Friday, March 5, 2010

Foolish People

Once again, I have Chris Matyszczyk's Technically Incorrect blog on CNET News to thank for bringing my attention to one of the darker corners of the world the Internet has made and then providing me with the opportunity to disagree with his interpretation of the situation. The title of his latest post is "When gaming is accused of causing baby's death." In good journalistic style Matyszczyk wastes no time in laying out the basic facts in the story he is considering:

Does technology make people behave in sick and demented ways? Or is the mere existence of certain technologies an excuse for sick and demented people to practice their sick dementia?

I wonder because of a story reported by the Sun, in which a Korean couple, the man in his forties and woman in her twenties, allegedly neglected their own child because they would spend 12 hours a day in Internet cafes. Their favored game was called Prius. (I have embedded an excerpt below.)

Within Prius, they were able to raise a virtual child. Their own child, 3 months old, was reportedly left at home alone. The baby girl died. She was allegedly given only one bottle of milk a day.

He then proceeds to elaborate on the context of the story, all in the interest of trying to come to a reasonable answer to the initial questions he posed. My fear, however, is that his conclusion is more gratuitous than reasoned:

This was the story of parents who couldn't be bothered to raise their child because they had something better to do. For them, gaming held greater significance than raising their daughter. Gaming didn't make them behave foolishly. They were just foolish people who happened to be gamers.

As one who is always reading for style as well as substance, it was hard for me to avoid reading this as a stylistic paraphrase of the infamous motto of the National Rifle Association:

Guns don't kill people; people kill people.

In other words, the conclusion was a short and sweet conclusion that dismisses any suggestion of underlying complexity, rather like (in the spirit of the Lenten season) Pontius Pilate concluding his interrogation of Jesus by asking "What is truth?" and washing his hands of the matter (my favorite metaphor in the entire Biblical canon). One way to bring that complexity to light may be to turn from Pilate to William Shakespeare, specifically to the second act of Twelfth Night and that letter mischievously written to deceive Malvolio:

Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

One of the delights of this particular play is that, as the narrative unfolds, we realize that this precept can be turned on its head: It is as applicable to foolishness as it is to greatness.

To accuse the couple who chose to spend more time with a virtual child than their own physical offspring as "just foolish people who happened to be gamers" misses the more important point. Why were they foolish people? Were they both born that way and became a married couple through some particular twist of Darwinian selection? It is hard (but not impossible) to imagine that they may have committed themselves to "achieving" foolishness; but, when we consider all the media messages that bombarded them, almost immediately after their respective births, it is easy to hypothesize that their foolishness had been thrust upon them. I may grant Matyszczyk's proposition that gaming did not make them behave foolishly, at least to the extent that it was not the sole cause. However, we should consider viewing them as actors in a setting for a narrative similar to one about how drug dealers grow their customer base by getting more people hooked on their wares. In other words their foolishness was thrust upon them by a context rich in technology toys that are as addictive as heroin. In other words this is nothing more than another story about a couple of junkies (who happen to be married to each other) who are more concerned about getting the next fix than about nurturing their own offspring.

From this point of view, we should spend less time wringing our hands over gaming technology and more reconsidering the messages of the HBO Addiction Project. We can only deal with problems of addiction by first understanding the nature of addiction itself, which was the primary objective of the series of films that HBO produced. As I observed when those films were first aired, through that understanding we are likely to see more opportunities for and instances of addiction than we might have previously imagined; and technology is responsible for many of those opportunities. In other words it will only be through achieving a better understanding of addictive behavior that we can get to the heart of why those who have foolishness thrust upon them should respond so willingly to it.

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