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Robotic cockroaches and electronic babysitters

Robotic cockroaches can lead wild cockroaches to go against their instincts. How susceptible are children to unnatural influences?

The New York Times reported last week that led by robots, roaches abandon [their] instincts. Specifically, when left to their own devices, groups of cockroaches followed their instincts and natually preferred a darker hiding place to a lighter hiding place virtually all the time. And when a minority group of robotic cockroaches replaced some of the bugs in the cohort and followed natual cockroach rules, again virtually all cockroaches sought the darker hiding place. But when the robots were programmed to seek the lighter, rather than a darker hiding place, fully 60 percent of the wild cockroaches teamed with the robots rather than obeying their instincts, thus demonstrating that even cockroaches are susceptible to bug peer pressure.

Of course anybody who has taken a college-level course in Animal Behavior has probably done the Nobel prize-winning experiment of imprinting a newly hatched duckling or gosling with an inanimate object (such as a red bandana, a pair of wading boots, or even an ultralight glider), causing the fledgling to follow the object as if it were the mother. That experiment demonstrates that nature can be fooled by giving the right cues at the right time during a critical period. And anybody who has taken a course in developmental psychology knows that there is not one, but there are many, many critical periods that define a child's development right up through the early 20s. (Or perhaps the brain never stops developing, as this poignant story about Justice Sandra Day O'Conner shows.) How susceptible are the brains of our children to robotic (or telematic) manipulation? I wonder...

At the extremes, scientific evidence is mounting that the link between television violence and increased aggression in children is stronger than the relationships between asbestos and throat cancer, condom use and HIV, and workplace second-hand smoke and lung cancer. But what of more "benign" programming? I'm not quite in the KILL YOUR TELEVISION camp, but I'm definitely sympathetic to those who are. When our daughter first started using TiVo at age 6, she was trained to fast-forward past the ads. By the time she was 7, she could skip the ads more accurately than I could. But after turning 8, she became interested in seeing "how the other half lived" (i.e. those who watch unfiltered broadcast TV), and she took to watching the ads as if they held some important ethnographic truth. And now she's beginning to understand that the reality portrayed on the ads does not match the reality of our household. The challenge is how to make the case that the reality in which we live is more viable and more compelling (and more sustainable) than the one she sees in the ads. It is not easy...

About the time my daughter started watching ads, a copy of The State of the Village Report came into our kitchen. Perhaps it came from Church. Or perhaps it came from School. Or perhaps it was something that Amy collected from her Mojo Circle. Whatever the source, the facts it portrays are enough to move one to tears when seriously contemplating what it would be like to be one of the 80 percent who live in substandard housing, the 67 percent who are illiterate, the 50 percent who are malnourished, the 39 percent who lack access to safe drinking water and/or sanitation, or the 33 percent who attempt to live on 3 percent of the world's income and trying to explain to one's children why we should accept our lot and live in peace when the top 5 percent control 32 percent of the world's wealth. And yet the effect of television is not to make us feel guilty for all that we have, but to feel guilty for all that we do not yet have, by design.

Al Gore's book Assault on Reason explains how the television reaches past our homo sapiens brain to stimulate our hyper-reactive reptilian brain. It has long been known that our capacity for reason is easily defeated by our reaction to fear, but Gore's analysis (with the help of leading neuroscience research) pinpoints how the television opens our minds to direct manipulation, for better or for worse. Of course he could have listened to what Noam Chomsky has been arguing for years, but somehow Gore is more easily convinced by following the electrical traces of FMRI brain scans than following the logic of a great dissident intellect, no matter how compelling the latter may be. But whether one follows logic or neuroscience, the scientific conclusion is that the human mind is remarkably sensitive to consumeristic tendencies when watching television and remarkably insensitive to almost everything else. (Sorry Baby Einstein.)

The solution that Al Gore presents to this challenge is not to kill one's television (individual choice) or to disband media altogether (social choice), but to reverse the direction of media flow, changing content consumers into content producers and using the Internet to make television-like media a bi-directional conversation rather than a unidirectional broadcast. His effort, Current TV is one example of a broader trend that I support: the Creative Commons. And specifically, at home, my efforts include involving my daughter in creating media instead of merely consuming it. And there is hope: one of her all-time favorite CDs is Kid Pan Alley, a project "inspiring kids to be creators not consumers".

This approach is opposite to a new breed of so-called "safe" internet sites for kids. While they may protect children from prurient content such as FOX News Porn, they nevertheless focus on primarily teaching children how to be good little consumers. Which brings us back to the question of whether our children will be able to benefit from the last 50 million years of cereberal evolution or whether they are being conditioned to ignore those newer instincts.

I have always viewed technology as a tool. My goal is to teach my daughter how to use technology, not merely collect and/or consume it. I'm fighting a powerful force, but she is quickly reaching the point where technologies like the XO Laptop will open to her a whole new world. And the sooner she is able to become a producer—not for economic reasons, but for cultural ones—the better she will be able to protect herself from the corrupting influence of commercial media.

Finally, if you have been with this this far, you will doubtless appreciate the ironic conclusion of the robotic cockroach story:

The results also apply only to cockroaches, Dr. Halloy said. "We are not interested in people," he said.

Or doth my homo sapiens brain sense too much?