This is another major theme I’d like to write about here. It’s been crazy around here this past week, so this may not be the cogent introduction I wish it were, but here goes.
Childhood as a phase of life is growing longer: adolescents are treated as children, and people in their twenties act adolescent. There’s a new book on exactly this topic, The Case Against Adolescence by Robert Epstein. As Jason Kottke quotes when talking about the book, Epstein has evidence that adulthood is now beginning as late as 27, which certainly makes me feel better about only just now entering what feels like the adult phase of my life. Hopefully I can grab a copy and share any insights it informs.
As Kottke also notes, Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood claims the idea of childhood itself comes and goes in waves. Part of the current swing may be the resonance of this pattern in popular culture. It’s similar to Devo’s core theme of devolution, the idea that modern society with its lack of true challenges allows us to become dumber, worse people; that society’s natural direction is downward. The same idea plays out in Mike Judge’s recent film Idiocracy: thousands of years into the future, America has devolved into a purely consumerist society run by cyborg corporations and a government that’s more a line-up of reality TV series than a ruling body.
There are several phenomena crucial to understanding our world today that seem (at least to me) related to this idea of bringing childhood into adulthood. For a convenient name for the general pattern, I like neoteny, the term in biology for keeping youthful characteristics into adulthood (“as among certain amphibians”). I keep seeing neoteny as the possible motive force in a bunch of phenomena, enough so that it seems like a hint to some underlying system of the world.
Neoteny is related to the fairy tale morality that currently polarizes our public discourse. It’s a child-like view to split the world into unambiguous virtue and vice, and the job of adults to discern the good intentions in bad acts and forge compromise. There seems to be precious little of this among the people we give power.
Another apparent ramification of epidemic neoteny could be the focus on materialism we see in our culture. We Americans are generally not so hot on waiting for things we want, and as a result spend $1.22 for every $1 we earn (claims the American Bankers Association in an undated statistic they ascribe to the Myvesta Foundation, a “consumer finance assistance” organization). That you can’t have everything you want is the basic axiom of economics, yet we’re extremely eager to except ourselves from it, assuming economics happens only to everyone else. It seems peculiarly adult not to partake of the “free money” credit card companies spam out.
Geek chic is another possible result of neoteny. Comic books and video games are adolescent media that my generation is bringing with us throughout our lives, to say little of the stereotypical nerd who lives with his parents ‘til 30, who is simply still adolescent. To be broadly generous instead, to be a geek about something is to show enthusiasm for it, and enthusiasm tends to be the province of youth; the cliché is child-like wonder for a reason.
The relationship we’ve developed with our corporations can put people in a child’s role at times. While science fiction still has a monopoly on corporations gaining sentience and acting independently, it rings like a bell the fear of superhuman legal fictions with rights. Focusing on corporate speech (which is, after all, one of the few ways we interact with them), we picture child-like susceptibility to advertising in other people. It’s in the interests of the corporations that want to sell us things to infantilize us into material consumers.
I’ve been reading The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer, a layman’s overview of his and others’ psychological research into the authoritarian behavior of both leaders and followers. (It’s available on Altemeyer’s web site.) He describes aligning with a strong authority as if it were an identifiable pathology. Some of the authoritarian behavior we see in contemporary societies (both leading and following, which Altemeyer takes pains to explain are quite different) can be explained in terms of the strong father figure, which allows it to map conveniently onto ideas of neoteny. While, as ever, the behavior of particular human people is more complicated, it seems like a useful metaphor.
Perhaps neoteny of itself isn’t a major thread in the fabric of our world; it could be a mere result of a more primal component, like positive feedback. Even so, it comes up enough in various guises that it’s worth understanding.
The steady intonations of a hypnotic voice sends shivers down my spine, and I realize, I’m being lied to, and I like it.
I remember some specific cases. The earliest is also the most personal: some girl I was in classes with in the eighth grade, saying something in a group of us hanging around on an event day in the foyer in the school’s new gym where I rarely went. She was saying something that made me feel like I was part of her collected clique, an ordained member of the in crowd. I count this as being lied to because, while I wasn’t a pariah in middle school, I was too big a nerd to be accepted in a popular crowd. For those brief minutes, though, I could pretend.
The more recent events were, like such a large percentage of meaningful events the past few years, mediated. John Hodgman is so skillfully deadpan that when he delivers his compendium of world knowledge, The Areas of My Expertise, it’s hard to pick out the fiction sometimes. What made the spine-tingling moment, though, was the repartee with Jonathan Coulton. They trade fake facts about these United States, and it’s easy to invest in their common conviction.
Investing in conviction could be the key. Conviction is a magician’s stock in trade, and Marco Tempest’s iPhone Magic was another lie I notably enjoyed. The way some people talked when it was coming out (and still talk, some of them), it’s easy to believe it could do almost anything.
Ken Nordine is another master of convincing delivery; the air of authority in his voice surely helped his history in advertising. For some reason I’m especially affected by two recordings of his that, rather than the same old talking in his commanding voice, prominently feature mouth noises. That is, Bubblegum, which features the chewing of same, and Hunger Is From:
It’s silly, if you say it is, but… I look at a little olive, like this… mmm… and it tastes wonderful. This’s got a seed in it, but… I like ‘em pitted too. That way you don’t have to worry about the stone. Mm… I swear I do this, practically every night of the week. Oh, not every night… but pretty near.
As a last example, Iris Bahr punches up her Social Studies series for KCRW with a sensual accent and the air of the illicit. It’s a fictional audio blog by a globe-trotting prostitute with a big Russian accent, after all. The invitation inside the character’s privacy is naturally intimate, on top of the salacious nature of the insider’s view of a jet-setting world of media and political celebrities (here, a delivery mechanism for satire).
Why should I like being lied to like this, and why doesn’t it happen more often? I regularly make elaborate claims to skepticism as an amateur scientist (I expect Dijkstra would agree computer science as I practice it is an amateur science). Beyond scientific pretensions, I spend my days with my head stuck in that same mediated sluice of political and economic propaganda; down here, skepticism is a precious survival skill. If anything, I should be skeptical to a fault.
Perhaps it’s that skepticism is so tiring. It’s comfortable to let the filters down and believe what you hear (which could be why it’s so popular). Relaxing the skeptical habit works with the natural intimacy of these moments—the actual human interaction, the naturally incidental noise of Nordine’s Bubblegum, the confessions of a worldly woman—to connect in a special way that most media doesn’t.
Except for outright magic, all these examples were auditory, leading me to believe that radio is a more intimate medium than television (and likewise for their internet equivalents). That voice by itself is more intimate seems counterintuitive, but true. Processing visual input is an analytical process, engaging the filters instead of circumventing them. On the other hand, listening to someone speak is a language task, almost literary.
This apparent difference between radio and tv in the capacity for intimate connection reminds me mainly of virtual worlds, which means it raises an interesting question for interface design. How do you design media experiences for people when the medium with less fidelity better fosters intimacy?
The idea of a virtual world is it’s a mode of experience that seems like real life—that is, a high fidelity medium. My main experience with virtual worlds, though, is from the era of text: non-graphical MUDs and single-player interactive fiction. Compared to my experience with, say, Second Life, text worlds are much better at conveying intimacy. This is for the same reasons interactive fiction is lauded as a lost art, and especially the complicit imagination: you create the visual component yourself, so you have to buy into the fiction at a deeper level than if the pictures are presented to you. That it happens in your head creates a kind of self-healing imagery that is hard to build outside a flexible human mind.
Text gets a bad rap for having low emotional bandwidth, which is true. SMS carries much less emotional cuing than a voice call does. For one, the bandwidth problem is conjoined with the barrier to entry. Text is actually only as narrowcast as a book is, and we’ve had written works for centuries that can evoke emotional response. How do you evoke that rich history in an IM window? It takes skill and talent at writing to convey emotion. Even IRC evolved a /me command; the third person and a context in which acts can occur could be downright necessary.
Today’s immersive games and graphical worlds increasingly use voice, which, given this thought started with radio, would seem to provide the much wider emotional bandwidth required to build intimate experiences. However, this is not apparent in the use of voice on, say, Xbox Live. Again it’s an issue with barrier to entry: instead of the world-building and writing skills necessary in text worlds, it requires the acting ability of a John Hodgman, or the prowess at performance of a Ken Nordine. We don’t generally consider acting a basic skill on the level of writing.
One also can’t maintain a deep fiction about the nature of oneself when your voice is apparent. The banal example is how hard voice in Second Life has made it to cross-”dress.” Developer of MUD Richard Bartle cautioned in 2003 that voice can’t be used in roleplay worlds until it doesn’t break the players’ fiction:
Adding reality to a virtual world robs it of what makes it compelling - it takes away that which is different between virtual worlds and the real world: the fact that they are not the real world.
Short of the future where the voice is completely synthesized, maintaining the fiction will depend on the acting skill of the players as much as any technical capability of the software.
The lesson appears to be the idea that higher fidelity media is better can’t be assumed when considering the actual user experience. While I’ve certainly been lied to online, the intimacy required to make the kind of lies I like is hard to convey in internet media. Using higher fidelity only makes it harder to be good.
I read enough science fiction to know it isn’t the future until we’re in space.
We have our information age and our years that start with 2, but we’re still stuck down here in the ol’ gravity well. Weren’t we supposed to be well on our way to the stars, or at least the planets we can see from here, by 2001? What happened to the cool space station spinning to the Blue Danube?
Coincidentally, Slate V recently posted this Explainer about if we’re ever finishing our own actual space station:
It is likely, therefore, that the next decade will open with a Space Chase (the inevitable name), as China attempts to develop a space program from scratch faster than the United States can dust off its forty-year-old blueprints. … There may even be a pad 3, some kind of unholy alliance of Europeans, Russians, and Objectivist billionaires, flying a composite rocket powered by the sheer force of the market.
My main interest in the topic is fueled by this talk from TED by Burt Rutan, founder of SpaceShipOne creator Scaled Composites.
He theorizes the state of the art in one’s childhood influences interest; I was at that particular school age where we were watching Challenger because Christa McAuliffe was there, wow, a schoolteacher going into space. I think we weren’t actually watching it, but we huddled into another classroom with a tv shortly after when the news got out. Challenger means space to many people who were adults, too, especially Florida teachers—who saw another of their own fly in that recently returned Endeavour mission.
Ron Howard is only a decade younger than Rutan, and obviously influenced by the same era of aeronautics as he. Not only did Howard make Apollo 13, but now he’s helping promote the new documentary about the Apollo missions, In the Shadow of the Moon. (See the trailer in HD.) While a single documentary can’t spark many minds in their formative era now, it can help, and the actual work being done by Rutan and his compatriots just may.
I’ve learned from my work in internet services that the key to staying alive and available is redundancy: eliminate single points of failure. Assuming we avoid the near term environmental disaster we’ve created here on Earth—the biggest SPoF of all—making it into space is incredibly important to our future as a species. The devotion of the new pioneers of commercial space promises to keep the next few years of the process interesting, if not outright fruitful.