It’s that time of year when I take some time off for a variety of reasons and tasks – in short, it’s annual leave time. Yes, some much appreciated time off work. Last year I attempted a holiday and nearly died – diseased kidneys, blood poisoning, and internal bleeding – all a result of a kidney stone. What followed was months of illness, as that experience proved a catalyst for an old illness to make a renewed appearance also (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – CFS). Finally, in the last few weeks, I have been reasonably well and have been working at a frantic pace, trying to make up for lost time.
So now I hope to enjoy these next few weeks, do some traveling (including to the previous destination that I never arrived at due to falling ill on the way), get a bit of personal things done (yeah, including a host of medical stuff) and really, just to relax and have a break – an enjoyable break in fact.
So what does this mean for the Blogs? Well, I was going to continue to post in a haphazard manner over the next three weeks, but have since thought better of it and will not do so. So no new posts for the next three weeks – there may be some still to appear on one of the Blogs that I scheduled in advance, but you won’t hear much from me during this period. So enjoy the break from me, as I enjoy the break from everyday usual life.
Screen time has arguably become the most concerning aspect of development for modern-day parents. A 2015 poll identified children’s excessive screen time as the number one concern for parents, overtaking more traditional concerns such as obesity and not getting enough physical activity.
This is the issue explored in David Gillespie’s new book, Teen Brain. The tagline explains that the book delves into
why screens are making your teenager depressed, anxious, and prone to lifelong addictive illnesses – and how to stop it now.
This provides some idea of the emotive and provocative way the book’s content is delivered.
Given smartphones and tablets are everywhere, a message on limiting their use could not be more timely. The Australian government recently released guidelines recommending a maximum two hours per day of recreational sedentary screen time for teens.
It also recommended parents establish consistent boundaries around the duration, content and quality of such screen use.
However, Gillespie has missed an important opportunity to communicate this with his book. In the introduction Gillespie says he’s “made some pretty outrageous claims” but they will all be backed up by solid science. He delivers on the first part, but too often the solid science is lacking.
After what can only be described as a controversial introduction – in which puberty is referred to as a period when all “males turn into large, hairy, smelly beasts with no impulse control and a desire for danger and sex” – Gillespie attempts to explain some basics of the workings of the human brain.
But this explanation is simplified and selective, which is problematic because it is then used as a basis for many of the arguments throughout the book. And the brain, and associated human behaviour, is far more complex than Gillespie’s seeming understanding.
The second section largely focuses on teen issues intertwined with parenting tips, with reference back to the brain basics. This information is aimed at managing, and ultimately avoiding, negative outcomes in teens – such as risk-taking behaviours, addiction and adverse mental-health issues.
According to Gillespie, such consequences are largely attributable to screen-based electronic devices.
This section contains statements that aren’t referenced at all, such as:
the stimulant effect of caffeine is identical to the stimulant effect of the dopamine-stimulating apps installed on your child’s device
Those that are – such as those under the heading “Teen depression and anxiety are on the rise” – often have selective references that fit the author’s narrative rather than reflecting the current state of the science.
In regards to anxiety, the book only presented parts of the research paper that it noted suggested anxiety had alarmingly tripled between 2003 and 2011. What had tripled were the presentations of anxiety symptoms. The overall diagnosis of anxiety actually remained stable.
The paper’s authors themselves state that what the results mean remains unclear. They could reflect a genuine increase in anxiety, but could also be attributed to an increased awareness by GPs or increased help-seeking behaviour of teens.
Then there are statements that are actually just plain wrong. For instance, Gillespie suggests
something else must lie at the heart of the epidemic of teen anxiety and depression, and there’s good evidence that this something is being home-delivered by the modern equivalent of a textbook – the tablet device.
Not surprisingly, this so-called “good evidence” is not provided.
In several places throughout the book, Gillespie links smartphones and electronic devices with dramatic decreases in teen pregnancy, alcohol consumption, illicit drugs and violent crime.
While it’s true there have been declines in teen pregnancy, substance use, and crime, this is not necessarily true for all countries.
For example, a recent study showed although substance use, unprotected sex, crime, and hazardous driving were reducing in US adolescents, the same trends did not apply consistently across other developed countries.
And although the study noted smartphones and social media were one possibility behind these declines, the way in which they might do this, and if in fact they actually do, is yet to be investigated.
Declines in risk-taking and addictive behaviours in teens can only be seen as a good thing, but Gillespie manages to use this to fit his narrative. That is, that smartphones and electronic devices are indeed responsible for these positive changes, but at a cost.
That cost is that the use of such devices is replacing these teen problems with a whole set of new ones: dramatic increases in teen anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide. But again, this is done with the use of misleading, or completely absent, evidence.
Teenagers aren’t all the same
Gillespie presents a one-size-fits-all kind of approach throughout his book, which is also problematic, because not all teenagers are the same. There are large differences among individuals and how they are able to manage things such as anxiety, drug or alcohol use.
Genetics, as well as our environment, influence our behaviour. So what may work for one teenager, may not necessarily work for another.
The book places a large emphasis on the role hormones play in our reward pathways and addiction. One example is oxytocin. Gillespie says that “teenagers are uniquely susceptible to the power of oxytocin” and that “adolescence is a phase when the addictive power of oxytocin is magnified enormously”.
The book culminates with five key points for how parents should “harden up to save their kids”. These include parents making the rules, and breaches of the rules being punished consistently.
Gillespie also advises that “all teens need eight hours’ sleep a night”. This recommendation falls outside the amount of sleep those under 14 years old need (9-11 hours for 5-13 year olds), and only represents the bare minimum recommended for those 14 years and older (8-11 hours for those aged 14-17).
The real shame overall is that the key message, that we should limit our teens’ screen time, is actually a good one. Although research remains scarce, there are some initial reports suggesting excessive screen use may have an impact on teens’ well-being, particularly sleep, anxiety and depression.
But Gillespie has reported it all in a way that is grossly over the top and overstated, and at times incorrect or just plain offensive.
This kind of communication only serves to perpetuate fear and create anxiety – the exact things that the author claims his book will fix.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.
As novel-openers go, they don’t come much better than this one in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. See how the unexpected “striking thirteen” runs powerfully into the beginnings of characterisation and world-building in just two arresting sentences.
Orwell knew that words could both grip the attention and change the mind. He wrote the book as the Cold War was becoming entrenched, and it was meant as an explicit warning on the nature of state power at that time.
The book still sells by the thousands, and is read by students who are compelled to do so. But it can be read voluntarily and profitably, and it can tell us a lot about contemporary politics and power, from Donald Trump to Facebook.
A world of ‘doublespeak’
Nineteen Eighty-Four became an instant classic when published in 1949. People could see in it a world that could easily become a reality. The memory of Nazi dictatorship was still fresh, the Soviet Union had erected the Iron Curtain, and the USA had the atomic bomb.
The novel’s setting is a dystopian Britain, which has become a part of Oceania, a region in perpetual war with the other super-regions of Eurasia and Eastasia. Oppression, surveillance and control are facts of life in a society ruled by the Party and its four Ministries of Truth, Peace, Plenty and Love.
It is a world of “doublespeak” where things are the opposite of what they appear; there is no truth, only lies – only war and only privation.
One of Orwell’s innovations is to introduce us to a new political lexicon, a “Newspeak” where he shows how words can be used and abused as a form of power. Words like “Thoughtcrime”, where it is illegal to have thoughts that are in opposition to the Party; or “unperson”, meaning someone who has been executed by the Party (e.g. for Thoughtcrime) will have all record of his or her existence erased.
Not only do we use many of these words today, but the manipulative function that Orwell described is still intact. For example, when Kellyanne Conway, advisor to US president Donald Trump, stated in 2017 that the Administration has its own “alternative facts”, she was indulging in “doublethink”: an attempted psychological control of reality through words.
Within the corridors of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, though, there’s a tiny flickering of real love that develops between protagonist Winston and co-worker Julia. They share unlawful thoughts about other possible ways of living and thinking, based upon vague and unreliable memories of a time before world wars and Big Brother and the Party.
But through its immense powers of surveillance and the efforts of the Thought Police, Big Brother knows everything, and soon the lovers are suspects. Winston is arrested and brought before O’Brien, the novel’s antagonist and a Party heavyweight who is openly cynical about the power structure of society. For him power is a zero-sum equation: if you don’t use it to keep others down, they will use it similarly against you.
There is much drama, suspense and even horror in Orwell’s book. He wrote about what he saw around him, but filtered it with an acute sensitivity to the innate fragility of civilisation. In 1943, when the plot-lines of Nineteen Eighty-Four were probably gestating in his head, Orwell wrote:
Either power politics must yield to common decency, or the world must go spiralling down into a nightmare into which we can already catch some dim glimpses.
1984 goes digital
These days, a lot of power politics circulates online. Orwell, who worked for the BBC during the war, was sensitive to the power of communications. What he calls the “telescreen” is essentially a surveillance device that “received and transmitted simultaneously”.
He writes of the device that “any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover […] he could be seen as well as heard”. Remind you of anything? Alexa or Siri and their ilk may be fads, but the technology now exists; and so then does a new kind of power.
Such power is contingent and shifting and does not always reside with governments.
Donald Trump wields a new digital power through Twitter and Facebook and can “speak to his base” whenever he’s angry, bored or overcome by impulse. But through ownership of new digital technologies, new actors – data corporations – have acquired old powers. These are the powers to manipulate, surveil, and influence millions of people through access to their data.
And their power in turn can be leeched by hackers, state-sponsored or independent. The complexity of political power today means we need to be more attuned to its changing forms, to more effectively strategise and resist.
Orwell’s “common decency” reference may now sound rather quaint. But its very absence in social media is a problem.
The algorithms that Twitter, Facebook and Google insert into our communications act essentially as “manipulation engines” that can cause division, favour extreme views, and set groups of people against each other.
Divide-and-rule is not their intention – getting you online in order to sell your data to advertisers is – but that is the effect, and democratic politics is the worse for it.
Understanding the nature of political power is even more important today than when Orwell wrote. Oppression and manipulation were “simpler” and more brutal then; today, social control and its sources are more opaque.
Orwell’s imperishable value as a writer is that he provides a template on the character of political power that tells us that we cannot be complacent, cannot leave it to government to fix, and cannot leave it to fate and hope for the best.
Things did not turn out so well for Winston Smith. Pushed to the limit by torture and brainwashing, he betrays Julia. And in his abject state he convinces himself, finally, of the rightness of the Party: “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
The story ends there. But for Orwell the writer and activist, the struggle for Truth, Peace, Plenty and Love was only beginning.
Today, Nineteen Eighty-Four comes across not as a warning that the actual world of Winston and Julia and O’Brien is in danger of becoming reality. Rather, its true value is that it teaches us that power and tyranny are made possible through the use of words and how they are mediated.
If we understand power in this way, especially in our digital world, then unlike Winston, we will have a better chance to fight it.
Microsoft has announced that it will close the books category of its digital store. While other software and apps will still be available via the virtual shop front, and on purchasers’ consoles and devices, the closure of the eBook store takes with it customers’ eBook libraries. Any digital books bought through the service – even those bought many years ago – will no longer be readable after July 2019. While the company has promised to provide a full refund for all eBook purchases, this decision raises important questions of ownership.
Recent years have seen the emergence of an array of access-based models in the digital realm. For Spotify and Netflix users, owning films and music has become unimportant as these subscription based services provide greater convenience and increased choice. But while these platforms present themselves clearly as services, with the consumer under no illusion of ownership, for many digital goods this is not the case. So to what extent do we own the digital possessions that we “buy”?
Fragmented ownership rights
The popularity of access-based consumption has obscured the rise of a range of fragmented ownership configurations in the digital realm. These provide the customer with an illusion of ownership while restricting their ownership rights. Companies such as Microsoft and Apple present consumers with the option to “buy” digital products such as eBooks. Consumers often make the understandable assumption that they will have full ownership rights over the products that they pay for, just as they have full ownership rights over the physical books that they buy from their local bookstore.
However, many of these products are subject to end user licence agreements which set out a more complex distribution of ownership rights. These long legal agreements are rarely read by consumers when it comes to products and services online. And even if they do read them, they are unlikely to fully understand the terms.
When purchasing eBooks, the consumer often actually purchases a non-transferable licence to consume the eBook in restricted ways. For instance, they may not be permitted to pass the eBook on to a friend once they have finished reading, as they might do with a physical book. In addition, as we have seen in the case of Microsoft, the company retains the right to revoke access at a later date. These restrictions on consumer ownership are often encoded into digital goods themselves as automated forms of enforcement, meaning that access can be easily withdrawn or modified by the company.
This is not a one-off occurrence. There have been many similar instances that raise questions of ownership. Just last month, social media site MySpace admitted to losing all content uploaded before 2016. Blaming a faulty server migration, the loss includes many years’ worth of music, photos and videos created by consumers.
My research has found that many consumers do not consider these possibilities, because they make sense of their digital possessions based on their previous experiences of possessing tangible, physical objects. If our local bookstore closed down, the owner wouldn’t knock on our door demanding to remove previously purchased books from our shelves. So we do not anticipate this scenario in the context of our eBooks. Yet the digital realm presents new threats to ownership that our physical possessions haven’t prepared us for.
Consumers need to become more sensitised to the restrictions on digital ownership. They must be made aware that the “full ownership” they have experienced over most of their physical possessions cannot be taken for granted when purchasing digital products. However, companies also have a responsibility to make these fragmented ownership forms more transparent.
Often there is a logical business reason for such restrictions. For instance, since digital objects are infinitely reproducible – they can be duplicated quickly and easily at negligible costs – restrictions on sharing are a means to protect the profits of both distribution companies (Microsoft or Apple, for example) and media producers (including the authors and publishers of an eBook). However, these restrictions must be stated clearly and in simple terms at the point of purchase, rather than hidden away in the complex legal jargon of end user licence agreements, obscured by the familiar terminology of “buying”.
There is a very special section of artworks known as artists’ books. These are artworks in the form of books rather than books about art. South African art collector and philanthropist Jack Ginsberg began collecting in this field in the early 1970s. He recently donated this world-renowned collection – and the biggest in the southern hemisphere – to Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg. Part of the collection, which includes more than 3 000 artworks plus thousands of additional items related to the field of book arts, is on exhibition. The Conversation Africa’s Charles Leonard spoke to David Paton, co-curator of the exhibition.
How would you describe artists’ books?
Artists’ books are artworks in the form of books that explore and unpack their own material being; their bookness. In other words, artists’ books are self-conscious about their function, drawing attention to, as book artist and scholar Johanna Drucker states in The Century of Artists’ Books, the very conventions by which books normally efface their identity.
This reflexive awareness includes a book’s material, shape, structure and navigability. Thus, artists’ books are not sketchbooks, journals or portfolios and certainly not books about, or on, artists. Conventional notions of artists’ books usually include only objects that function as books and exclude sculptural objects, book-like objects, digital books and ephemera.
Another maker of artists’ books at this time in Europe was German-Swiss conceptual artist Dieter Roth.
Before this, however, is a rich history of book arts which includes Livres d’Artistes which are fine, limited-edition books incorporating illustrations of famous texts or poems. An example is Henri Matisse’s etchings which accompany Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé and published in 1932.
In South Africa, perhaps the earliest exemplars are Phil du Plessis’s “Hulde Uit 1970”, an irreverent addendum to the journal Wurm 12 (1970) and Walter Battiss’s Male Fook Book (begun in 1973).
Who is Jack Ginsberg?
Jack is an accountant by profession but is known for his philanthropic work and support of the arts in South Africa. His collection of artworks by Walter Battiss formed the majority of the 700 pieces on the exhibition “Walter Battiss: I Invented Myself” held at the Wits Art Museum in 2016.
Jack then donated the works to Wits Art Museum’s permanent holdings which now forms the nucleus of a major Battiss Archive. In 2017, a small portion of Jack’s internationally renowned collection of artists’ books was showcased at the “Booknesses: Artists’ Books from the Jack Ginsberg Collection”
exhibition at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery.
Despite this being only a small proportion of his collection, they constituted one of the largest exhibitions of artists’ books held globally. Jack is the director of The Ampersand Foundation a non-profit charitable trust. It supports residencies by South African artists and others working in the arts at the foundation’s apartment in New York.
The Foundation also supports local artists by buying their artworks and donating them to museums and galleries.
Describe the works he donated to Wits Art Museum?
Jack has been collecting artists’ books as well as books on the field, what he calls “the archive on artists’ books” since the 1970s. In 2014 he was one of 10 international collectors of artists’ books (and one of only three from outside of the US) invited to participate in Behind the Personal Library: Collectors Creating the Canon at the Centre for Book Art, New York.
The Wits Art Museum collection is the envy of private collectors, scholars, museums and academic collections globally. It consists of some of the cannon of international exemplars as well as contemporary work from North and South America, Europe, Russia and Asia, Australasia and Africa.
It is also the only collection of South African artists’ books anywhere in the world as Jack has, single-handedly, promoted and supported the book arts in this country. Books that Jack has donated to the Wits Art Museum include most of those mentioned in the “history of artists’ books”. It includes Kara Walker’s remarkable paper engineered Freedom, a Fable as well as books by African artists such as Atta Kwami and Marc Wonga Mancoba.
Jack’s extensive collection also comprises fascinating categories such as popular culture; fine bindings; presses and publishers; ephemera, theses and catalogues along with books with unusual materials (such as glass, cork and metal) and structures (such as pop-up and down and tunnel books).
What’s the significance of the donation?
Jack’s collection of artists’ books and, importantly, his archive, is considered by many to be one of the most comprehensive and accessible collections of materials devoted to the field of the book arts anywhere in the world. Together they constitute some 8 500 items donated to the university.
Making these items publicly available at Wits Art Museum as well as the opportunities for artists, designers and scholars to view and access these bookworks, objects and archival materials is an exciting, unique and timely gift to the South African art world.
Ian McEwan’s latest book, Machines Like Me: A Novel offers an alternative history: Britain has lost the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher is waging an election campaign against Tony Benn and Alan Turing survived homophobic persecution to achieve breakthroughs in artificial intelligence.
The novel paints a picture of 1980s London that is at once familiar, but at the same time very different – and in doing so it raises some pressing questions. Central to the plot are the world’s first synthetic humans, put on sale for the public to buy. With this device, McEwan questions what it means to be human – if these machines are just like me, does that mean they have rights, like me?
It’s tempting to dismiss this as a ridiculous notion. When the question comes up with friends in the pub (usually after a few drinks), a common response is that we have human rights because we’re human. Robots aren’t human, so they can’t have the same rights as us. But if you think about this, it’s a circular argument. The same logic was used against women’s suffrage – they can’t have the vote, because they’re women. Slaves can’t have freedom, because they’re slaves. Machines can’t have rights, because they’re machines.
But before this can be dismissed as whimsical science fiction, we need to think more about why humans have rights and what it means to be human in the first place. Some might highlight the importance of our births – the fact that we are naturally procreated, whereas machines are made by humans. But if this is true, where does this leave the eight million people who have been born as a result of IVF treatment?
You could highlight our organic nature to sidestep this problem – we are biological beings, whereas machines are made of component parts. But this would mean that people with prosthetic limbs are “less human” – which is clearly not the case. Nor are people “less human” who have commonplace hip and knee replacements. Scientists at my own university have 3D printed the first artificial cornea, and this week Israeli scientists 3D printed an entire human heart. Nobody is suggesting that patients receiving these artificial organs are less human – even though they are no longer 100% organic.
Consciousness may also be a place to look – as humans are able to act on reasons beyond natural impulse or programming. But we are not alone in this ability – other animals can also engage in sophisticated planning and tool usage. And this argument would mean that babies and late-stage dementia patients are in effect “less human” because they lack this feature – which is clearly not the case.
Ultimately, all of these lines of argument have problems that only lead to deeper levels of abstraction. Maybe then what’s required is the ability to be open to a change in how we see the world and ourselves.
was a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. He claimed that the reasons humans have rights is because we are prospective agents, able to choose what to do beyond natural impulse or reflex. So if this autonomous agency is the foundation of our rights, and robots are also autonomous agents, consistency requires us to recognise that they too have the same basic rights to freedom and well-being that we claim for ourselves.
This is not to say that robot rights cannot be overridden – all rights conflicts lead to the rights of one party being prioritised over the other. It merely requires us to see that robots are equal parties in any rights dispute. Mistreating a robot agent would not be the same as mistreating a printer for example, it would be more similar to mistreating another human.
Granting legal rights to robots clearly remains a complicated subject, but experiences from other fields shows how the problem is only practical and that it can be overcome. Legal systems have recognised that things as diverse as idols, orangutans and even rivers can have rights – so why not robots? It’s clear then that, like McEwan, the law should start thinking about these questions now instead of playing catch-up once the robots have arrived.