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In The New Childhood, Jordan Shapiro provides a hopeful counterpoint to the fearful hand-wringing that has come to define our narrative around children and technology. Drawing on groundbreaking research in economics, psychology, philosophy, and education, The New Childhood shows how technology is guiding humanity toward a bright future in which our children will be able to create new, better models of global citizenship, connection, and community.
Shapiro offers concrete, practical advice on how to parent and educate children effectively in a connected world, and provides tools and techniques for using technology to engage with kids and help them learn and grow. He compares this moment in time to other great technological revolutions in humanity’s past and presents entertaining micro-histories of cultural fixtures: the sandbox, finger painting, the family dinner, and more. But most importantly, The New Childhood paints a timely, inspiring and positive picture of today’s children, recognizing that they are poised to create a progressive, diverse, meaningful, and hyper-connected world that today’s adults can only barely imagine.
PLATO WOULD’VE BEEN A GAMER
I NEVER PLAY video games alone; I always sit on the sofa with my two boys, ten and twelve years old. We all thumb away at our gamepads together. Gaming is one way we bond—one way we engage in “family time.”
You would probably imagine that anyone who dedicates as much of his energy to thinking about digital play as I do would want to sneak in some time with adult games like Bioshock, Fallout, or The Last of Us once the kids head off to bed. But I don’t. Games do not actually interest me in and of themselves. I am concerned only with the ways in which they bring people together—families, friends, communities. I am interested in the cultural aspect of games—what it means to be a gamer, and how digital play influences the ways we think about the world.
Video game narratives are fascinating. In some ways, they are very much like interactive versions of the stories we enjoy on television or at the movies. They can be like theater, like novels, like tales told around a campfire. When you consider that almost every child in the United States plays video games, it is safe to say that they may even be the primary form of narrative for the twenty-first century. In other words, video games are the new bedtime stories, the new fairy tales, the new mythology, perhaps even the new scripture. They are the freshest form of written or recorded communication practices, which most scholars believe started around the twenty-seventh century BCE. That is when the earliest examples of literature appeared in ancient Mesopotamia. But long before that, way farther back than we could ever possibly imagine, stories were passed from one generation to the next by word of mouth.
Take a moment to consider just how mind-blowing the shift from oral to written storytelling must have been. It represented a complete change in the way ancient humans organized their communities, their societies, their civilizations. Those of us who lived through the transition to personal computers and smartphones think it was a big deal to see the world as we knew it completely disrupted when social networking and email became commonplace. But that was nothing compared to what it must have been like to live through the beginning of written language. It may have been the greatest technological shift of all time. The written word enabled people to remember and store information. It made it possible to send a letter to a loved one in a faraway place. It empowered folks to share expertise without ever having to meet in person. It allowed generations of humans to distribute knowledge across time.
Thanks to the written word, I am moved to tears when I take my children to visit the Plaka neighborhood beneath the ancient Acropolis in Athens, Greece. We walk along the same narrow market streets that Socrates and Plato once roamed. These philosophers died two and a half millennia ago, yet they are still educating the young adults in my college classroom almost every day. All because their ideas are preserved in writing. The ingenuity of the ancient people who first imagined symbolic language systems is astounding. Long before the telephone, the internet, and video games, this was the trendy new technology that made it possible for people to collaborate and cooperate in ways that transcend both time and space.
Of course, written language—just like smartphones and tablets—had its critics in the beginning. Most famous among them may have been the great philosopher Socrates. He did not believe “anything certain or clear” could “come from what was written down.” He compared writing to painting—what the artist presents may look like the actual thing, but it is really just an illusion, presented from a single perspective. According to Socrates, painting fails to represent experience because it is static and fixed. There is no room to probe. There is no space for empathy. It is not interactive. “Similarly with written words,” Socrates said, referring to the elements of written language as if they were autonomous beings, “you may think they spoke as if they had some thought in their heads, but if you ever ask them about any of the things they say… they point to just one thing. The same each time.”
Thankfully, Socrates’s student Plato was a little more comfortable with technological change; he probably would have been a gamer. Plato recognized the importance of recording his teacher’s thoughts. And because he did—because he wrote down the dialogues of Socrates—I have the good fortune of being able to teach the philosopher’s ideas to undergraduate college students almost 2,500 years after they were spoken. Perhaps Plato understood that written language corresponded with a fundamental change in what it meant to live in the world as a human being. Perhaps he knew it would impact the ways we worked, played, and accomplished everyday tasks.
But was he right to ignore his teacher’s wishes and put Socrates’s words in writing? Maybe not. One could argue that history ultimately corroborated Socrates’s concerns. As twentieth-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” In other words, for almost 2,500 years we have been scouring Plato’s texts, trying to guess what, exactly, Socrates’s words really meant. Nobody can ever be certain. Interpretation after interpretation is published; one PhD after another is granted. But Socrates’s thinking remains evasive. Why? Because we cannot ask the man himself what he was trying to say. We cannot interact with the writing. Alas, all we have are words that “point to just one thing. The same each time.”
The great gadfly-philosopher may have been correct about the limitations of writing, but he missed the benefits. Plus, his resistance was ultimately futile because the shift from oral to written storytelling was inevitable. Just like the printing press, the mechanical clock, the train, the telegraph, the radio, the camera, and many other transformative technologies: by the time the critics could articulate their objections, it was already too late. Society had changed in ways that necessitated new tools. That’s generally how these things work. Human thinking changes; then, we build tools that help us interact with the world in ways that resonate with our new ways of thinking.
Tools do not use us, we use them. We are in control.
Still, we seem to have some primordial fear of our own creations. Robot uprisings. Clone wars. Time travel gone awry. There’s nothing quite like a good sci-fi disaster movie expressing the fear that human ingenuity will eventually lead to the creation of tools that threaten our supremacy. It is a story as old as innovation itself. Frankenstein was The Terminator of the nineteenth century. Jewish mystics in sixteenth-century Prague told the story of The Golem, in which a clay man, brought to life, wreaks havoc on the community. The ancient Greeks had Daedalus and Icarus.
These stories all represent the same technophobia that currently surrounds video games and digital play. Journalist Mark Kurlansky calls it the “technological fallacy: the idea that technology changes society.” To those of us living through a huge technological shift, it feels like machines are taking over our lives, dictating new behaviors, altering the ways we communicate with one another. But Kurlansky says, “It is exactly the reverse. Society develops technology to address the changes that are taking place within it… Technology is only a facilitator.”
What are the new technologies of the twenty-first century facilitating? For one thing, it is a shift in how we tell stories.
Digital interactive media allows for new methods of storytelling. And when you consider that the majority of our narrative content is really just recycled material—reoccurring narrative tropes, such as Frankensteinian technophobia—it becomes clear that the method we use for transmitting that material is even more significant than the content itself. Marshall McLuhan suggested as much in the 1960s. He famously wrote “the medium is the message” in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McLuhan was a scholar of communication theory who was interested in “the personal and social consequences” of a life lived with, and through, electronic media. He recognized that changes in communication technologies—written language, the printing press, the telegraph, the radio—always correspond with huge cultural shifts, not only in the way we think about our experiences in the world, but also in the way we organize our economic, social, and political structures.
It is from a broad cultural and historic perspective, like McLuhan’s, that I initially became interested in the question of digital play and the future of childhood. I was sitting on the sofa, playing New Super Mario Brothers with my sons, when it occurred to me that digital play will make their childhoods drastically different from mine. Their formative years will be lived with screens—portable game consoles, tablets, smartphones. They spend enormous amounts of time in front of these devices. Therefore, they will reach adulthood with an entirely unique set of seminal experiences. They will eventually take the world’s reins, thinking in ways that I cannot even comprehend. They will create a world that I can only barely envision.
So how do I prepare my children for a future I can’t imagine? How can I get them ready for a life lived through new technologies? What does it mean for every individual, family, school—in fact, for all of humanity—that entire generations of children are now being raised on video games, a new kind of bedtime story?
These are big questions, without easy answers. But they’re not new. Even when I was a kid, playing Q-Bert on my Atari 2600, almost every adult seemed to have an opinion about the way video games would impact children’s thinking. Mostly, they were worried. They were concerned that too much exposure would affect children’s fragile young psyches in negative ways. The grown-ups of the 1980s thought screens and games would rot kids’ brains and corrupt our moral fiber.
I am pretty sure that they were wrong. Screen time didn’t rot or corrupt anything. Still, the fear was understandable. It’s basic technophobia. Changing tools disrupt our habitual ways of being. New devices shepherd us toward an unfamiliar and therefore frightening future. There will always be people who see what’s new as a threat to the status quo. This is how ingenuity has always been greeted.
Consider Gutenberg’s printing press, which made it possible to distribute Martin Luther’s Bible, translated from ancient Greek/Hebrew into plain-language German. Looking back from our twenty-first-century perspective, we see the origins of modern media. We are grateful to Gutenberg for standardizing and democratizing the distribution of knowledge and information. We credit his invention as a critical pivot point in history, decentralizing power and leading to increased liberty and equality as well as the creation of modern democracy. But we completely overlook the negative consequences of print. We forget that the printed word led people toward a more private and isolated relationship with ideas. As cultural critic Mark C. Taylor explains, “Oral culture was of necessity more communal than print culture; with print and the advent of silent reading, people could wrap themselves in their own cocoons.” Folks living in the sixteenth century resisted the change. “Commenting on the solitude and isolation of the reading experience, some early critics of print sounded like today’s parents worried about their kids sitting alone in front of computer screens or mobile devices playing video games and texting with friends they rarely, if ever, see.” It’s almost funny how much twenty-first-century parents have in common with Gutenberg’s detractors.
Today’s grown-ups panic and fret about Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Discord, YouTube, or whatever digital platform-du-jour manages to capture preteen, tween, and teen imaginations. Almost every morning, when I open the news app on my smartphone, there is some fresh study, op-ed, or interview with an expert speculating on the impact of digital screen technology.
I have been that specialist. As a guest on hundreds of radio talk shows, I’ve listened to concerned parents, teachers, and caregivers call in and ask questions. Sounding exactly like the worried technophobes of centuries past, they are vexed about how digital play is defiling childhood, causing neurological damage, ruining eyesight, creating an obesity epidemic, triggering depression, and keeping our kids indoors. Are our kids losing the ability to reflect and be introspective? Does the speed and ease of digital communication prevent them from learning how to be good conversationalists? Are they learning to just log off rather than constructively resolving everyday conflicts? Will emoticons and 280-character tweets corrode literacy? Will easy, ready-at-hand access to constant interactive stimulation hinder the next generation’s ability to cultivate critical thinking skills?
The simple answer to all these questions is no. These concerns are predictable and clichéd. But still, I understand why some grown-ups worry. The entire encyclopedia, the arcade, the movie theater, and the telephone have all been smooshed down and crammed into a handheld device that kids can carry around in their pockets, and adults feel helpless. They see that learning, playing, entertainment, and dating have all changed, and they blame the technology. But the truth is that there is no need for blame. Childhood is just reconfiguring itself and adapting to new contexts.
The only problem is that grown-ups don’t know how to make sense of it, and therefore don’t know how to guide their children.
They have found themselves at a crossroads—worse, a multidirectional, nonlinear intersection. There is no road map, little precedent, and the traffic patterns are unfamiliar. Busy, overburdened parents and teachers end up navigating in all the wrong directions.
I get it. As a parent, I am constantly nervous. I recognize that changes in technology represent even larger cultural, economic, and political changes. But deep down, I also know that my kids will be just fine. In fact, without any help from me, they are already unconsciously preparing themselves for a very different world. They come home from school in the afternoons and the first thing they do is grab their laptops. They adore these machines with the same sense of pride that I once felt for my dirt bike and my Nike Air Jordan sneakers. And who can blame them? Computers are doorways that open up into a magical, limitless, connected world. My boys plop themselves down on opposite sides of the kitchen table, laptops between them. They log on to multiplayer online games like Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite. Then their afternoon adventures begin. Soon I overhear them planning the next few hours of their lives: “Do you want to do a role-play?” “Can’t we just play Hunger Games?” “Let’s call Dylan and Orion.” I hear familiar musical chimes as soon as Skype boots up. And in less than a minute, there are six or seven high-pitched preteen voices blasting through underpowered laptop speakers. My children are not outside goofing off with the neighbors’ children. They are not around the corner hitting a ball across the local sandlot. Instead, they are with their closest friends, inside the bezels of their devices, playing on virtual playgrounds.
This shift away from skateboards and scooters toward keyboards and touchscreens provokes anxiety. But for my children’s sake, I need to set aside my own knee-jerk fear of change and disruption. I need to recognize that most of us parents, teachers, caregivers—even politicians—are thinking about it all wrong. Despite being perfectly aware that every generation can and should play in unique ways, grown-ups are easily seduced by the nostalgic fantasy of a childhood that mirrors the one we remember. From our kids, we had hoped to see our own youth reflected back. As evidence, just think about the ongoing success of Star Wars, Super Mario Brothers, and every one of the Disney princesses. Entertainment companies know that we want our children to adore the same things we once loved, so successful legacy brands like LEGO and Nintendo thrive by updating products to make them feel fresh enough for a new generation, without losing the nostalgic familiarity that will stir the emotions of the grown-ups who carry credit cards. Lucasfilm and Disney both profit enormously from licensed toys, clothing, and video games that appeal to every adult’s desire for a second chance—a desire to provide our children with the coveted objects and experiences that we missed out on.
But some gifts can be curses in disguise.
As the great Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung once said, “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.” He recognized one of the eternal truths of child-rearing: in every generation, grown-ups unconsciously pressure children to live a life that mimics their own past but rectifies any and all shortcomings. When you consider Jung’s statement, thinking about how many of our parenting practices are more about the grown-ups’ egos than they are about kids’ well-being, it is hardly surprising that we get so worked up about new digital technologies. Laptops, tablets, and video games seem to seduce our impressionable children with mediocre replacements for what we considered to be the true golden artifacts of youthful joy.
How could today’s kids prefer JeromeASF’s Minecraft YouTube videos to Ren & Stimpy’s animated adventures? How could they choose video games like Madden, NBA Live, and FIFA over bubble-gum trading cards or tabletop foosball?
Are you ready for the hard-to-swallow truth? The new toys are more engaging because they involve a different way of interacting with the world, a different way of thinking, a different way of living, learning, and loving. They are preparing kids for a connected world.
Believe me, I know that most grown-ups don’t want to accept it. We would rather resist the new childhood, defending and protecting our precious memories. Embracing the childhood of the present can seem like a betrayal, as if we are turning our backs on the childhood of the past. If you are anything like me, you probably feel caught between an unconscious desire to safeguard your own imaginary inner tweenager (the memory of your own wounded prepubescent self) and a deep yearning to safely propel your real, present-day, flesh-and-blood offspring into the future. Moreover, you want to bond with your children, but the generational chasm between their interests and your own seems wider than ever.
This tension and confusion manifests as paranoia and fear about new media and technology.
It is an understandable and ordinary reaction. But if you let that anxiety consume you, soon you will hear yourself saying things you swore you would never say: “When are you going to grow up and stop staring at screens all day?” You will discover that you have become a lame killjoy, the old guard, a troll beneath the footbridge. Just like the grown-ups who always seemed to block your youthful ways, you will find you’ve taken up the antagonist’s role in the cyclical drama of youthful heroes battling ogre-kings.
Sons against fathers, daughters versus mothers, Jedi Knights slaying Sith Lords.
Just like Socrates, your words will end up bringing on the very thing you set out to prevent. You will become a limiting factor in your own children’s heroic lives.
Please don’t let that happen.
I know parenting is hard. Especially when you don’t really understand the game. There is no rule book describing what it is supposed to look like in the twenty-first century because digital play—like all the other transformative technological shifts that came before—is changing the very nature of child-rearing.
Parents, teachers, and caregivers all need to think critically and intentionally about how they can and should adjust their habits, expectations, and customs accordingly.
This book can help.
THE NEW STORY TIME
DURING MOST OF recorded history, humans have shared ideas in more or less the same way. We tell stories.
Almost everything we do has a storytelling component. Every account of the past is just a story that we hope frames the present day in the context of history. Each scientific paper is a story that offers an empirical description of the natural world. When your accountant finishes your tax return, she signs a story about your income, earnings, and expenses. A mathematical equation, a line of computer code, a grocery list, and a recipe can all be broadly understood as types of stories.
The technology we use to distribute these stories has changed many times. We’ve gone from telling stories orally to writing cuneiform on clay tablets; from using animal-skin parchment to using wood-based papers; from monastic scribes to the printing press; from scrolls to books; from feather quill to fountain pen; from the graphite pencil to the typewriter, to the word processor. But on a foundational level, the content of our stories has barely changed. Narrative has mostly remained linear. Novels. Lab reports. Complex equations. They always had beginnings, middles, and ends.
Until a few decades ago.
Now, multithreaded silicon processors and fiber-optic cable suddenly allow us to record and share knowledge differently. On the web, information no longer has the narrative arc that Aristotle laid out more than 2,000 years ago in his Rhetoric and Poetics. There is no reversal, no climax, no conclusion. Instead, queries open, they hyperlink endlessly around a digital web. Then, they hover permanently in the realm of networked possibilities. It’s nonlinear. And for all we know, this could represent another monumental shift for humanity. It could be as big as the transition to the written word or the printing press. It has already opened up new ways for us to interact with information and knowledge. It will continue to transform the way we think—the way we express ourselves.
How should we understand this shift to nonlinear storytelling? What does it mean for our kids? How does it change the ways in which we should prepare them for the future? What skills will they need to be successful adults? What behaviors will they need to comfortably contribute to society? To answer these questions, first we need to understand how digital interactive media works.
Don’t worry, I am not going to explain how monolithic integrated circuits (a.k.a. microchips) send signals across billions of tiny transistors. But if you engage with children—if you’re a parent, a teacher, or a caregiver—you do need to think about how digital play affects the kids for whom you are responsible. That means asking about a lot more than just what’s good and what’s bad. It means moving beyond the on/off-switch mentality that ordinarily accompanies conversations about “screen time.” It involves thinking critically about what is happening intellectually and emotionally when people engage with digital devices.
Rhetoric and Reading
Let’s start with video games. How should grown-ups think about them? How does gaming impact kids? One answer comes from Ian Bogost, a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He coined the term procedural rhetoric to describe how the process of going through a video game’s motions can persuade players to think in certain ways. It has to do with the way gamers embody particular ways of being. Unlike a traditional linear story—which is delivered by a storyteller or an author to an audience or a reader—Bogost argues that video games teach certain habits of mind by requiring players to act out specific procedures. It is the rules of the game that do the storytelling.
“While we often think that rules always limit behavior,” Bogost says, “the imposition of constraints also creates expression.” Think about the way that video games automatically enforce their rules. There is no need for the honor system, no need for an umpire. The game itself only allows certain kinds of play. In fact, because video-game rules are mechanically imposed, we sometimes cannot even identify them. We take the rules for granted. We think of them as part of the play space. For instance, we forget that only certain moves are permitted in Mortal Kombat, that players are allowed to take only a certain number of hits before they are eliminated, or that the dimensions of the play space are constrained. We hardly notice that the water into which Frogger plunges is just an area that is off-limits—the equivalent of stepping out of bounds. We do not think about the fact that Donkey Kong cannot leave the top level. Nevertheless, even when the rules seem invisible, they are always there. And we’re usually paying a lot of attention to them because playing well always involves learning to understand constraints that are mostly unseen. It requires that we shape our actions in ways that adhere to the design of the game.
Bogost’s concept of procedural rhetoric acknowledges the possibility that a game’s author, or developer, can use the gaming experience—created through the implementation of rules—to persuade players to think and construct meaning in certain ways. The word rhetoric may sound fancy, but it literally just means persuasion. “Just as verbal rhetoric is the practice of using oratory persuasively and visual rhetoric is the practice of using images persuasively,” Bogost writes, “procedural rhetoric is a general name for the practice of authoring arguments through processes.” He wants us to realize that games do not just create experiences; they also make arguments.
It works subtly, the same way a novelist like J. K. Rowling can manipulate our emotions by determining how much she wants us to know, and how much she wants to conceal, about Harry Potter and Hogwarts at any given time. It is also similar to the way Steven Spielberg builds cinematic tension. At first, his camera reveals only Jeff Goldblum’s face; then, slowly, it pans to reveal the Jurassic dinosaurs. Like a novel or a movie, a video game always limits players’ perspectives. It forces them to view digital spaces in certain ways. Unlike a novel or a movie, video games can also limit players’ actions, forcing them to solve problems in specific ways. Thus, a game is always pressuring us to think and make certain kinds of decisions—reinforcing thought patterns that, presumably, impact the way we make decisions even outside of the game world.
At first, this may sound like the same argument that angry politicians, activists, and critics often make against video games—that going through the motions of violence, in a procedural and immersive way, encourages violent behavior. Kids who play first-person shooter games like Call of Duty,
- "Timely, essential, and thought-provoking, The New Childhood is the must-read parenting guide for raising 21st century, digitally driven kids. Instead of raising a white flag and giving in to social media and the Internet, Jordan Shapiro tells parents how to embrace technology, stay involved in their children's lives, and prepare them for their future. Read it! I promise you'll rethink your parenting. I couldn't put it down"—Michele Borba, EdD, author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed In Our All-About-Me World
- "For those who lament what the 'app generation' may lack, Jordan Shapiro offers a timely, reassuring scenario."—Howard Gardner
- "The New Childhood is a must-read for parents and educators! It's an incredible resource for developing healthy families and kids in today's technology-enabled world, and pushes us beyond clinging to rules, traditions, and practices developed for a different era."—Wendy Kopp, CEO and co-founder of Teach For All and founder of Teach For America
- Placing modern child-rearing in the context of the long story of human cultural adaption, this manual makes the challenges of screens more approachable, and the adult role in meeting them clearer."—Publishers Weekly
- "[The New Childhood] offers bearings to parents floundering in the new digital landscape and suggests clear actions they can take to help their children to thrive both in childhood and later life."—Forbes
- On Sale
- Dec 31, 2018
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little Brown Spark