The couple on the next table wanted to eat their meal in peace and gave their little daughter a tablet. The electronic babysitter had done its job excellently: The child became glued to the cartoon and stared at the screen, hypnotized.
I smiled when I remembered how my older daughter in such cases would have been given a book, my younger, a decade later, already a portable DVD player.
While the waiter was settling the bill, I stared at the video the child was watching under the YouTube logo. Brightly colored characters bumped against each other and a cacophony of voices screamed away. As I was leaving, I tried to sneak another glance to determine the title of the clip, but it seemed to be just a string of the most popular Google keywords.
I began inquiring and found an excellent article written by James Bridle about the world of YouTube, which we adults don’t come into contact with at all, but children are constantly exposed to. They have plenty of time and, most of all can watch the same clip ad infinitum.
The rules of the game for creators are simple: clicks have replaced the editors, curators, and accountants. Clicks are popularity equal quality equal money. It’s simple for the viewer too: you don’t pay, so you don’t expect much,
Results in children’s offering are predictable. With animation a slow and time-consuming process and children lacking the experience with which they could compare quality, anything goes. Randomly shuffled parts of pirated cartoons, robot voice shouting out random words over random images and so on. The titles are merely strings of keywords without making any real sense, just as the products themselves. It all looks as if a program randomly picks the pieces and glues them together.
Just as you think that you have come across some intolerable and therefore obscure nonsense, you spot the number of views: 155,596,549.
The first problem is the undoubted violence of this insufferable crap – to attract the child’s attention, everything is exaggerated, loud, characters merely bumping into each other. Their heads and legs fall off and they stick themselves back in place and so on forever.
Our brain is made for stories and the quality of our psychological state is measured by how in balance our story is with reality and how well its individual parts fit together.
In its first five years of development, the child’s brain is a sponge which absorbs everything it can from the environment. This is how customs, habits, social norms, culture as a whole (in an anthropological sense) are passed on.
I was a child which nobody really paid much attention to. I spent hours sitting in a corner looking at the comics and although I could not read, I would follow the pictures and create my own story.
Sometimes I missed the point, sometimes I guessed it – the essence is in the fact that I had access to a structured story which had a beginning and an end, fragments which formed a whole.
If I was now left alone for a few years with access to YouTube instead, I would be bombarded with fragments but could never be able to compose them into a whole.
Because there is no whole, no meaning, anymore.
At this moment, millions of children are staring at a nonsensical screen. It thunders and it screams, to attract their hearing, it moves and flashes to catch their eye. They are being fed huge volumes of mind food without a single calorie of the sense.
You can read many articles about children exposed to video violence and the complaints of concerned parents. I feel that the exposure to chance impulses is even worse. The brain is created for unraveling rules and if it is unable to set them, it scatters into paranoia and conspiracy theories.
Many people are concerned about the moment artificial intelligence will prevail over human intelligence and imagine scenes from the films about the Terminator. It is likely, however, that the real damage to humankind will come from an entirely different direction, silently and innocently – for does a child who is exposed to computer-generated content grow up as a human or a computer?
Nobody knows what will happen with children who have no narrators of stories but are fed computer trash. Will they, as adults, fall into depression? Will they only find meaning in nihilism? Will everything for them be a conspiracy? Will they be the ideal consumers with zero attentiveness? The greatest cultural experiment in the history of the humankind is just going on without anyone noticing it.
They used to think that monkey hitting keys at random for an infinite amount of time would almost surely type the complete works of William Shakespeare. In reality, YouTube storytelling for young children has come up with a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Photo: Andy Kelly