Sat
Oct 1 2011 10:30am

Context (Excerpt)

Cory Doctorow

Your daily food for thought comes from a selection of essays written by Cory Doctorow from is book Context, out now from Tachyon Publications.

Discussing complex topics in an accessible manner, Cory Doctorow shares visions of a future where artists control their own destinies and where freedom of expression is tempered with the view that creators need to benefit from their own creations. From extolling the Etsy marketverse to excoriating Apple for dumbing-down technology while creating an information monopoly, each unique piece is brief, witty, and at the cutting edge of tech. Now a stay-at-home dad as well as an international activist, Doctorow writes as eloquently about creating internet real-time theater with his daughter as he does in lambasting the corporations that want to limit and profit from inherent intellectual freedoms.

Jack and the Interstalk: Why the Computer Is Not a Scary Monster

With a little common sense, parents have nothing to fear from letting young children share their screen time

 

“Daddy, I want something on your laptop!” These are almost invariably the first words out of my daughter Poesy’s mouth when she gets up in the morning (generally at 5 a.m.). Being a lifelong early riser, I have the morning shift. Being a parent in the 21st century, I worry about my toddler’s screen time—and struggle with the temptation to let the TV or laptop be my babysitter while I get through my morning email. Being a writer, I yearn to share stories with my two-year-old.

I can’t claim to have found the answer to all this, but I think we’re evolving something that’s really working for us—a mix of technology, storytelling, play, and (admittedly) a little electronic babysitting that let’s me get to at least some of my email before breakfast time.

Since Poe was tiny, she’s climbed up on my lap and shared my laptop screen. We long ago ripped all her favorite DVDs (she went through a period at around 16 months when she delighted in putting the DVDs shiny-side-down on the floor, standing on them, and skating around, sanding down the surface to a perfectly unreadable fog of microscratches). Twenty-some movies, the whole run of The Muppet Show, some BBC nature programmes. They all fit on a 32GB SD card and my wife and I both keep a set on our laptops for emergencies, such as in-flight meltdowns or the occasional restaurant scene.

I use a free/open source video player called VLC, which plays practically every format ever invented. You can tell it to eliminate all its user interface, so that it’s just a square of movable video, and the Gnome windowmanager in Linux lets me set that window as “Always on top.” I shrink it down to a postage stamp and slide it into the top right corner of my screen, and that’s Poesy’s bit of my laptop.

When she was littler, we’d do this for 10 or 20 minutes every morning while she went from awake to awake-enough-to-play. Now that she’s more active, she usually requests something—often something from YouTube (we also download her favourite YouTube clips to our laptops, using deturl.com), or she’ll start feeding me keywords to search on, like “doggy and bunny” and we’ll have a look at what comes up. It’s nice sharing a screen with her. She points at things in her video she likes and asks me about them (pausable video is great for this!), or I notice stuff I want to point out to her. At the same time, she also looks at my screen—browser windows, email attachments, etc.—and asks me about them, too.

But the fun comes when we incorporate all this into our storytelling play. It started with Jack and the Beanstalk. I told her the story one morning while we were on summer vacation. She loved the booming FEE FI FOE FUM! but she was puzzled by unfamiliar ideas like beanstalks, castles, harps, and golden eggs. So I pulled up some images of them (using Flickr image search). Later, I found two or three different animated versions of Jack’s story on YouTube, including the absolutely smashing Max Fleischer 1933 version. These really interested Poesy (especially the differences between all the adaptations), so one evening we made a Lego beanstalk and had an amazing time running around the house, play-acting Jack and the Beanstalk with various stuffed animals and such as characters. We made a golden egg out of wadded up aluminium foil, and a harp out of a coat-hanger, tape, and string, and chased up and down the stairs bellowing giant-noises at one another.

Then we went back to YouTube and watched more harps, made sure to look at the geese the next Saturday at Hackney City Farm, and now every time we serve something small and bean-like with a meal at home, there’s inevitably a grabbing up of two or three of them and tossing them out the window while shouting, “Magic beans! Magic beans! You were supposed to sell the cow for money!” Great fun.

Every parent I know worries about the instantaneously mesmerizing nature of screens for kids, especially little kids. I’ve heard experts advise that kids be kept away from screens until the age of three or four, or even later, but that’s not very realistic—at least not in our house, where the two adults do a substantial amount of work, socialising, and play from home on laptops or consoles.

But the laptop play we’ve stumbled on feels right. It’s not passive, mesmerised, isolated TV watching. Instead, it’s a shared experience that involves lots of imagination, physically running around the house (screeching with laughter, no less!), and mixing up story-worlds, the real world, and play. There are still times when the TV goes on because I need 10 minutes to make the porridge and lay the table for breakfast, and I still stand in faint awe of the screen’s capacity to hypnotise my toddler, but I wouldn’t trade those howling, hilarious, raucous games that our network use inspires for anything.

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