COMMENT: You Can “Tune A Fish” But You Can’t “Tweet A Dog”

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Before I start, a quick note. I did write part II of my blog series Sociable Robots: 3D Pornography? Unfortunately, I’m not going to post it. Why? Well, it’s good, maybe too good, meaning, too truthful. Simply, some truths are not appropriate for a blog format. So, if you’d like a copy of part II, use the Contact Us link above (or your reply button) and I’ll see about getting you a copy.

I just finished Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book entitled Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Nicholas Carr, during his recent RYOL Lecture, recommended that we read Alone Together (see my February 24th, 2012, post for more on Mr. Carr’s lecture). Turkle mentions an anecdote that caught my attention. Here’s my retelling of Turkle’s anecdote.

Turkle is talking about how today’s kids (up to about age 12 or so) are the first group of kids who have been raised by parents addicted to their mobile screen devices, like BlackBerry smartphones (“CrackBerry” smartphones as some call them). Turkle tells a story that was told to her by a 13-year-old teenage girl. Here’s my (embellished) version of this girl’s story:

My mom picks me up after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays so that I have enough time to get ready for soccer practice. It’s the same every time she comes to pick me up. She’s usually outside waiting for me. As I walk up to our car, I can see her either texting or talking on her cell phone. I get in and there’s barely any acknowledgment. Maybe a head nod. She’s got a bluetooth connection so it’s not unusual for her to chat away for the entire ride home. At home she’s still texting and talking. At best I might get a, “get ready for soccer … ten minutes and we’re leaving.” I can’t help but think to myself, “There’s all of this energy for me physically—physically picking me up and physically taking me to soccer practice—but there is no energy for me mentally.” Why does she spend so much time on one when she spends no time on the other? What’s the point?

Sharp kid. Good question though. What is the point? What is the point of attending to the physical and the mechanical while at the same time eschewing the mental and the spiritual? One of the reasons I liked working with teenagers (back when I was a therapist) is because they would regularly come up with these types of very insightful and philosophical questions. But I think this teenager has hit on a large trend in our culture, our quickly emerging digital culture.

Writing in his 2004 book (mentioned by Turkle) entitled In Praise of Slowness—Challenging the Cult of Speed, Carl Honoré makes the following observation:

[W]hen we watch television, we do not make connections. On the contrary, we sit there on the sofa, soaking up images and words, without giving anything back.

It sounds like Turkle’s teen above is in a “television relationship” with her mother. It’s an “armchair relationship.” The mother is literally phoning in her mothering. And I’m sure there are many fathers who likewise phone in their instrumental care. In essence, there’s a lot of “mechanical-making” but very little, if any, meaning-making going on. Heck, the same could be said of No Child Left Behind and its mantra of “teach to the test.” You can phone in that form of teaching. And with distance learning all the rage, many students (at younger and younger ages) are getting their teaching by phone or by screen. Channeling the 13-year-old above, “What’s the point?”

I’m a big fan of the TV program In Plain Sight. I like it in large part because it’s filmed here in Albuquerque. It profiles a couple of US Marshals (characters Mary Shannon and Marshall Mann) who put people into the Federal Witness Security (WITSEC) Program. In Plain Sight just started its fifth and final season. The show features witty banter between Mary and Marshall. In last week’s episode, Marshall tells Mary about how he stayed up all night with his dog who had an upset stomach. Mary, who’s a new mom, quips to Marshall that there should be a special place at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp for people who compare taking care of a child to taking care of a dog. Ouch! That hurts. I don’t have any kids but I do have a yellow lab, and, yes, I do consider her to be “like” a child to me. So, if this blog mysteriously stops, you’ll know that I’m in that special section of Gitmo for people who make the egregious error of comparing child care and dog care together.

Before you lock me away, consider this: I have never tweeted my dog. OK, I’ve never texted my dog either. My dog does not have a Facebook page. My dog doesn’t have a smartphone. (Trust me, I’m sure Apple has thought about how to tap this market—iCollar perhaps.) In essence, it would be very hard for me to phone in my dog care. I talk to my dog all the time. Does she understand my words? Maybe a few like walk or treat. Has she ever uttered a word to me (bark does not count)? Nope. But yet we understand each other. Why? Because we use what cognitive linguist researchers call “motherese”—essentially body language combined with vocal inflection. Writing in his 2010 book Self Comes to Mind, neurobiologist Antonio Damasio tells us,

From a behavioral standpoint, the conscious mind state of others is hallmarked by awake, coherent, purposeful behavior that includes signs of ongoing emotional reactions.

Simply, to the observing mind (say, that of a 13-year-old), a person who is texting is in many ways not conscious (using Damasio’s definition). They effectively have a still face. And, believe it or not, there’s an experimental protocol (developed by Dr. Edward Tronic) that uses a still face. Trust me on this, the still face freaks out infants and toddlers. Why? Because the person in front of them has—for all intent and purpose—died. That would freak me out. I would suggest that when people turn to tweet or text, they go “still face.” Maybe we should come up with a new buzz phrase: “Don’t still face me bro!” A bit further along Damasio writes,

[The] process of feeling attribution has nothing whatsoever to do with language. It is based on the highly trained observation of postures and faces as they change and move about [e.g., are not still].

I use motherese and my dog uses motherese. Here’s the problem with motherese: you can’t phone it in. It can’t be digitized. If I’m a good dog owner (and I think I am—text my dog if you don’t believe me), then I have to be present 24/7. Motherese requires face-to-face, real-time, body-to-body communication (as Damasio suggests). It cannot be televised. See where this is leading?

So, if Mary Shannon wants there to be a special section at Gitmo for those who compare child care to dog care, then I suggest that a new section be built for all of the parents (and other child care providers) who phone in their care, who digitize their care, who deliver care with a still face. We can have one big Gitmo party. Here’s a story from my past that might illustrate the above.

Back in the 1990s I was still processing the grief associated with my Father’s passing in 1986. As a part of that process my grief counselor made two suggestions: 1) engage in some type of volunteer work, and 2) join a church or other religious group so you can develop a support network. Both sounded reasonable so I did both. I went through the 45 hour training program at Albuquerque Rape Crisis Center and became a rape crisis advocate. For three years I had a regular six-hour weekly shift answering the crisis line. On average, I had four calls per shift. Over that three-year period I probably handled several hundred calls (sad to say). I joined a church just down the road. I stayed at that church for just about four years. These two worlds interacted in a very interesting way.

I would often have to leave the church services early so that I would be on time for the start of my crisis line shift. I would receive a regular barrage of taunts such as, “Hey Rick, I saw you duck out early last week … did the pastor’s homily bore you?” I’m not sure why but on one such occasion I stopped and simply said, “No, I have to leave early to start a crisis line shift for Albuquerque Rape Crisis Center.” I received no words back in response, but I sure did get some motherese, body language and facial expressions that would say, “Hey, way too close for comfort.” I found this to be a very odd reaction. I naively thought that the whole point of religion is to go out and “do,” do for others. There was a woman who ran a prison ministry at the church. I asked her about “The Reaction.” What she said stayed with me (and I paraphrase): “I get that reaction all the time when I mention that I’m going to the prison. What we have at this church—and many others I’m sure—is a form of religious television: provide me with words and images about the realities of life but don’t ask me to do anything that might potentially put me face-to-face with the realities of life.” Don’t get me wrong, there were a few other “doers” at the church, but most were “viewers.” Again, channeling the above-mentioned 13-year-old, what’s the point? Ahhh, the point is this: there’s this delusion afoot in our culture that viewing is doing. And by talking about a rape crisis line or a prison ministry, you break this delusionary state.

To wrap up, I think we have a crisis of viewing being mis-taken for doing. Parents (and other child care providers) are viewing parenting but not really doing parenting. Kids obsessively upload pictures to Facebook for viewing and think that this is a form of doing. Parishioners view religion but don’t do religion. Philanthropists view philanthropy but don’t do philanthropy. And I’m sure you have your own version of viewing versus doing. As a philanthropist, viewing versus doing does concern me. I just recently read that after ten years (and millions of dollars) there really hasn’t been much true progress in the environmental movement. I just wrote up a ten-year review for our Foundation’s efforts in the area of Bowlbian attachment, and I’m not sure how much we actually did. There definitely were a lot of words and images and dollars, but I’m not sure about the doing, about the systemic change using Bowlby’s theory as a guide. Last summer I remember reading an article that talked about the ten-year project at the Gates Foundation to improve high schools. If memory serves, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent (maybe even billions). And if memory continues to serve, Bill Gates said of that ten-year project something like, “We hardly moved the needle.” Yeow! How is it that we can spend so much time and effort and money and hardly move the needle. Channeling the above teenager once more, “What’s the point?”

PS – After I finished the final draft and scheduled this post to go live, the following article came across my desk:

In Self-Control, Dogs Are Only Human

Here’s the introductory sentence from the article by Stephanie Pappas:

Man and his best friend have something in common: Both get worn out by having to exert self-control and end up making dumb decisions, a new study finds.

It appears that when both humans and dogs are asked to wait—to simply sit and stay for extended periods of time—this form of waiting takes self-control and self-control of this nature is exhausting, depleting. The article goes on to suggest that one quick way to recover from this exhaustion or depletion is to consume sugar (which may explain why energy drinks are so popular). I hope bells are going off. Did not the teenage girl above have to wait, wait as her mother attended to her screen, wait as her mother went still face on her? And aren’t kids asked to wait in mind-numbing classrooms? And aren’t kids (adults too) eating mass quantities of sugar and popping behavioral pills like Ritalin and Adderall? Any chance this is all connected? Consider this quote from the article:

Dog owners should take note, too, Miller said. [Miller and her colleagues did the study at the University of Lille Nord de France.] A family dog that has to restrain its urge to snap at yelling, screaming kids all day may eventually reach a willpower limit and bite, possibly explaining a large proportion of the 4.5 million dog bites in America each year. It’s up to people to recognize that dogs need breaks and rest as much as we do, she said.

Is it too far of a stretch to ask about all of the teen crime, especially school shootings (of which there was just one early this week that left many dead or wounded)? Are we asking dogs and people to wait, and wait as we attend to our screens? Is there a limit to this waiting? Is there a limit to being still faced? Have we reached that limit? As attachment researchers such as Allan Schore and Louis Cozolino suggest, the beauty behind safe and secure attachment relationships can be found in how they allow us to co-regulate emotion. But if everyone is saying “Wait!”—wait while I finish this email or update my Facebook page—then that co-regulation is weakened or otherwise broken. Without co-regulation, life can get rather demanding, and tiring. In dogs, we get biting behavior. (Sadly, here in New Mexico we get a lot of life-threatening mauling behavior too.) In humans … well, you can read the headlines: obesity, teen pregnancy, crime, school shootings, etc. So, I really like that I can’t tweet my dog. I guess we’ll have to settle for a good ol’ co-regulation relationship where we share “animated faces.”

PSS – I know a dog who has a great co-regulation relationship with his owner. When a mean, snappy, aggressive dog comes up to this co-regulated dog, his body language (e.g., his motherese) seems to say, “Dude, chill, get a relationship before you pop an artery!”

Final word: You can’t phone in a safe and secure attachment relationship. (Sadly, though, Sherry Turkle tells us that more and more kids are accepting phoned-in attachment, which is neither safe nor secure.)