What It Takes

What It Takes

Bullshit Incorporated

By Shawn Coyne | Published: December 9, 2011

A story titled “A Silicon Valley School that Doesn’t Compute” appeared above the fold on page A1 of the Sunday October 23rd edition of The New York Times. The byline was Matthew D. Richtel’s, a San Francisco-based technology reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for “Driven to Distraction,” a series of articles that detailed the dangers of texting and dialing cell phones while driving. According to his Times bio, Richtel’s series had the biggest impact of anything the paper of record published in 2009. Two hundred State bills were proposed that banned driver seat texting or phoning as a result of Richtel’s expose.

But Big Telecom wasn’t as thrilled with the story as the Pulitzer people. The income from car cell phone use was not an insignificant portion of its revenue, especially with the trending escalation of daily work commute minutes. Not until legislation was properly massaged by its political action committees did the Telecommunications industry join the “don’t touch your cell phone in the car” crusade. Ultimately, the solution to the dilemma came in the form of a product—the hands-free headset.

Without wires and without a keypad, the hands-free device “safely” keeps drivers connected to the digital cloud. Hence the onslaught of public service announcements (sponsored by phone networks) warning us of the danger of drivers using phones without hands-free headsets. And the introduction of Apple’s new 4S Siri application that responds incredibly well to voice commands. And this.

A problem—car accidents resulting from distracted drivers—is brought to light by intrepid investigative journalism.  Legislators solve the problem with the help of big business. A Win for journalism. A Win for government.  And a Win for Verizon, ATT, Sprint, Motorola, Apple etc. Win/Win/Win. A feel good story indeed.

But don’t most of us agree that it’s kind of bullshit that you only need one of your senses (sight) to drive safely?

What the heck, though, if buying something will save lives and keep some Americans working (even if the headsets are made in Curacao) then put me down for the $14.95 model with the extra ear buds. There is no way I can juggle my life without phone and Internet access in my car. Whether or not that is true for you, we as adults understand the Realpolitik of the American economy…there’s a little bullshit in everything, even public service announcements. See Princeton Professor Harry Frankfurt’s book for a more philosophical examination of bullshit.

More recently, Timesman Matthew Richtel was intrigued by the makeup of The Waldorf School of the Peninsula. He discovered that seventy five percent of the school’s attendees were the children of Silicon Valley’s best and brightest. Apple, Google, Yahoo, eBay, and Hewlett-Packard’s innovators—not to mention the valley’s incubating start-up entrepreneur class—sent their kids to Waldorf.

In the commercial parlance of contemporary journalism, Richtel must have recognized that Waldorf had the potential for the “school for the future billionaire intelligentsia profile story.” Always an editorial crowd pleaser. Filing a story about how the children of the privileged are educated is page one material for the old gray lady, especially when a guy is delivering it with a gold writing medal collecting dust in his pencil drawer.

Richtel could have been thinking…

This school probably has an intellectual Navy Seals-like hazing process that drills math and science into the little geniuses from Pre-K onward. The sooner these kids have Pythagoras, Newton, Einstein, Turing and Von Neumann buzzing inside their pre frontal lobes, the sooner they’ll be able to create the New New things.

Tomorrow’s old-boy network won’t hold meetings in yesterday’s wood paneled libraries of New Haven or Cambridge; they’ll meet virtually in the zero and one ether. Like Gates, Jobs and Zuckerberg, these kids won’t need college.  With the kind of pre-pubescent tech training they’re getting now, B.A.s and PhDs will be superfluous…Imagine what the triumvirate of G, J, and Z would have come up with if they had been taught like these kids are being taught today…?

Sometimes, these stories write themselves.

In fact, only a month before, a colleague of Richtel’s published a 5,000 plus word piece in the The New York Times Magazine about the importance of integrating more high tech into primary education. Sara Corbett profiled Quest to Learn, a MacArthur Foundation (those people who give out “genius awards”) granted program that integrates video games into the classroom.  The MacArthur foundation is also  “pouring [an additional] $50 million into exploring the possibilities of digital media and learning in a variety of settings nationwide.” The idea is that teaching with video games will make learning more fun and relevant to today’s youth.

As,

  1. 91 percent of kids ages 2-17 (64 million) play games (the fastest growing segment being kids 2-5),
  2. 36% of children between birth and six years old have their own TV in their room,
  3. 48% of the zero to 6 year olds use a computer, and
  4. 37% of kids 8-12 visit Facebook every day, we can no longer ignore the reality of our children’s immersion in alternative screen worlds. Especially educators. Then why did it take someone outside the system to create Quest to Learn?

“What makes Quest to Learn unique is not so much that it has been loaded with laptops or even that it bills itself expressly as a home for “digital kids,” but rather that it is the brainchild of a professional game designer named Katie Salen. Salen, like many people interested in education, has spent a lot of time thinking about whether there is a way to make learning feel simultaneously more relevant to students and more connected to the world beyond school. And the answer, as she sees it, lies in games.”

Another player taking the lead in getting more screens into our children’s educational lives is Apple. Apple brings educators from around the country to its headquarters in Cupertino, California to discuss the rapidly changing necessities of higher education.

Both my visits there have been extraordinary,” said Curt Tryggestad, superintendent of the Little Falls Community Schools, who visited Cupertino in 2010 and earlier this year. “I was truly amazed to sit in a room with Apple vice presidents, people who were second in command to Steve Jobs.

Pretty heady stuff.

Can you imagine the resources that a school with three quarters of its students coming from the offspring of Apple, Google, Yahoo, eBay, and Hewlett-Packard’s employees must have? This school probably has an Ethernet cable, or better yet, a wireless connection mainlining into each kids’ brain.

Then Richtel discovered a major disconnect; the kind of counterintuitive fact that could completely screw up a slam-dunk piece of commercial journalism.

The school that teaches the future Jerry Yangs, Sergey Brins, and Larry Pages of the world does not use computers, televisions, video games or any other screen based technology in its curriculum.  And it urges parents to hold back the media dam as well.

This school’s tools are rudimentary—black boards, chalk, pencils, paper, and actual physical books, even knitting needles. The students spend time outside, even in the rain and mud. The school lets, even encourages, the kids to get dirty. Go ahead, build that moat around your stick fort! We’ve got time!

Waldorf stresses that a child immerses herself in the natural world, chooses her place in the school’s community, and attunes her senses. But the three Rs aren’t ignored. This isn’t play camp.  Rather children are taught the basics by stimulating multiple sensory inputs.

But above else, there is a practicality in the curriculum. Math and literary proficiency are tools rather than endgame accomplishments in and of themselves. Tools to help students solve their own problems, to help them figure stuff out, to enrich their inner life. To find and nurture their authentic selves.

“On a recent Tuesday, Andie Eagle and her fifth-grade classmates refreshed their knitting skills, crisscrossing wooden needles around balls of yarn, making fabric swatches. It’s an activity the school says helps develop problem-solving, patterning, math skills and coordination. The long-term goal: make socks.

Down the hall, a teacher drilled third-graders on multiplication by asking them to pretend to turn their bodies into lightning bolts. She asked them a math problem — four times five — and, in unison, they shouted “20” and zapped their fingers at the number on the blackboard. A roomful of human calculators.

In second grade, students standing in a circle learned language skills by repeating verses after the teacher, while simultaneously playing catch with bean bags. It’s an exercise aimed at synchronizing body and brain…

…Cathy Waheed, who is a former computer engineer, tries to make learning both irresistible and highly tactile. Last year she taught fractions by having the children cut up food — apples, quesadillas, cake — into quarters, halves and sixteenths.

‘For three weeks, we ate our way through fractions,’ she said. ‘When I made enough fractional pieces of cake to feed everyone, do you think I had their attention?’

Why would the top tech people in the world shield their children from the very products their companies invented? Matthew Richtel, the consummate journalist, doesn’t answer these kinds of questions. He just raises them.

Here’s my take on why tech people don’t want their kids to see the world through a screen.

They know that screens are used to tell stories. Stories that sell products, T-shirts, pajamas, gum etc.. They know that screens are conduits for consumption. It’s how they make their living. They know how the sausage is made. Screens take viewers into alternative worlds. These worlds are the creation of strangers (an artist, an advertiser, an artist/advertiser) or some alien group a child does not understand.  Even artificially intelligent algorithms are put in charge of creating the stories. The screens promise and deliver fully immersive, brilliant and fantastic illusion. They silence inner voices.

If you are a fully formed adult; deep story immersion, distraction and disengagement from our overwhelming real world is a refuge. Screens provide psychic relief and make us experience things right now, not yesterday or a week from Thursday but now, in the moment. They feed us stories, and give us a dopamine rush (See: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains).  But adults know that these stories aren’t their own. They are entertainment, laced with product placement. We make allowances for the bullshit.

People of my (and earlier) generations grew up without many screens. There was the local movie theater and four channels of broadcast television (NBC, CBS, ABC and PBS). So to entertain ourselves, we had to make up our own stories, play in the dirt, score the winning touchdown in our back yards, give tea parties for our stuff animals, hang out with the crowd at the park or find a pick-up game of basketball at the high school gym.

We had to engage with our environment, find people to play with or we’d go crazy. We had to solve our own problems and confront discomfort. Sometimes we had to bullshit ourselves into rationalizing bad behavior (if they didn’t want me to spit on them, they shouldn’t have walked in my path). Sometimes we had to bullshit ourselves into having the courage of our convictions (you’re smarter than everyone else, keep making your point). But the bullshit was ours and ours alone. An answer to our uncertainties or relief from our anxieties wasn’t available on a cell phone. Queries to Google or YouTube or World of Warcraft, or www.stevenpressfield.com didn’t bring relief.

Now they do.

I think the tech people in Silicon Valley think that if all of a child’s anxieties and questions are answered by looking at a screen, he/she will have difficulty developing his/her own unique problem solving muscles—his/her critical and encouraging inner voices.  And if we silence children’s inner voices before they can even hear them and treat education like a consumptive transaction—watch this screen and you can consume knowledge in the way you like best, at the lowest possible price, sponsored by Apple, Disney, Target and the MacArthur Foundation—how will our children face future challenges? Who will solve future problems if we don’t let our children experience today’s physical reality? How will they find a way to be part of something bigger than them?

Bullshit Inc. is a part of our lives. We as adults know the tricks of the trade (most of them I hope) and we have the armor to deflect disingenuous storytelling.

I’m not a Luddite.  I think the Internet, computers, iPods…all this stuff is fantastic, freeing, and revolutionary. But every silver lining has a cloud and the dark cloud of screen technology is made up of unknown storytellers pushing agendas and selling bullshit to vulnerable innocents.

It makes me uneasy to see my Gmail account ‘suggesting’ products that can answer any queries I’ve made on Google in the past seconds, minutes, months, even years. I try and ignore the come-ons…unless the ad is for something I really “need.”

I can’t help but think that putting a child with no experience and no understanding of Bullshit Incorporated in front of the same screen that I look at is dangerous.

I think the hotshot parents of the children at The Waldorf School of the Peninsula agree.

What about you?

Full disclosure: My wife and I send our children to a Waldorf school.

Posted in What It Takes

7 Responses to “Bullshit Incorporated”

  1. December 9, 2011 at 4:46 am

    The hands free set craze is, unfortunately, quite misguided. What makes it dangerous to text and phone in the car is the mental preoccupation with something other than traffic, not taking a hand off the wheel.
    If you are preoccupied with singing along to the radio or talking to someone in the backseat, that is just as bad. To drive safely, you have to have your whole attention on the road.

  2. Lady Antonym
    December 9, 2011 at 6:35 am

    Ditto on the handsfree not being better than handson. However, talking to someone in the car is completely different, in terms of cognition. Why? Because we are social animals. The person in the car is in the same environment and will instinctively stop talking when the driver has to, say, pass a truck. When talking to someone, our brain expects them to be there and is looking for the social cues. Hearing a voice without the cues is mentally taxing. Not so much an issue when you are sitting still using a tethered landline. Very much an issue while driving. Interestingly, it turns out that only hearing one side of a conversation is very distracting. When you hear someone talk, your brain tunes out when another person picks up the conversation. When you can’t hear than other person, your brain keeps listening to see if it should jump in at some point.

    The kids next door do Waldorf. The amount of no-technology at home varies from household to household. It’s like any other school where there are parents who are rabid about “the children” and doing things a certain way, and others roll their eyes and tell hilarious stories over the back fence. But they do appreciate that the culture of the school is non-consumerist and that it encourages kids to really go deep and develop their own interests.

  3. December 9, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Great post, Shawn. A while back I read more than a little Rudolf Steiner and looked at Waldorf education. My takeaway was that there was a lot to like, and foremost among the “likes” was the overal sensibility brought to bear upon educating your minds: that they were not plants or animals to be operationally conditioned or “molded,” but souls whose love and pursuit of learning was to be enlarged and enkindled.

    On the downside, I was a bit iffy on some of the metaphysical beliefs behind Waldorf and the education struck me very similarly to Montessori: it’s wonderful when done well, and depressingly pathetic when done with anything less than excellence.

    But I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of why we should preserve our kids from full immersion in virtual worlds and the type of education that will help do that.

    Anyone who doubts kid’s ability to deflect BS has only to put an 8 year old in front of an infomercial to figure it out. Without fail my oldest daughter will see a few minutes of one and say, “Daddy, we need to get that!” Scary, indeed.

    • Shawn Coyne
      December 9, 2011 at 6:07 pm

      Oh boy Jeff, I hear you.

      Here’s what I always write to Steve Pressfield at the end of one my crazy-ass editorial letters…”Take what you need and leave the rest.” Thankfully we both speak Bob Dylan. We’re all beneficiaries of Steve’s ability to separate my wheat from my chaff.

      I can only give you what I got. Thanks for giving me back what you have. It makes a difference.

  4. Larrybud
    December 13, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    It’s too bad people keep pushing the bullshit “stats” that are out there. If distracted driving was indeed on the uprise, we would see a spike in driving deaths, which we haven’t seen at all:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year

    In fact, we see a steady downward trend of deaths and the most important deaths/million miles driven, even as cell phone and texting became more prevalent.

    But hey, some people just can’t allow facts to get in the way of their agenda of control!

  5. David Wright
    December 14, 2011 at 10:45 am

    I feel like this is half true…then the other side is simply that STRUGGLE IS AN ILLUSION…or perhaps a choice.

  6. Bob Krist
    December 15, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    Then again perhaps they simply see the school they went to and it worked for them.