Monday, 3 October 2011

Digital divides, Play and Object relations

My daughter, who is 11, belongs to a generation who do not know a world without the internet. Along with her classmates, much of her private social life is online. But, then again, so is her dad's! There is a lot of modelling practice going on, and many of her friends seem to be joining in too. But of course, there are those that don't.

There has been much discussion about digital natives/digital immigrants. If I prefer Dave White's version of "residents" and "visitors" it's because "living with dad" for my daughter means being continually exposed to the online world as 'normal' in a way where in many other cases, this simply isn't the case. But actually, what's rather unsatisfying about all these distinctions is their superficiality - their inability to express more deeply the biological, social and psychological mechanisms that lead to observable changes in behaviour.

The central issue is not to do with online behaviour: transforming immigrants to natives, or visitors to residents all-too-often has a justificatory ring about it as learning technologists chase their next round of funding. Instead, I think the issue is to do with human identity and the cultivation of personality, and that has a much deeper tradition of thought than skin-deep socio-technical distinctions.

The tradition belongs to psychoanalysis. In particular, those aspects of psychoanalysis which have focused on the developing child, their play, their relationships, the objects they play with and the emergence of self. In this territory we find work going back to Freud, and that of his daughter. Bowlby also saw himself going 'back to Freud' in that he wanted to re-establish psychoanalysis on the grounds of observable phenomena. For Bowlby, attachments were observable manifestations of the outer-world from which the inner-world might be theoretically explored. Winnicott, whose emphasis on objects and play is distinct from Bowlby's concerns, speculates about inner-world mechanisms which have an impact on outer-world behaviours. Then there are the larger-scale concerns about selfhood and individuation which occupy the thoughts of Jung, Fromm and, from the social perspective, Illich.

Computers for children are largely play-things. As with other play-things, child engagement with them is a process of the development of self. Children 'play with reality' with computers: their facebook pages and Skype messages explore differences between different identities. They discover the inter-relationship between online action and real behaviour in the playground. However, as we all know, play with the internet is not risk-free in the sense that play with Lego is. Unlike play in a group, play on the internet is deeply individualised. In playing with the internet, children are exposed to the individual risks of public action. It may be that the discovery of self in this way can be existentially challenging in ways which might be harmful.

The presence of risk in online play is something new. Although risk has always accompanied childrens' games to some extent (the childrens' games explored by the Opie's are not always risk-free), the risks are usually of cuts and bruises, not psychological trauma.

I am interested in the creation of environments for online play which manage risk by being genuinely convivial. These environments are not individualised, but collaborative: the interactions that individuals make with objects are always in the context of a shared creative space. I wonder if creating environments for risk-free play for children, we might increase the chances that adults themselves might find ways of harnessing their own creativity. The digital divide is a division of self: the self that can play, and the self that is burdened with risk.

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