how to make plans and measure before doing anything, and any number of practical handyman tips. Beyond this, there are explicit messages encouraging viewers to fix things instead of throwing them away, to work and play together instead of relying on electronic devices, or to go outside instead of watching TV. We still only let Sam watch a few episodes on the weekend, but I do like this program.
I hope that in the future, TV will remain a very secondary part of Sam’s life. I don’t mind if TV is one thing among many that he and Paulo take part in, just as I don’t mind if they eat cotton candy once in a while if it’s not the mainstay of their diet. The issue is that TV by its nature is able to so enwrap and monopolize one’s time and attention, that without constant vigilance to cut down its influence, it can easily take over.
I have seen hints of this pernicious electronic invasion in Sam’s preschool. First of all, I want to reiterate that I’m happy with the preschool in our new neighborhood in Virginia, just as I have been pleased with his preschools in Bogota and our small town in Colombia. But as with these prior schools, I’d be remiss not to notice and try to remedy things that I see wrong with his current place. Caro recently took a tour with the school director, just to get a better sense of what they do in a typical day. She liked it, and from what she described to me, I’m happy with most of what the school offers.
But there are a few problems, and I think they are related to our society’s general overconsumption of television, and the corresponding expectation to have everything your way, right away. First off, there is no set reading time at the school. The kids have two academic classes a day, and usually these involve reading with the teacher. Kids are also free to look at books on their own during naptime. But there is no designated period when everyone sits down just to hear a story from the teacher. I worry about this, because I feel that a major problem with our education system in the US (and in much of the world) is that we use reading as a tool to accomplish concrete goals (problem-solving, doing a work task, following instructions, etc.), but not that many people read for its own sake. Reading as a pastime in itself is one of the best ways to develop critical thinking, creativity, imagination, and to explore and appreciate life in general. Much formal education, by overemphasizing tangible skills and underemphasizing exploration, shows children how to do things, but doesn’t give them the criteria to understand why we do them, or why we live in general.
What does this have to do with TV? A few things. First off, Sam’s school replaces reading time with TV. They call it reading time, but it is actually kids watching a TV. The kids see cartoon presentations of different classic books like Curious George or the Cat in the Hat. This is in lieu of having the teachers sit down and read them the actual books. Caro and I assume that this is in part because most of the teachers have Latino accents when they read English, so maybe they are uncomfortable or want the kids to hear a native English voice. The school doesn’t seem to see any problem with showing a TV show and calling it reading. But it is a mistake to mix up reading and television, just as drama or painting or music are different media, and no one would ever call music by the name of film, or vice versa. Furthermore, by dividing school into “work-time”, when kids are in class and applying reading to an academic goal, and “play-time”, when they’re not reading (and when in fact they’re watching TV), the teachers are reinforcing the habit of regarding reading and thinking as cumbersome “work”, and defining “leisure” as the passive consumption of outside (usually electronic) media. Such an attitude is behind many problems we are facing right now as a society—lack of critical thinking, passive lifestyles, disengagement from the world.
I also wonder if the teachers assume that kids won’t sit through an actual person reading, at least not the same way they remain rapt with the TV. If so, this would indicate a general attitude of trying not to challenge the kids but rather just providing them with mindless, attention-grabbing entertainment. Perhaps the same philosophy drives the school’s playing of background music for a good part of the day. When kids are playing, they are surrounded by a barrage of recorded kids’ songs. Caro told the director that she didn’t like this, but the director said most of the teachers think it’s pleasant. It seems to me one more attempt to keep kids constantly distracted and entertained, so they don’t have to learn how to just be tranquil and occupy themselves.
The school’s general philosophy of appeasement probably aligns with the attitude of many of the parents they serve. If a kid doesn’t want to eat what’s served for lunch, they try to give him or her something else to eat. If a child doesn’t want to participate in a given activity, they invent something else to entertain him with. I feel that childrearing in the US has a heavy dose of this attitude of trying to satisfy children’s every whim, instead of insisting that they do certain things that are healthy and appropriate for them, even if they don’t initially want to do them. I can imagine that the school is reluctant to offend any parents by not catering to their children’s caprices, so they, like the parents themselves, are compelled to seek any number of distractions and opiates to keep kids from “acting up”, which is to say from acting like kids. But as with real opiates, such an approach requires ever-escalating investments in distraction. You start with pacifiers and blankies and stuffed animals, then kids need an endless procession of new toys, and eventually adolescents need a constant fix of electronic devices, an addiction that continues into adulthood. The net result is that from infancy to adulthood, people are kept distracted from the world around them, and from their own thoughts.
Anyway, I clearly don’t agree with this way of doing things, and I do fear that Sam will be gradually drawn away from good habits like reading and silence, and drawn toward the nonstop electronic euphoria that our modern society offers. One consolation is that my kids probably won’t spend most of their life in the US, so whatever negative tendencies I feel are more prevalent here, I can keep my kids away from them. But beyond trying to withdraw from this aspect of today’s world, I think the more responsible attitude is to actively work to fix it. In that sense, I would very much like to learn more about Sam’s school’s philosophies and practices regarding reading time, and perhaps offer my assistance to give kids some regular, dedicated time slots of having an adult read aloud to them.
I'll leave off this blog post with an ironic reflection on TV and movies. Have you ever noticed that in most shows or movies, characters rarely watch television? They are too busy doing whatever that episode’s storyline demands of them, running around, living life. It makes sense, because it would be boring to watch others watching TV, but considering that the average person in the States watches two to four hours of TV daily, it is patently unrealistic if the characters we watch, who are supposed to be like us, watch none. So finally what we’re left with is a nation of real people not living life, watching fictional people, who are the only ones actually doing anything!