Media recapitulation

Individual media development of children should repeat the evolution of the species – step by step, not leapfrogging to the last and most attractive stage, digital media.

In 2014, Clay Shirky, a prominent new-media theorist, published in the Washington Post an interesting reflection on his failed resistance to digital technology. For a long time, Shirky had let his students use gadgets in class, thinking that it would be embarrassing to ban the very subject he was studying. He thought that a good professor teaching an interesting course could keep his students focused. But he eventually realized that he could not. No lecture about the use of the telegraph during the Crimean War could rival a smartphone’s flashing, vibrating notification that your ex just posted a new photo. Shirky tried to comfort teachers and parents, assuring them that it was not their fault that they were losing their kids to gadgets; the entire tech industry—the entire process of media evolution—was working against them. New media recruit the best engineers, investors, scientists, and marketers to make their products more engaging. The only way to defeat gadgets in the fight for attention, he concluded, is to ban them.

Could success in the physical world require curtailing the technologies necessary for existing in the digital world? And is that even doable? Digital media have annihilated space and made negligible the efforts required for socialization. Being social animals, we were bound to fall into this honeypot that we had built for ourselves. The key to digital resistance lies not in neo-Luddism but in media awareness. Online, our consumption is also our labor. It does not require special effort, but it does require our time. Media literacy is, first and foremost, time management. Media literacy is the ability not to use media.

Digital detox is fast becoming a healthy lifestyle trend. Various digital detox services are already considered promising for venture investment, and an entire industry will doubtless emerge. But digital detox will deal with a body that the Internet has already damaged. To protect the skills and functions still required for people to survive in the physical world from digital influence, one should consider limiting digital consumption for children as they form the basic skills needed for the physical world.

In biology, the concept of biogenetic or embryonic recapitulation implies that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”—an individual repeats the evolution of its species. For example, the human embryo develops features resembling gill arches, a tail, and so on. Modern biology does not recognize recapitulation as a law, but this idea might provide a useful metaphor.

Illustration for the hypothesis “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (1892). The development of human embryo “recapitulates” the evolution of humans as a species. At early stages, the human embryo has “tail” and “gills” and other features of species that supposedly “preceded” humans in the evolution of biological life. See “Recapitulation theory” in Wikipedia.

The principle of media recapitulation might be described as follows. To become a resourceful individual adapted to the modern reality of media consumption, a child has to go through all the basic stages of the species’ media evolution through oral, literate, print, and digital eras. Children, that is, should be taught step-by-step to manipulate toys, draw, read and write, and use electronic and digital media—only in that historically established order. Exposure to next-stage media, if allowed prematurely, would interfere with mastering the earlier skills. No rattle, coloring book, or adventure novel can compete with a digital device’s instant reward. If newer media are introduced into a child’s life before older media, they inhibit the child’s sensory, mental, moral, and emotional development. If a child learns how to use a touchscreen before reading, the touchscreen’s appeal and speed of reward will make him a less able reader. The child’s neurons will already be wired for an instant reward that no book can provide.

Just as media literacy means time management, media recapitulation essentially means age-based media-access management. Responsible adults should identify the age ranges for giving a child access to each new medium: playing with toys, listening to reading aloud, independent reading, TV, gadgets, video games, time-limited access to the Internet, and, eventually, unlimited access to the Internet with their own device. Media recapitulation will not solve the problem of the click’s instant reward, but it could render constructive the essentially negative idea of the digital ban. Media recapitulation turns a ban into access—step-by-step access, based on the historical dynamic of media’s influence on human neurophysiology, sensorium, and social skills.

Andrey Mir

The excerpts from “The Medium Is the Menace”, City Journal, Winter 2022.



Categories: Media ecology, Media literacy

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