Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Recreation For Robots

A friend of mine regularly discusses with me the difficulties he has raising his two sons in our modern world.  In particular, he is very frustrated by the fact that his younger son, age 10,  is involved in so many structured recreational activities after school that he doesn’t have time to just be a kid and do activities that he initiates himself.  The structured activities are all organized by adults and, depending on the season, include American football practice, basketball practice, hockey practice, and baseball practice.  The son is on teams controlled by adults that belong to leagues and play regularly scheduled games.  I should tell you my friend is divorced and is not necessarily the person who initiated these activities for his son.

The older son has rebelled against all these adult-controlled activites and has started to spend his free time skateboarding with some of his friends.  A skateboard is like an enormous rollerskate for both feet, a little like a surfboard with wheels.  Skateboarding is a sporting activity that requires skill, but it is a skill that a child acquires on his own.  A child doesn’t have to go to discrete defined practices that begin at a particular time and end at a particular time.  He can skateboard when he wants to and as long as he wants to.  And in learning how to skateboard, the child explores the nature and the limits of the skateboard and the nature and the limits of himself.  And because it is unknown how he would react to skateboarding when he first begins to do it, the whole exploration of the activity is a kind of adventure

        An adventure, in terms of my model, is a human life situation that contains a unique configuration of discrete stimuli and continual stimuli and that requires a unique response from an individual in order to successfully perform a series of discrete and continual actions.  Discrete actions tend to be based on practiced skills while continual actions tend to be based on improvisation.  Stated another way, in an adventure, a person has unique encounters and uses his practiced skills combined with improvisational twists to overcome obstacles presented by the encounters.  Frequently, we tend to think of adventures as being high risk-taking, where a person’s life, health, or fortune or something else that is fundamentally important is on the line.  But for a child, an adventure is a situation where he takes a uniquely configured experience and converts a part of it into a series of activites that he can control.  Steve’s older son converts transporting himself on a skateboard in a park into a series of unique twists and turns and jumps that he can control.  In so doing, he creates an experience that makes a unique imprint on his mind and also activates him into a rich vibrant life experience.

The opportunity for making unique imprints, perhaps on the minds of his team-mates and fans as well as on himself, diminishes in the parent-organized team sports of young people.  Yes, a child develops technical skills in particular sports, but he doesn’t develop the skills that come with creating his own variations on games and negotiating the rules with the other kids in his group.  He is slotted in defined activities with defined rules, defined techniques and defined goals - activities that have been molded by adults.

When I wa a little boy, I grew up in a highrise building in Chicago. During the summer, all of the kids would finish their dinners with their families, and they would come down the elevators and play a game called pinners.  Pinners was a variation on baseball, where you would bounce a ball high up from a ledge of a building, and try to do it in such a way that other players couldn’t catch it.  Different groups of kids had different variations on pinners.  It was a game that adjusted to the different spaces and different surfaces that were available in a living environment.  It was a kind of adventure in which the kids could make up their own variations on the rules and make their own uniquely configured imprints on themselves and on the kids around them.  Although there was a technique to bouncing the ball high and away, no one was there making them practice their discrete techniques over and over, so that they could become discrete sports robots for their parents.

I don’t want to imply that all athletes who master their sport after long training are robots.  But children of ordinary skill who are constantly spending free time, that used to be for fun and reverie, in developing very precise and focused techniques, are children who are being subtly influenced by all the precise, focused, complex, technological entities in their living environments: the televisions and computers and smart phones and video games.

We as human beings are molded by our living environments and, in particular, we are molded by the implements, including the entertainment implements, we use.  Children in highly regulated team sports are, like the parents who regulate the sports, also regulated by the discrete movements and discrete thoughts involved in the interaction with the highly complex entertainment implements that they use.  I know that it seems strange to think of a video game as an implement, but it is a kind of tool used for entertainment.

Anyway, just as modern machines are composed of parts that fit into slots or parts that are held together by screws, so the parts of days of modern humans are slotted together or screwed together in a series of disconnected appointments and meetings.  Or in factory work, the machine operator is turned on when the machine is turned on.  The machine operator is turned off when the machine is turned off.  Or else another shift takes over the machine.  In this case, the whole shift is like a machine part that slots into a day with the machine parts of the other shifts.  And time passes on in the shift in a numbing way.  There are no temporal surfaces on which to leave the imprints of vibrant living: organically flowing activities and reverie.  Work today is overly defined and angular.

There has not only been a loss of adventure for kids like those of my downstairs neighbor.  How can you have adventure in work, when you have to fill out mounds of discrete forms and keep mounds of discrete data for almost every activity in which you engage.  Mounds and mounds of discrete stimuli that suck the life out of every step that an adult person takes in his work.  Every initiative that is taken has to be profusely justified to committees.

It is one thing to have to give up one’s sense of adventure to be a “serious” mature modern adult.  But why must we so over-regulate the free time of kids with slotted sports practices and games, and slotted lessons for music, art, languages, and preparation for exams so that there is never time for idle fun and just dreaming.  Yes it is fine to have lessons in a sport or musical or artistic skill that a child is interested in.  But don’t fill up all of his free time with regulated activities.  My neighbor’s oldest son has the right idea.  Find an activity like skate-boarding that hasn’t been regulated by adults yet.  I had pinners.  It was an imprint that belonged to the kids in my building.

And I had time to dream, to do nothing.  When you are a robot, there are two basic states of existence.  You are turned on and then you are active performing tasks.  Or you are turned off, and then you are lifeless.  Robots don’t engage in reverie.  And they don’t go off by themselves and skateboard or play pinners either.

c  2012  Laurence Mesirow

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