...and my name like a shadow on

Friday, March 28, 2008

Out of the Dawn

The Byron Review's report, Safer Children in a Digital World, is out; press reactions have been so mixed that the media response to the story has already become the story, and the government presumably mourns the mowing of the long grass—as well we all might. It's been sold to us as an exercise in 'empowering parents', on the basis that (substantial numbers of) parents are both impotent 'digital immigrants' and inadequately capable of educating themselves. From this arises the axial difficulty, and a suspicion that in making parental 'fear and a sense of helplessness' its target the report may in fact be perpetuating the problem.

I am poorly qualified to lay down judgment on the art of child-rearing, but I take it to be reasonably uncontroversial that to bring up a child demands an eager readiness to learn how to do it: to seek out wisdom to supplement instinct, and to receive knowledge about the trials of parenthood from those who possess it, however long and difficult the task, and even if information is 'concealed in a cumbersome manual'. If you can't grapple with the current BBFC/PEGI combination, you have a problem which is present not in the systems but in the will; and the result is that when told parents should keep watch over their offspring's computer use, I wonder how a 'digital immigrant' reckoned to be in need of government intervention to tell him about media classification systems could simultaneously be considered competent to oversee use of an Internet-connected computer.

The BBFC 18 symbol and the Phaistos Disc
A more fitting comparison: they're both round, and both have non-obvious significance, but one of them is helpfully documented, while the other causes genuine difficulties

I'm not sure the notion of the child as a 'digital native' is entirely helpful. Douglas Adams put things shrewdly when he said:

Anything invented before your fifteenth birthday is the order of nature. That's how it should be. Anything invented between your 15th and 35th birthday is new and exciting, and you might get a career there. Anything invented after that day, however, is against nature and should be prohibited.

That is, it's about how things appear. Prople who grew up with what nobody now calls the information superhighway of course adjust to it, because they have to adjust to whatever world they find themselves brought into, but familiarity isn't the same as competence. They still had to learn, with the inquisitive but rough-edged mind of a child at that; and with a twelve-year-old alive today being younger than Windows 95, it's increasingly hard to sympathise with the 'digital immigrants' who find themselves still unprepared, fretting that 'the rapid pace at which new media are evolving has left adults and children stranded either side of a generational digital divide' as though their supposedly 'stranded' status had come about through an act of God. In 1995 fewer people owned computers and there were definite economic reasons for that; but one would have to be pretty poor for that excuse to wash nowadays. Talk of 'digital natives' fosters the illusion that modern children have some kind of Chomskian innate superiority in using computers and the Internet; in fact, they learn because their circumstances demand it, which seems an example worth following.

Of course, no report could or should recommend that parents be dragged to !Boot camp (apologies for the RISC OS-centric pun), and so one can't very well blame Dr. Byron for her suite of more modest suggestions. It is, indeed, very level-headed of her to conclude that 'we need to move from a discussion about the media ‘causing’ harm to one which focuses on children and young people, what they bring to technology and how we can use our understanding of how they develop to empower them to manage risks and make the digital world safer'—and it's a reflection of political inertia rather than any fault of hers that this conclusion echoes what Henry Jenkins was telling the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee in 1999: 'So far, most of the conversation... has reflected a desire to understand what the media are doing to our children. Instead, we should be focusing our attention on understanding what our children are doing with media.' (More recent works by Jenkins are cited in the report's bibliography.)

The most obvious formal failing of the report is the sort of failure to define its terms which Philosophy undergrads. have beaten out of them in their first year: it's a standard criticism of Mill that On Liberty lacks a definition of 'harm', but Byron dives early on into recommendations about 'harmful' or 'potentially harmful' and, worse, 'inappropriate' material without any serious attempt to explain what it is and what it looks like. 'Deciding what is inappropriate is subjective and based on many factors including the age, experience, values, belief systems and culture of the person making that decision'—but before we get to the epistemological problems, what does the word even mean...? (What on Earth is it for something to be 'morally... appropriate' (2.31)?) Admittedly the giants might be said to be too busy wrestling to offer a stable shoulder in this case, but that's no excuse in a report seeking to recommend a government-led 'campaign... to change behaviour'.

The terms of the review are broad, and much of the report consists of a survey of several literatures which ends up looking a bit like study notes; probably it's intended for a popular audience for whom critical discussion of methodological questions would be overkill. Many of the recommndations are concerned with quango administration, i.e. with procedures for addressing the hard questions rather than with those questions themselves. That the report barely questions the applicability of existing censorship law to the Internet also hampers its worth (and the section on ISP-level blocking bizarrely states that 'some material on the Internet, such as child abuse images, material inciting racial hatred and extreme pornography is clearly illegal in the UK', this section having apparently been written under the assumption that legislation on 'extreme images' would have cleared the Lords by now). This limitation amounts to a refusal to consider the rationales for existing law, and consequently avoids a serious philosophical treatment in favour of a purely technocratic and instrumental approach, as para. 7.22 clearly illustrates:

I fully appreciate the view of those that disagree with 'banning' video games and believe that adults should be free to choose what games they play, so long as existing laws applicable in the UK, such as the Obscene Publications Act are not contravened. However, at this moment in time, when parental awareness of the risks and use of the classification system needs improving, and given the lack of effective control of such games in many households, it is important to maintain the ability of the state to intervene in this way and promote the debate. This may be something that gets reviewed when we feel more confident about how parents are using the classification system.

Elsewhere, I found it a very odd assertion that 'we can, and should, seek to make the most popular sites safe for everyone to access'. Why should we? If a site enjoys high popularity among adults, why should that make it necessary to render it fit for children too? If 'popular' in this context means 'popular among children', why isn't that made clear? Another weird aspect is a comment with respect to age verification on 'good practice, such as placing a "cookie" onto a user's computer where they have registered with underage details to prevent them from re-registering with false age details'—as though cookies weren't commonly deleted! Sloppy...

I'm being strongly critical of a report which on the whole addresses competently the questions it sets out to answer, but that's because the nature of those questions pretty well entails a vapid product. This is not an attempt to persuade anybody through chains of argument; it sets out to reassure anxious parents and avoid antagonising parties to the various debates on which it lightly touches. Dr. Byron takes the dim view of vigorous debate that 'sometimes efforts to make the landscape safer for children are hindered, slowed or frustrated by the anxieties of different groups who do not understand each other’s perspectives or question each others motives. In such a situation, where people feel the need to take sides and fight their corner, there can be no clear winners, only losers—most significantly, children and their parents.' The result is a document which largely could have been written years ago and nevertheless leaves us pretty much where we were: a diplomatic success, but one which avoids reflecting on its own remit and consequently casts suspicion of one's opponents in a debate over serious policy questions as itself suspicious: let disagreement fall away, let parents persist in their illusion of impotence, and let the government bounteously empower them through 'a new culture of responsibility, where all in society focus not on defending our entrenched positions, but on working together to help children keep themselves safe'.

I wonder what she'd make of Socrates...

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