Suckling on Steve Jobs’s plastic teats

baby ipad“There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”

Written in 1938 by critic Cyril Connolly, it’s a sentiment embraced by generations of young creative people who have delayed or resisted having children, believing that the arrival of a baby would sap their vigour and keep them away from their passion.

I can’t speak for all artists but the young parents I see down at my local deli don’t appear to be stalked by Connolly’s pram. On the contrary, their creative juices seem to be in full flow as they make magic on iPads and iPhones, typing, swiping and Skyping up a digital storm. And best of all, their babies are right there with them, plugged into their own iPads, suckling on Steve Jobs’s plastic teats as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.

They’re everywhere, this new breed of iParent, propping Apple gadgets against salt cellars to create little cinemas for their screen-addicted spawn. But is this a good idea? As someone who doesn’t have children I’m not sure I’m qualified to judge. I can imagine that there are times when plugging your toddler into a distraction-machine seems not only forgivable but essential. But even I can see that there’s a fine line between using an iPad as a parenting tool and using it as an excuse to ignore your child.

Worse, it’s an excuse gaining ever more traction. Portable screens give us permission to look at them. After all, that message might be important. It might be work. Yes, at this precise moment you’re tweeting a photo of your food, but the people at the next table don’t know that. For all they know you’re working, earning a living to support that beautiful baby who right now is watching Frozen for the 42nd time. So what if her first words are “Let it goooo”? That’s not weird. It’s precocious.

It’s easy to predict the horrible effects on society of people raised by iPads. We’re already starting to believe that consuming media off a screen is a human right that trumps civic responsibility and even common sense: we’ve all braked hard to avoid killing some moron gazing at a smartphone, stepping into traffic he can’t hear, thanks to his headphones.

Other anxieties, though, might be less valid. For example, we keep hearing about how our attention spans are shrinking, and iParents seem to be prime suspects in accelerating that slide towards a global attention-deficit disorder. But surely when it comes to concentration spans, it’s not about size but how you use them? Our ancestors had hours of silence and calm in which to reflect, and they still decided it was a good idea to drown witches and stab virgins to death with stone knives.

Some worriers say that technology is distancing us from nature. Certainly, our ancestors lived much closer to nature. In fact, it covered them, in a nurturing cocoon of natural filth, natural infections, and natural attacks by natural wolves. If living in harmony with nature didn’t kill them, they grew old knowing pretty much nothing about anything. Until relatively recently, our heads have contained just a few dozen factoids – when to plant, when to harvest, how to identify a Jew by the way it turned itself into an owl – and nothing else. Yes, you say, but the ancient ones could recite entire sagas. To which I reply: you clearly haven’t had a fanboy explain four seasons of Game of Thrones to you, including deleted scenes. Trust me, we still do sagas.

So is my suspicion of iParenting valid or merely fear of change? Haven’t we been suspicious of new technologies for as long as we’ve been using them? Just imagine the gloomy predictions in ancient Mesopotamia when an inventor dug a canal and said, “I’m calling it ‘irrigation’.” The elders would have been appalled. What would the children do with all their free time, now that they didn’t have to spend all day toting buckets? Babies’ minds would atrophy as they spent hours gazing at water in the canals instead of doing healthy, natural things like starving to death because of a wholesome, natural famine. Clearly, it was the end of civilization.

From my perch, somewhere between the late 18th and late 20th centuries, iParenting seems like a very bad idea. But so did the last brain-rotting invention, television. Yes, it gave us the Kardashians, but it also gave me David Attenborough, Monty Python and Tina Fey. What will the iBabies give us? My guess is it will be what every generation of tool-users gives us: beauty, joy, mediocrity, banality and diabolical evil. And as for that great art, the pram in the hall now contains a baby with an iPad. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

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First published in The Times and TimesLive

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