As my son’s birthday rolled around last week, my wife and I were unsure about what to buy him. Awash in a sea of easily procured, cheaply available, Chinese-manufactured baubles, our son’s regard for physical objects—toys—seems tepid, at best. As consumer manufacturing pipelines increase and corporations release infinite variables of intellectual properties there are few physical toys so rare that they can’t be discarded, replaced and made meaningless by the next.
What I’m finding, instead, is that my son and most of his friends seem increasingly drawn to digital rather than physical items and request these items for their birthdays and other special occasions: character skins, digital victory dances, and Sony Playstation credits that allow them to interact in their digital world. They’re requesting objects that impart status on the digital playground.
Non-physical abstractions are replacing physical items as objects of desire. This speaks to a societal shift away from physical reality and it may explain why the defense of free speech is on the wane among the young and why they seem to have such a hard time distinguishing between speech and violence.
Between overprotective parenting and the rise of computers and video games, we’re seeing a dramatic change in the way kids develop and play. Kids interact with each other in the ‘real world’ less, while interacting in digital worlds more often. Studies now show that kids are spending about half the time their parents did playing outside. What this seems to point to is an increasing level of distance between kids and the physical world. This could have enormous consequences as they mature and enter a world where they (still) have to interact with one another in real life (or, “irl” as the kids put it), and we might expect to see these consequences manifest themselves nowhere more clearly than in their relative ability to disentangle speech from violence.
As the digital playground increasingly supplants the physical one, what we’re seeing is a slow revolution in meaning—where the literary begins to supplant the literal. Increasingly, the digital world is experienced by the young in ways that are more real and meaningful to them than the experiences they have in the real one. As the young become more abstract in their play, as the digital unseats the real, might it not also be the case that our future society’s idea of violence evolves and increasingly becomes conflated with speech and thought? In a virtual world, narrative and story—that is, words—determines the outcome of play. These abstractions, in other words, are the reality.
In times past, when kids played outside they generally learned that there was a difference between the external, literal world, and the figurative worlds of their imaginations. The axiom “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” developed in, and was a reflection of the reality presented by this distinction. On the physical playground, someone could call you something, it might hurt your feelings, but there was always a distinction between objective physical violence and verbal taunts. As time went on, the most important lessons were learned—no one could actually hurt you with words if you didn’t allow it.
This dynamic radically changes when kids leave real playgrounds and increasingly interact solely in the online world. In the digital world, there is little distinction between being called something and someone attacking your avatar. It’s all abstraction—zeros and ones, pixels on the screen. As attached as one may be to an online avatar or persona, there is no physical pain associated with its demise. As the level of abstraction for playtime increases, so too does the concept of hurt. The line between speech and actual violence blurs. On the physical playground, there is a bright dividing line between a taunt, a threat, and actual violence. In the digital playground, that dividing line is much less bright—an insult hurts your feelings, someone destroying your avatar does too. Feelings are the only thing that’s ever hurt. Kids who never actually experience the distinction between physical violence and speech, increasingly conflate the two.
Thus kids begin to assign the taunts and “digital violence” the same level of meaning that used to be reserved for physical violence. It is here that we begin to understand why free speech is now being assaulted, or at the very least, being left undefended. We have a generation of kids for whom the digital, the simulacra, has been accorded more meaning and significance than the existential and physical.
And so, if you really want to fight the free-speech fight, do so where it is most important. With Kids. Don’t just abstractly explain to them the distinction between words and actions, let them learn through experience. Send them outside to play. Let them get hurt, like actually hurt. Physically. Have them join scouting. Do anything you can to make them see the real distinctions between the external and internal, between the objective and subjective, between the literary and the literal.
Otherwise, as digital play grows at the expense of physical play we consign ourselves to ever-increasing levels of abstraction and the blurring of the lines between what’s meaningful in the physical world and what we perceive to be important in the digital one.