How Capital Eats Its Young

Attention is valuable, especially that of children. Unfortunately, that value, a profoundly human value, is undermined by the business world’s idea of valuation, a concept focused exclusively on commercial or monetary value. Insofar as markets are informational mechanisms, they undermine perception and damage mental health, especially that of children. The exquisitely sensitive human attentional system evolved to aim itself at Nature, not to be targeted by revenue-seeking interruptions, distractions, and deceptions. A brilliant new book Who’s Raising the Kids? makes clear the structure, science, and scale of the problems posed by the attention economy, problems especially salient for children.

Attention, in the most basic sense, is a creature’s informational-management strategy. We use our attention to determine what matters, where it is, and whether I can trust it? Vertebrate attentional systems evolved over hundreds of millions of years to let a body use and trust its senses. The brain’s hardware learned to squeeze meaning from scenes like the savannah, scenes containing multiple tiny, faint cues. To a sensory system, faint statistical outliers are eye-candy, attractive,like sugar, precisely because they are rare.  Attention works properly only in a world of sticks, stones, sky, people, fauna and flora, and not much else. Man-made things distract and mis-direct human attention even without meaning to.  And now they mean to and are built to do so, automatically and at scale. 

At the finest level, tiny pixels use microsecond tuning to draw our eyes toward interesting things which aren’t there.  Video games anticipate our anticipation in order to dose us with dopamine. Social media synthesizes the illusion of friendship. Search engines synthesize illusions of meaning. Smartphones rule from our pockets.  Smartphones are the grandest intruders, allowing multinational corporations skilled at using science to design what we will see, believe, and love.

They have successfully commandeered and monetized the growing brains of children and are inflicting widespread damage, according to a powerful new book by the psychologist who saw this coming thirty years ago.  Decades ago Dr. Susan Linn was a child psychologist (and puppeteer!) who appeared on the famous US childrens’ show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.   Seeing firsthand the damage done to kids by marketing and monetized play, she founded the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (now Fairplay). It is among the few child-advocacy groups accepting to follow neuroscientific principles, and not accepting corporate money. Now Linn is a professor of psychology at Harvard. 

The best possible book on the topic

With that background Professor Linn is the best possible person to write this book.  And she has produced the best possible book.  While her sentences are often professorial (of course!), there are plenty of cute anecdotes, appearances of charming children, wry observations, and tales of comically misguided products, like the video game advertised to make going to sleep exciting (p. 104).  For a relentless point-by-point compendium of why moneyed interests must be kept away from children’s play, Who’s Raising the Kids still provides a remarkably funny, easy read.  While it employs US examples for a US audience, her reasoning applies outside the US as well, and will probably be easier to act on in those other places.  This book is for the world. 

Most thoughtful people already know that commercial influences are bad for kids, so they don’t need to read this book.  They don’t need its ruthlessly clear thinking and comprehensive, evidence-laden summary of fifty years of scientific study, because their parenting instincts are already fine.  Besides, pondering such depressing content is a grim reward for reading what one already knows.  On the other hand, some responsible officials hoping to make their case may demand even more powerful evidence., Some might even hold out for the formulation of undisputed natural laws to provide them with the clout to successfully rearrange budgets. I’ll give them such laws at the end, since that’s my professional specialty. As a general rule, many parents already have the evidence. They don’t need even the best book imaginable to tell them about the obstacles to raising functional children provided by a market-saturated world. 


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On the other hand, if you are in a position to influence children or guide their experiences—as a superintendent, teacher, nanny, app designer, marketer—you must read this book.  Your ignorance would be a moral hazard when other people’s children are entrusted to your care. And when you finish digesting its contents, to double your investment. Mail your well-thumbed copy to your favorite venture-capitalist or corporate executive, since they need wisdom even more than you do. Ignorance is no excuse when truth is so important, and easily available.

Professor Linn’s barrage of evidence is overwhelming: the wasteful excess of crinkly packaging around toys, kids falling in love with characters from ads, apps designed to spy on kids. Her list of all the easy ways there are to make money from kids’ innocence goes on and on.  Like taking candy from a baby.

After this book, there should be no dispute that markets threaten children’s sanity. Only Self-serving industry will of course gripe about how impractical solutions are to protect the status quo.  Those gripes are true as far as they go, because the only sustainable solution is a tough sell in a pro-capital society. It implies neutralizing market forces present in domains affecting kids. So, in a word, this book is about changing everything.

This book is so good, the best possible review need only use Professor Linn’s own words. Which I will do. No reviewer could add anything more than praise to this magnificent work, except perhaps a commonsense explanation of how this crisis has been mounting for thirty thousand years, and what society must do to save future generations.  

Who’s Raising the Kids, Compressed

Herewith the titles and a few representative lines from each of the thirteen chapters of Who’s Raising the Kids by Prof. Susan Linn (To each quote I append in italics a dense comment using the technical language of trust-formation, to simplify a unification at the end).

Chapter 1: What Children Need and Why Corporations Can’t Provide It

 “The more a toy or app drives the form and content of children’s play and the more the characters or the toys kids play with are linked to popular media properties and franchises, the less children get to exercise curiosity, initiative, creativity, flexible problem-solving, and imagination.” (p. 19)

Comment: Children’s innate learning algorithms need autonomy and real life detail as inputs.  Standardization, broadcast, and synthetic attractiveness undermine those algorithms by restricting freedom and damaging data, and thereby undermine learning and trust.

Chapter 2: Who Wins the Games Tech Plays?

 “Technologies are problematic when they optimize profits at the expense of the health and wellbeing of individuals and the larger society. Yet no independent review of the potential harms and benefits is required before they go to market.” (p. 35)

Humans evolved to capture attention from each other in real life, and to defend ourselves from it. Now cheap and tireless machines capture our attention all the time, everywhere. They are inhumanly designed to dodge our defenses. Accumulated micro-distractions and micro-deceptions erode everyone’s trust and mental function. Yet regulators cannot agree either about how to limit the overall damage, nor even about how to measure it in the first place.

Chapter 3: And the Brand Plays On

 “When commercial values dominate children’s environment, kids are in danger of losing out on exposure to some of the best human values, such as altruism, generosity, nonconformity, and critical thinking.” (p. 69)

Our brains evolved to associate meaningful phrases with actual human values (e.g. Motherhood, God, Country).  When a child’s mind instead locks onto a slogan optimized for attractiveness by a focus group, the child fixates on something slippery which can never teach it trust.

Chapter 4: Browse! Click! Buy! Repeat!

 “When corporate executives talk about reducing friction, some of what they mean has to do with reducing external barriers to buying, but it also means reducing or eliminating our intra-psychic friction—the cognitive and emotional brakes that enable us to set limits on consumption. For that reason, kids are not just fair game for advertisers—they are essential targets.  Their immature capacities for judgment and impulse control render them especially susceptible to marketing messages.” (p. 81)

The younger a child is, the more innocent its brain, apt to believe the propositions it is exposed to, the longer damage to learning will last.  For a child to waste crucial brain-cells learning bad habits and things which are not true is a tragedy, while for a marketer those represent long-term investments.


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Chapter 5: How Rewarding are Rewards?

 “In nurturing environments where there are opportunities to explore the world on their own terms, young children are intrinsically motivated to learn, to gain competence, to strive for autonomy, and to satisfy their curiosity.” (p. 107)

Natural environments (unlike synthesized ones) can be instinctually explored in continuous space and time, exactly what a brain evolved to do. Only interaction with unbiased, natural statistics allows a brain’s zooming algorithm to converge on trustworthy solutions. Alternative statistical profiles, such as artificially “intermittent rewards,” undermine that algorithm by over-stimulating dopamine release.

Chapter 6: The Nagging Power of Pester Power

“Except for the fact that children and families are being harmed, there’s something darkly comic about living in a commercialized culture that thrives on business models dependent on encouraging obnoxious behavior in children. No sane parent would welcome people into their home whose every interaction with children is designed to instill in kids such intense desires that they nag incessantly to get them fulfilled.  Yet that’s exactly the goal of all advertising to children.” (p. 123)

Messages and interactions optimized to produce revenue from children must of course somehow free that money from the family coffers. But using children to communicate a sales pitch inserts family conflict and undermines trust.

Chapter 7: Divisive Devices

 “Whether with reluctance or open arms, we have invited into our homes powerful, seductive entities designed to generate profits by monopolizing our attention. And they don’t give a damn about our family relations or our children’s wellbeing.” (p. 131)

“Like all other nervous systems, ours evolved to forage, not produce. Humankind uniquely produces things that captivate our senses, and now they do” more than ever. (Sensory Metrics of Neuromechanical Trust, p. 2334)

Chapter 8: Bias for Sale

 “A society’s material culture simultaneously reflects and influences the values, norms, preferences, and taboos of that society. Stories and toys represent a significant component of the material culture belonging to childhood, and they profoundly influence how children make sense of the world around them, including how they view and experience themselves and others.” (p. 154)

Stories and toys sell better when optimized for pre-existing concepts and stereotypes. Oversimplified ones sell best of all. But when it comes to social values, pre-existing means backwards-looking, and simplified means caricatured. Backwards-looking caricatures describe regressive attitudes like racism, sexism, and mercenary individualism. Those are already built into mass-produced communication, but kids absorb them fastest.

Chapter 9: “Branded Learning”

“Because [corporate-sponsored teaching materials] are often slickly produced, require no up-front cash outlay, and can bypass school boards and be sent directly to teachers, they may appear to be a godsend to cash-strapped schools.” (p. 169)

Corporations have money and underfunded schools have young eyeballs, so an inevitable market-driven (but corrupt) transaction lets corporations disguise their advertising as educational material, offered to schools for free. But there is no such thing as free information. In this case kids and society pay the price.

Chapter 10: “Big Tech Goes to School”

“The value of quality, teacher-driven instruction is well supported by research. There is no credible research supporting industry claims that online, personalized learning programs improve academic outcomes. Test scores do not rise. Dropout rates do not fall. Graduation rates do not improve.” (p. 185)

Human brains evolved to learn from physical objects and physical people in real life.  Pixels and frames on screens are so chopped up, they only carry one millionth of the detail young brains need to trust their eyes, as long-established laws of neuroscience prove. So screen-based inputs of any kind not only don’t help reading and writing, they cause actual harm to seeing itself. 


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Chapter 11: Is That Hope?

 “In the United States, two types of laws would help to stop tech companies from exploiting children.  A national privacy protection law, which we do not have, and adequate laws protecting the rights of children, which we also do not have.” (p. 199)

As long as US law more successfully protects growing capital than growing brains, capital will damage children.

Chapter 12:  Resistance Parenting: Suggestions for Keeping Big Tech and Big Business at Bay

“Six principles of child development to help adults make decisions about introducing tech to young children:

1. Young children live and learn in the context of social relationships.

2.Young children use their whole bodies and all their senses to learn about the world.

3. Young children learn best and benefit most from direct, first hand experience in the world of actual relationships and objects.

4. Young children are active learners who learn by inventing ideas.

5. Young children build inner resilience and coping skills through play.

6. Young children make sense of the world through play.”

(p. 210)

All humans, young children especially, evolved for interaction in the three-dimensional real world, which is our native sensory interface. Synthesized inputs, or even real inputs selected for impact, provide fake data and thus undermine real learning. 

Chapter 13:  Making a Difference for Everybody’s Kids

 “I am for a world where children are universally valued for who they are, not for what they or their parents can buy. Where family and community values no longer compete with commercial values for precedence in children’s lives. Where kids have lots of “in the real world” time with their friends and with the adults who love and care for them. Where their friendships can flourish without interference from, and monetization by, tech and media companies.”  (p. 239)

The environments in which brains grow and learn best are the natural, socially supportive ones for which they evolved.  Because all experience is training data for a growing mind, commercial interference damages learning in often irrecoverable ways.  Monetizing children’s brains means the end of our species. 


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The Battle for the next generation’s sanity

This point summarizes Professor Linn’s book. The sensory and social needs of growing children are actively opposed by the needs of capital. Widespread and growing monetization technologies are already eating the brains of our young.  Legally. And sometimes the young even like it.

Attention is easy to harvest because humans offer it so freely. But that doesn’t make the ethics of attention-harvesting different from those of organ-harvesting. Both attack vital biological systems, and thus share a dysfunctional dynamic which, above a very low threshold, ensures that revenue can only derive from inflicting  harm.  As targets, children provide the easiest profit and suffer the longest-term damage.

In recent years bosses and hiring managers worldwide have privately lamented the latest generations’ poor social skills, low attention span and diminished motivation, to say nothing of their defective team spirit, absence of critical thinking and decline in physical endurance. Young people now don’t simply work as well as earlier generations. Studies confirm these mass deficiencies, which happen to be the same problems this book reveals.  Thus, the decision made decades ago, under US President Reagan, to expand the dissemination of kids’ ads has now exploded into what one should expect: sad, damaged, dysfunctional adults everywhere.  The economy is already hurting from how it abused human brains twenty years ago, long before today’s far more invasive technologies took hold.

Although Linn doesn’t stress this point, the class of guilty parties is obviously not limited to large corporations. .Tiny startups and lone influencers can also do damage as they desperately flail about to attract  revenue and attention. The problems Linn points to are deep systemic ones: How can society neutralize a wide class of market mechanisms which have been optimized for hundreds of years to produce revenue by any available means, including means that  have a damaging effect on  children? Is it reasonable to think we can stop capital from doing what it’s best at? Legislation—like the Five Rights bill in the UK and COPPA2 and KOSA in the US—is a start. But it’s not enough.

As of now, the biggest companies in the world have promised their shareholders money produced by  strip-mining the brain-cells of future generations. Can that be stopped? Seen from the coldly mathematical perspective of information flow through space and time, the problem is even worse than what Professor Linn describes. And the possible solutions will inevitably be more profound.

It Started with Cave Art and Loincloths

Allow me a parable. A long long time ago, in Paleo Paradise, people were only exposed to each other and Nature, and paid attention accordingly.  But human interests are fickle, so to manage them somebody, let’s say a proto-administrator, invented figurines and cave art for people to look at, and loincloths to keep them from looking away. Ever since then, humans have seen less and less of each other and the natural world our sensory instincts evolved for, and more of man-made things which exploit those instincts. In fact as a species we’re proud of those creations. We call them art.  When they make money, we call them entertainment or advertising.

The takeaway message is that attention has long been for sale, but it’s never been so cheap. The ancients had salesmen, but not rack-mounted computers serving a million times the harassing sales pitch for the price of a human salesman and with no qualms about the quality of the message.  A few decades ago new active technologies—radio, television, video, cable, internet—let machines represent live talking people. Recently, the ability of The Machines — designed to micro-monitor, micro-monetize, and micro-prod — increased hundreds-fold thanks to the omnipresence of mobile devices. As a result, machines now capture attention far too efficiently for human sanity and safety.  The open security holes of our nervous systems have been utterly hacked. Human communication is corrupt in every medium but the air we breathe.

Roughly, a species whose intimate, subtle social communications evolved through a million years of live campfire singing, dancing, and group hugs has in a couple generations become thoroughly immersed in ever-more-mesmerizing panoplie of blinking things, whose primary purpose is to capture attention and induce belief.  And those things work. The bandwidth and authenticity of human interaction has been dropping steadily since cave-times. Now humans know less and less how to feel, to move, to see, or to connect with one another in more than caricatured ways. The mechanism at the core of the problem is recordable communication. Things like texts, tweets, likes and videos are not even empty calories in terms of biological signals. They provide no calories at all. Our nervous systems are failing from informational starvation, and trust — the essential cement of human society — is dying by the year.

If you worry about Platform Capitalism and the Rise of the Machines, then think about this:  robot-toys, robo-calls and robo-therapists pretend to be our friends, but secretly they obey their spreadsheet overlords.  


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Grand Projects

Humanity has solved problems this hard before, or almost as hard.  Water-pipes made of lead, exploding boilers, crashing trains and cars, toxic food, fake accounting, risky drugs, filthy restaurants, the list goes on and on of tricks we’ve learned to keep the things we make from killing us. As a general rule, when society realizes that saving or making money here creates danger over there, it makes laws and sets up snap inspections. Think financial enforcement, or health inspectors who check that restaurant dishwashers use water that’s hot enough.

Killing bacteria by turning up a thermostat is straightforward.  Killing the influence of money in communication is far harder, since at present capital owns the major channels and doesn’t want to part with them.  In that light, here are some angles for regulators to use in protecting children from toxic commercial interactions:

Disclaimers don’t work; double-blind does.  Any self-respecting judge, I hope, would laugh out of the room the legal fiction that a printed disclaimer will insulate the unconscious against manipulation. The unconscious doesn’t work that way. Learning requires autonomy, so all manipulation harms it.  Fortunately manipulation can be measured objectively, as advertisers do, using randomized testing (“A/B testing”).  As long as regulators can look over the shoulder of marketers measuring ad impacts, honesty has a chance.

Disgorgement discourages damage.  Ill-gotten data, like ill-gotten money, should poison the well. If for example algorithms are trained on kids’ private profiles, or on racist historical data, not only should the data be purged, algorithms and workflow trained on it should be wiped clean.  As an incentive principle, the ease by which technology violates trust must be balanced by draconian consequences when it crosses that line.

Transparency brings balance.   Trust only works when everyone has the same high-quality information.  So private claims about ad “eyeballs” or behavioral impact — the kind of claims companies use to get money from investors and advertisers — must be equally available to the public and to regulators, because those claims are proportional to the public harm being done.

Health Not Test Results.  Until kids again become happy, energetic, social, curious, and motivated, they should get more music, art, live games, and physical activity, and less of everything else, especially technology.  Written tests of academic performance mean nothing compared to live 3-D tests of nervous system function.

This month, the US Senate is considering two laws which would help the situation enormously: the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA 2.0), and the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA).  The Senators who vote should read this book.
In fact, Who’s Raising the Kids should be required reading everywhere, especially in countries (like France) with strong protections for public health. But also in countries (like India and Pakistan) whose advertisers seem proud of teaching kids to nag and pester parents (p. 117).  When well-paid grownups brazenly brag about wrecking kids’ relationships, children are doomed.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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