Last month I wrote about the unease and apprehension that the internet and social media have inspired, within society and even in the precincts of Hollywood. The story so far is that, after marvelling at the massive new fortunes made by entities like Facebook and Twitter, we’ve begun worrying that moving parts of our social and emotional life online might not be healthy for us, and definitely won’t do any favours for our kids.
This was echoed in a piece published in the New York Times in September, titled “Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent.” The writer, a veteran at covering the tech industry, remembers that the late Apple CEO once told him that his own home was relatively free of the iPods and iPads that had made his fortune, and that his children had severely limited access to the technology that those devices had put into the hands of billions.
His curiosity piqued, he asked around other tech industry giants and found that they, too, put strict limits on the use of technology in their home. “My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, and they say that not one of their friends have the same rules,” says Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired magazine and now head of a drone maker.
“That’s because we’ve seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it myself, and I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”
There’s the pornography and online bullying, of course, but also the spectre of online addiction, which the Times piece paints as the most worrying possible outcome.
This instance of pro-level parenting from our elites might not have resonated with me if I hadn’t read something similar in the Times several months earlier, in an op-ed piece by the paper’s house conservative, Ross Douthat, titled “Social Liberalism as Class Warfare.”
Douthat reflects that it’s ironic – in a generic, workaday sort of way – that the people who work in industries (entertainment, the media) that retail stories and songs set in the post-family, post-Christian world of easy sex and deferred responsibility often live their own lives with standards of restraint and conventional morality that they’ve defined, by their own yardsticks, as “conservative.
“They get to profit off various forms of exploitation directly,” Douthat writes, “because sex sells and shock value attracts eyeballs. And then they also reap benefits indirectly – because the teaching they’re offering to the masses, the vision of the good life, is one that tends to ratify existing class hierarchies, by encouraging precisely the behaviors and choices that in the real world make it hard to rise and thrive.
“In this sense, one might suspect our cultural elites of being a little bit like the Silicon Valley parents who send their kids to computer- free schools (italics mine): They don’t mind pushing the moral envelope in the shows they greenlight and the songs they produce, because they’re confident that their own kids have the sophistication to regard Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus as amusements rather than role models, the social capital required to keep the culture’s messages at arm’s length.”
Douthat paints a vision of a liberal elite pulling up the ladders after retreating into their own moated and high-walled keep, leaving the peasants outside to the depredations of invading barbarians and – even worse – themselves. He doesn’t dare suggest that it’s a conspiracy – he doesn’t doubt the elite liberal conviction that their worldview would make the one we all share a better one – but finds it hard to ignore the peculiar effects of holding their own children and others to different standards.
“What I’m describing isn’t literally a class war,” Douthat says, which is a shame, but Americans in particular have a difficult time talking about the c-word, to their detriment. “But it really does have winners. And they’re the ones most likely to insist, with great passion and conviction, that we can’t possibly learn anything from the social rules and laws and norms that held sway in American’s more equal and more mobile past.”
For most people reading this, I’m preaching to the converted. It’s been a long time since the mainstream products of both the entertainment and media industries catered to our convictions and standards, and parental restrictions on TV use and library reading were a dry run for those on internet and gadget time years before our kids had heard of Pinterest or Snapchat.
But most of us don’t have the luxury of withdrawing into gated communities or private schools or the echo chamber of ideologically homogenous work environments. We live with the growing majority of people who’ve embraced the message they’ve been sold for over a generation, and our children spend their daylight hours with them in schools that have come to echo that message. Seeing how people living with the highest incomes and the easiest access to power and prestige have covertly endorsed our own choices isn’t a sign of either truce or progress, and it definitely isn’t an excuse to feel smug.