The State of Play – 27 January 2012

We have an event at Gloucester in a couple of weeks, for which I have written the following spiel.

Technology, innocence and experience: Walter Benjamin on ‘the child’ and play

This presentation will introduce the work of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) as a way of exploring concerns about technology, innocence and authenticity in childhood and children’s play. For Benjamin, the figure of ‘the child’ was a recurrent and ambiguous theme in his critical cultural theory and philosophy, representing elements of both a Romantic yearning for lost innocence but also a hope for a materially better future. Against the contemporary moral panics about children’s use of certain toys and technologies, this presentation will explore how technologies of touch, vision, creativity and lived experience can be understood as vital and beneficial aspects of children’s play for a ‘posthuman’ 21st century.

Now just need to write the paper/presentation.


4 thoughts on “The State of Play – 27 January 2012

  1. good luck with that.

    I mean it, both snarkily and in a friendly way. that’s not a gig I would’ve chosen.

    I suppose mainly because I don’t buy ‘post-human’. Greg Egan writes sf (not SF sf, just sf, as in skiffy as in scifi) about a transhuman or posthuman universe in which humans upload themselves into mainframes and travel across the galaxies and stuff. I loved some of his early short work (the cutie is a brilliant gene tech horror story) but this virtual cyberspace malarkey leaves me cold.

    of course I may be completely misunderstand your use of the term post-human.

    I just think we need to reconnect with our physicality, with nature, with others. I hope that this is a growing trend, a backlash against the life cybernetic, the life online, the friends who we only ever meet in facebookspace not IRL*

    in Frank Herberts Dune (written in 1963) there is a movement called the Butlerian Jihad (BJ). Herbert was a keen early adopter of the PC. He wrote a guide to getting the best out of your PC, troubleshooting and stuff. And he was also a huge critic of computerisation, from a perspective of deep involvement and experience.

    The BJ was the backlash against over-computerisation, which in sf terms meant a battle between cyborgs [like terminators or the borg on star trek] and us ordinary humans. In the time after the backlash humans were trained to compute, and thinking machines were outlawed. given that thinking machines in the form of trading software used by merchant banks caused a global crisis which we are still suffering I say give me a BJ now!

    when a child plays super mario, who plays the child? who is playing who? or what is playing you?

    just a couple of last quick points:

    1. I don’t think my perspective can be EASILY dismissed as just a moral panic about computer games or suchlike

    2. like Herbert I use computers, I depend on computers, I have had to deal with addictive aspects of my use, and, I will maintain, I am an informed and consenting user of them.

    I am a Faust who has seen his lawyer before signing the pact! Informed consent is a useful notion to apply to ‘new’ technologies, I feel.

    Again thanks for stimulating my thoughts here.

    *IRL = in real life, an acronym you don’t see much these days.


  2. Heh, cheers as always Arthur.

    I do make a distinction between posthuman(ism) and transhuman(ism). It’s not just my own distinction but also one that Cary Wolfe ( and David Roden ( have made.

    It’s more about “problematising” (love that word) the concept of the human, and of humanism*, rather than about the technological desire to transcend the human and become something else. This latter idea I associate with the label transhumanism.

    * “humanism” I treat as a synonym for anthropocentrism.

    The relevance of the word posthuman in the context of this abstract comes from a book review by Roy Kozlovsky

    Kozlovsky, R. (2010) Review of Frost, A History of Children’s Play and Play Environments…, American Journal of Play, Spring, pp478-81

    where he talks about having a twenty-first century, less technophobic strategy for play advocacy. The vast majority of play advocacy I see at the moment is of the “back to nature” ilk, which is ok in itself but perhaps only half the story and not as philosophically interesting to me (except in the criticism) as the more techno-positive stuff.

    But yes, the term ‘moral panic’ is perhaps a little antagonistic here. Not everyone who critiques technologism is having a Mary Whitehouse/Daily Mail (or even Neil Postman)-style hissy fit about it, of course not.

    Ironically, the ecological thought about humanity as natural and as needing to be ecologically grounded in nature is just as ‘posthuman’ in Wolfe’s sense as any pro-techno tract.


  3. Me again FB.

    ”The vast majority of play advocacy // is of the “back to nature”ilk, //not as philosophically interesting to me (except in the criticism) as the more techno-positive stuff.“

    Ah, good. important distinction.

    I do get very fed up with the hug a tree, knit your own yurt, man make fire vibe. In terms of the human lifecycle it’s an adolescent male archetype. (Yes I know girls climb trees too, although they should always remember to wear pants.) Eventually you want to come down off the mountain, not have to go out and wrestle a wuluf just to get yer tea.

    ”less technophobic strategy for play advocacy“ I agree.

    I’d like to think that’s what mine is.

    So while I will agree with you on that, I still want to restrict screen-based malkarkey.

    If that makes me an anthropocentric ‘humanist’ then so be it.

    how? Well, by self-control and the richness of offered alternatives, not by diktat or ofsted.

    again: by informed consent. informed being the key word.

    The forest thing is one end, and WoW is the other. I’d like a play advocacy for the middle, in at least 3 senses.

    I will disagree with you on the post-trans-human thing. I think with your post- v trans-human distinction, you are trying to have cake and consume.

    I am not, unlike that utter pillock Kevin ‘world’s first cyborg’ Warwick or Jerome Lanier when he is off on one, or Craig Ventner, I am not keen to be any more plugged into cyberspace than I already am, nor do I want cyborged bits added to my bod, ta very much.

    I want a Butlerian Jihad. I don’t want kids learning to use Microsoft’s shitty second-rate products in our schools, I want them building their own computers not editing spreadsheets of snackbar sales.

    I want computers to be an extension of, not a replacement for humanity. I like bicycles, don’t like driverless trains on the DLR.

    Your job will be taken by the machines soon, Francis. Open learning, blended learning, programmed learning – all ways to take your job away and give it to a machine. eBooks, iPads interactive thingy.

    The machines have taken huge swathes of work from humans, and those humans have not been freed by that technology, We don’t have the 15 hr working week within a life of technolo-leisure, we have T-city and the Hive, blobby humans on minimum wage stacking shelves, going home to takeaway pizza and X factor. That Charlie Brooker thing on Channel 4 recently covered it pretty well, not the PM’s pig-f*ck one, the second one, with the X-factor theme.

    Have you noticed how the techno-pedlars vision of the future hasn’t changed for about 20 years? It’s all jumpsuits (aka ‘onesies’) and white gleaming apartments with huge floor to ceiling windows (like a Grand Designs theme park) and massive telly’s and talking to your fridge, which is connected to the interweb, about lunch. One pillock last week was on about a fridge that could work out recipes based on the contents of your fridge. Have you seen the contents of my fridge? I know what recipe can use the contents of my fridge, it’s my amazing ‘kipper and cheesy chips and cheese topped old pizza slice’ recipe. File under ‘really stupid ideas’.

    Although self-correcting techno contact lenses would be cool, I can’t use contacts because my eyes are too dry, and my scrip is way out of date.

    But think about it. What if my self-correcting techno contact lenses, with and without the 30x zoom feature were available? What do you think they would cost? I’m guessing £5k once they are available in UK opticians rather than Swiss clinics. Same bracket as a Lexus.

    William Gibson, who you really ought to read, especially the new one, ‘Zero History’, famously said:

    ”The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed’.“

    Go to Timbuktu and it’s 1615, in Calcutta it’s 1850, in the depths of the Amazonian rainforest it’s 400BC, in my 82 year old mum’s house it’s 1979, and in Tokyo and Cupertino it’s 2025.

    Time-travel is available; you just need to be rich. My mum lives in 1979 because she can’t afford to live now. Up the Amazon, the rifle is new technology.

    OK, that rambled a bit.

    My key point, which I don’t think you’re picking up on fully, is that the role of ‘new’ technology in our children’s lives needs to be as carefully examined as guns and knives and dangerous dogs.

    ”technologies of touch, vision”, creativity and lived experience can be understood as vital and beneficial aspects of children’s play for a ‘posthuman’ 21st century.“

    I submit that the automatic rifle is in a different category to the hammer. The hammer can be used to build as well as kill, and is rarely used to kill. The automatic rifle is used to kill; it has no utility outside of killing, with the possible exception of doorstop.

    Screen-based technologies are hammers, I’m not saying that they are dangerous weapons, but I am saying that they are dangerous tools.

    Why is that every new application of IT we see on the telly, turns out to mean unemployment for the poor and profits for the rich? They tell us anybody can produce an ebook, but only Amazon is making the money.

    I’m not saying that ‘technologies of touch, vision’, (I’m leaving out creativity and lived experience because don’t understand your meaning) can’t be beneficial, I’m just saying that the track record makes it improbable.

    Still enjoying this, nice to be able to disagree nicely.

    Can you say more about a ‘twenty-first century, less technophobic strategy for play advocacy?

    (Preferably without telling me Susan Greenfield is wrong – which she is, not in her concern but in her flaky science, or that technology is central to that strategy rather than important but marginal to it)



  4. Arthur, you are very prompt with your replies – I have much to learn about synchronicity as an essential aid to good conviviality and conversation online (albeit in this case we seem to be doing OK even with the long breaks).

    I do have a few things I might say in response, but I will wait till I have written up my talk as a proper thing as that will help me clarify where I am at (currently). I am not sure we will disagree much in the end, perhaps in style or temperament more than in substance. I don’t know.

    Anyway for now I will echo your “it’s nice to disagree nicely” and I hope you will be joined by other commenters in time too, as I have now started to release this site, gingerly, into the wild.


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