On Monday, I interviewed a small business owner for a story I’m working on about remote learning and how parents in Oak Park are coping. The man has two young sons, 8 and 11, who attend District 97 schools. With learning now wholly remote, their class is a small room in the back of their father’s South Boulevard office suite, where the two boys sat side by side looking at screens. A half-eaten pizza, their lunch for the day, lay on a table inches away from them.
I had been in the room for barely 10 minutes, when I felt an intense urge to leave. I felt confined, hemmed in. I can only imagine how the boys felt. This pixelated and constricted new normal, for many young people, is school in the time of COVID-19. For many adults, it is our work life. And for all of us it seems, it is also play.
Take me, for instance.
There are times when I am working, which necessarily means sitting at a computer, from morning to midnight. To break the monotony, I’ll walk a few feet to another chair, plop in front of the Samsung, and watch a few hours of Netflix or Hulu or YouTube TV. Sometimes, I’ll just stay at the computer and leisurely browse the web.
When I was in college, I took a course on postmodern literary criticism. That’s the type of class that makes it easy to mock and dismiss the study of humanities.
“Information is not knowledge, it is making-known, and this has its counterpart in making-out-that-one-knows — in pretend knowledge,” writes the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard in a passage that is relatively prosaic compared to his other sentences, believe it or not.
But aside from the frustratingly uninviting quality of the prose, the thinkers I read in that class, I’m realizing now, gave me the language and the context for understanding the reality (or unreality) we’re living in today.
Post-modernism is what comes after premodern, which is when religious belief dominated people’s thinking about the world and why it existed, and modernism, which is when people’s belief in scientific, technological and economic progress replaced religion as a way to frame our thinking about the world and our place in it.
With post-modernism, according to a handy primer I found online from St. Leonard’s College, “there is no objective truth,” “truth is a construct,” “everything is constructed from our interactions with and experiences of the world,” and “there are no absolutes — no ‘good’ or ‘evil’, just perspectives and accepted (but not necessarily provable) ‘truths’.”
In 1991, Baudrillard wrote that the Gulf War, the military action executed by George H.W. Bush, wasn’t real, despite the countless dead and suffering.
“Unlike the Vietnam War that brought the suffering of people on television screens, the Gulf War was, according to Baudrillard, ‘a shameful and pointless hoax, a programmed and melodramatic version of what was the drama of war.’ In the First Gulf War, hyperreality replaced the real reality and formed the reality for the inhabitants of the virtual civilisation [sic],” writes Pakistani columnist Aziz Ali Dad.
Another very relevant case in point, given last week’s 19th anniversary of 9/11, is former president George W. Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech in 2003, when he claimed victory in the Iraq War and the War on Terror — despite the fact that both wars are still happening. Or are they?
The media has long moved on to amplify more pressing post-modern terrain, such as whether masks are symbols of a creeping totalitarianism of the Left. And the threat of Climate Change. Is it real or is it fake? And QAnon …
We live in a world in which reality comes to most of us through mediation — Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, Fox News, MSNBC, YouTube, Apple iMacs, Google Chromebooks, etc.
“Nearly 27 years after Baudrillard’s essays were published, our perceptions have almost been colonised by the virtual world,” Dad continues. “Today, ours is a world dominated by virtual reality in which social media has become an important medium to interact with the ‘network milieu’. It is a rite of passage from a solid reality into a virtual one.”
As an education reporter, I think often about what this reality is doing to kids, especially very young ones.
Nathan J. Robinson, the founder of Current Affairs, captures the implications of this virtual reality on children’s educational videos in his searing critique of Blippi, who is essentially the Trump-era equivalent of Mr. Rogers and Pee Wee Herman.
In “The Dead World of Blippi,” Robinson, who claimed to have watched hours of Blippi videos, concluded that the children’s educational character, played by Air Force veteran Stevin John, is “from Death World.”
The “Blippiverse,” like the Gulf War and the War on Terror and Disneyland, is a world in which imagery and symbolism, rather than representing an underlying reality, is itself the reality — much like a Facebook or Twitter post.
“There is a certain lifelessness in Blippi’s videos,” Robinson writes. “Nature is non-present, having been ground up to make machines and plastic toys. There are a few sad animals left in aquariums and zoos for us to go look at and measure and weigh. The world is made of commodities, not people or wild animals, and not only does Blippi not seem very interested in playing with or talking to children, but the people who make all the stuff that Blippi is interested in are all but invisible.”
Robinson drives his point home by comparing Blippi videos to children’s programming of old — Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street.
Blippi lacks the sincerity of Mr. Rogers and even of Barney and Pee Wee, Robinson writes. Mr. Rogers, for instance, “understood that even very young children are intelligent and emotional creatures and that their lives can be difficult and complicated. Rogers dealt with things like: how to solve problems, how to get through hard times, what to do when someone you know is sick.”
The old educational content is the kind of stuff that we used to take for granted as pathways to adulthood, but that we now call “executive functioning” and that we have to force-feed to kids in the form of a curriculum and that I have to force-feed myself, at times, in the form of pep talks in front of the bathroom mirror (‘do the laundry, you’ll think better,’ I say).
As I’ve become more conscious of my own quarantine habits, I’ve started to modify them a bit, forcing myself to peel away from the screen and take walks in the real world, for instance.
And when I’m on the internet or looking at Netflix, I’ll direct my focus toward content like Nathan Robinson’s essay at currentaffairs.com or the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” which is a terrifying lesson about what all of these screens are doing to our minds.
And for those with kids, especially young ones, I humbly recommend old episodes of Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers over Blippi.