Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Who's Your Daddy?

Apparently I spoke too soon when I was exulting over the death of DOPA, the dopey once majority-approved federal legislation designed to block access to "social networking" sites from computers housed in schools and libraries -- which looked to be destined for passage over the objections of librarians, literacy specialists, and gay and lesbian advocates who know that the Internet can be a lifeline for teens seeking information and community, authorship and activism, although the bill abruptly died in the Senate after the Fall election. As a response to threats of regulatory oversight, I particularly liked these positive suggestions from librarians for how such online social networking practices can be used to improve both the print and the electronic media literacy of the young.

Unfortunately, now we have the even worse Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, brought to us by none other than that "expert" on the electronic culture, Ted Stevens, who memorably once described the Internet, which the rest of us think of as a global distributed network for the exchange of digital information, as "a series of tubes." To add insult to injury, he even labels these widespread Web 2.0 social media tools as "trendy" in the "findings" section of the actual text. (See Senator Stevens' concern for Alaskan wildlife that is represented by the image above.)

As Marianne Richmond points out on BlogHer, this proposed law reconstitutes all the bad parts of DOPA, while also throwing in elements of various decency acts that emphasize redundant approaches to child pornography like fines and federal notification. Although it does include some seemingly laudable sections prohibiting the sale of private information about children, it actually rewards a number of particularly rapacious commercial sectors of the Internet by emphasizing overpriced proprietary screening software at the expense of any real collective discussion of communal norms.

Of course, it's not surprising that lawmakers are so eager to jump on the traditional media bandwagon when even The New York Times publishes more anti-teens+technology stories, such as today's "Teenagers Misbehaving Online, For All to Watch." Spotlight-chasing Congressional witness Perry Aftab is quoted in the story making prurient comments like “you have girls at slumber parties taking pictures of each other in their bras and panties, and somehow the shots wind up on a porn site.” As I've pointed out before, the Times rarely runs positive stories about teens and technology and actually favors building entire multi-part series about youngsters involved in kiddie porn or identity theft via the Internet.

I'm certainly no libertarian, but I do resent the government's incursion into educational settings in the guise of serving as a surrogate parent for me and the way that these forms of gated digitality enforce oppressive hierarchies of knowledge control and exclusion from civic participation of both minors and low-income residents who depend on public resources. Legislation against file-sharing and videogame play also seems contrary to my basic principles to encourage full family participation in an emerging virtual culture.

We don't always agree, but I was interested to read my fellow SIGGRAPH panelist's meditations on the subject of parenting at Gaming Literacy, Parenting, etc. I think IGDA President Jason Della Rocca is right to want raise the profile of options for digital play that might develop among the preschool set and their care-givers. As Della Rocca says, "the motivation is NOT to produce ever younger consumers for the mainstream game industry, but more digitally literate youth that can learn/do more via serious games." After all, how many of us as parents want the digital literacy of our kids limited just to wielding relatively non-interactive digital products like A Children's Camera that Lets Piglet Say Cheese?

Update: There is a good review of these issues by Henry Jenkins in an essay on his blog called "The Only Thing We Have to Fear."

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