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.


First published in The Times and TimesLive


The other mother

'Close, Close' by Claudette Schreuders, 2011

From ‘Close, Close’ by Claudette Schreuders, 2011.

Most days, if the weather allows it, the shepherdesses drive their herds down to the park.

The streets that flank it are busy, but once the women have wrangled their animals through its wrought-iron gate, they can relax: the park is fenced, tree-filled, shady. The shepherdesses sit, their legs straight out in front of them, and begin to discuss the state of things in a combination of Xhosa and sighs.

Meanwhile, the herds have quickly dispersed throughout the park. Two species predominate: large golden retrievers, grazing on cat faeces, and small pink primates, grazing on each other. One of the primates screams; a shepherdess looks up sharply. “Mabel! Don’t push the baby!” The guilty shuffle apart. The nannies go back to their slow lament, and the toddlers go back to being disgusting. Away in the hydrangeas a retriever licks a child off its haunches, then licks it upright again.

As a nature documentary it is fascinating – you can almost hear Attenborough murmuring a commentary about the human two-year-old’s ability to eat its own body weight in earthworms – but to someone who is physically cautious it is worrying. For a moment I wonder if my anxiety is the result of corporate fear-mongering. The sanitary-industrial complex spends vast sums telling us that fatal microbes lurk everywhere; that we should wash our hands with ever more virulent chemical cocktails in case we catch plague from “dirty soap” that has touched the festering, pus-oozing sucking wounds we used to call “hands”. We know that this is hogwash, and that regular doses of dog gob and topsoil help build robust immune systems. And yet the sheer barbarism of the toddlers is jolting. Surely their nannies should be, you know, nannying them?

Then again, maybe they are. For a few years I had a nanny, a vast Xhosa woman called Priscilla. We would watch The A-Team together, and during those peculiarly ferocious but impotent fire fights, in which thousands of rounds were fired without hitting anything, she would shake her head and cluck, “These men, they are wasting their bullets.”

But it wasn’t just the A-Team who wasted their bullets. Any futile endeavour was a waste of bullets to Priscilla. In the end, I think, some of that philosophy, of preserving one’s psychic ammunition, rubbed off on me.

Looking at the feral toddlers in the park, I must consider that similar lessons are being learned here. They seem abandoned, but perhaps they are being taught not to waste their bullets on pointless anxieties. By being given as long a leash as Child Welfare allows, they are discovering that life is risk. More importantly, they are learning that they are trusted, and that they can therefore trust themselves. Before my alarmed eyes, they are growing a spine.

But my unease remains. It seems unjust that these children are learning lessons from women who should be raising their own children instead of leaving them in a township with an over-taxed grandmother. I also wonder: when the parents of these children go off to work in the morning, what do they imagine is about to happen? Do they picture a kind of antebellum idyll, with big black Mammy cooing over their honey-chile, hoping that the vast divide in personal freedoms can be ignored in a haze of nurturing? Do they have an inkling of this Lord of the Flies setup, and are secretly hoping that their township mother might inflict some of the tough love on their child that they themselves are too squeamish to offer? Or is it something in between, a complex relationship that fluctuates between guilt, gratitude, pragmatism and denial?

Whatever the relationship is, it ends; and when it ends, it is left unresolved. We discuss the politics of employing poor black women to raise comfortable white children; we engage with the economics of it. But somehow the psychology of it, of having a second mother who is then sent away by one’s first mother, remains unspoken. Perhaps those who have had nannies don’t know how to talk about that strange vanishing in their pasts, because it was long ago and tinged with loss they don’t understand. I still remember how Priscilla smelled; of Vaseline and Zambuck, now and then of snuff. But I can’t remember why she left, or whether or not I told anyone that I was sad to see her go. For white children, that relationship ends in silence; but the sound of silence lingers on for years.

The toddlers in the shrubbery are being infected with life but also imbued with a sense of belonging to an African mother, to an African whole. When they go home they will be scrubbed and disinfected. It would be nice if some of the soil remained inside them.


First published in The Times and TimesLive