The New Mr. Spock?

I am being forced to relive the 1960s as journalists seek ways to describe my work. Last year, Howard Rhinegold dubbed me "the 21st century McLuhan," a comment my publishers felt compelled to put on the front cover of Convergence Culture. And I've been hit again and again ever since with questions about my relationship to McLuhan. Short answer: McLuhan and I differ in our conceptual starting points. McLuhan starts from the communications technology to explain its potential impact on society (his famous "the medium is the message") where-as I tend to start from the culture and focus on how social agents redefine technologies through their uses. McLuhan was important to me, however, in so far as he paved the way for comparative perspectives on media (moving us beyond medium specific debates which had limited the discussion in my opinion) and in that regard, he ranks alongside Harold Innis and Ithiel DeSola Pool in terms of being a founding figure in Comparative Media Studies.

McLuhan also provides me with a role model: he was someone who was willing to talk with media corporations and policy makers alike in his efforts to shape his culture; he was deeply invested in the concept of media literacy; he was a public intellectual who saw the value of engaging with the news media and with the public in an attempt to make his ideas more widely accessible; he was the head of a center which brought together intellectuals across many different disciplines; and he was someone who constantly experimented with new media platforms, including newsletters, records, video, and photographi collages, in his effort to spread his ideas more widely. These are all goals I try to embrace in my own work, though so far, I haven't been interviewed in Playboy, been the subject of jokes of Laugh-In, or made a cameo appearance in a Woody Allen movie. :-)

This past week, the analogy shifted with Stephanie Olsen from ZDNet News calling me "The Internet's New Dr. Spock." I was initially bemused by the comparison, especially since most of what I had said during the interview about Spock had ended up on the cutting room floor. But I was even more amused by the fact that several people out there responding to the interview have confused Dr. Benjamin Spock, the leading child advice writer of the 20th century, with Mr. Spock, the Vulcan first officer on board the Enterprise on the classic Star Trek series. Talk about generational differences in perspective!

Here are some comments from the Talk Back section following the article:

....Doctor Spock?

I thought it was Mister Spock and Doctor McCoy??


Aye, Aye Scotty!

Reader post by: Commander_Spock

Story: The Internet's new Dr. Spock?

Prepare To Beam Us Up For This Debate!

On Board Enterprise Warp.


Of course humans are not the only ones to make such confusions. The ad words that cropped up spontaneously on one site which mirrored the article pointed consumers towards a range of Star Trek related products, including, no joke, rubber Spock ears.

Leonard Nemoy struggled his whole career with people who confused Dr. and Mr. Spock, a confusion which normally resulted in an arch of his eyebrow. As it happens, I have written extensively both about Mr. Spock, through my work on Star Trek fans, and about Dr. Spock, through an essay I published in the Children's Culture Reader.

For the purposes of identification as this discussion continues, this is a photograph of Mr. Spock from Star Trek:


And this is a photograph of Dr. Spock, the child rearing expert and anti-war protester:


As it happens, there is a NEW Mr. Spock, as Entertainment Weekly reported a few weeks ago: Zachary Quinto, the actor who plays Sylar on Heroes, was recently cast to play the young Mr. Spock in the next Star Trek film which is being produced by J. J. Abrams.


I have been having fun imagining what readers thought Stephanie Olsen meant when she compared me to Mr. Spock: Is it some kind of comment about my logical mind, my (hardly) stoic attitudes, my commitment to "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations," the fact that every seven years I go into Pon Farr, my lust for Jim Kirk, or some other aspect of the television character's personality which escapes me. Of course, I always fancy my job as going where no humanist has gone before, so there may be some resemblence to THAT Spock after all! :-)

It occurs to me reading such comments that it would be useful to spend a moment explaining who Dr. Spock was for a generation which may have grown up without his sage guidance or seems to have no clue who he was.

Wikipedia provides a pretty good summary of Benjamin Spock's life and work:

Benjamin McLane Spock (May 2, 1903 - March 15, 1998) was an American pediatrician whose book Baby and Child Care, published in 1946, is one of the biggest best-sellers of all time. Its revolutionary message to mothers was that "you know more than you think you do." Spock was the first pediatrician to study psychoanalysis to try to understand children's needs and family dynamics. His ideas about childcare influenced several generations of parents to be more flexible and affectionate with their children, and to treat them as individuals, whereas the previous conventional wisdom had been that child rearing should focus on building discipline, and that, e.g., babies should not be "spoiled" by picking them up when they cried.

I wrote an extensive discussion of Spock's work for my book, The Children's Culture Reader, and that essay is reproduced on line for anyone who'd like to read it. Essentially, this article argues that Spock was one of a generation of post-war children's advocates who began to reassess the power relations between adults and children and who also helped the society come to grips with Freud's discoveries about infantile sexuality. I argue in the essay that this post-war parenting advice prefigures and predates later discussions of adult sexuality in important ways:

The recognition of children's sexuality as a positive, rather than as a negative, force led to a close examination of how parents should respond to and facilitate children's erotic awakenings. Children, so often, in our culture become the bearers of our own utopian fantasies for a better world. In this case, the world which was being envisioned was a world without erotic inhibitions, a world which was open to sexual pleasure and free from guilt and negative self-images.

By looking closely at children, their bodies and their desires, permissiveness developed an ideology about sexuality which helped to prepare the way for the sexual revolution of the 1960s. First, sex was rendered "wholesome," natural, biologically necessary, and in the process, old superstitions and moral prohibitions were pushed aside. Second, sex was stripped of its ties to procreation, with the child's masturbatory exploration of its own body and its pursuit of pleasure assuming positive values in and of themselves. Third, healthy sensuality extended to the entire body and not simply the genitals. The child's polymorphous eroticism was to be retained in adult life as a new and more vivid form of sexual experience. Fourth, pleasure was seen as beneficial, necessary, and the body was depicted as knowing its own needs. The body doesn't lie; if it feels good, it can't be bad. Fifth, all aspects of life, especially learning and creativity, assumed an erotic dimension, as practices of re-direction and sublimation transformed sexual energies into other kinds of activities, and the desire to explore the world was understood as primarily sensual in origins. We know through our senses, and as a result, we should awaken our senses to the broadest possible range of experiences. Sexual frustration and perversion were seen as resulting from boredom and understimulation. Sixth, sexual openness within the domestic sphere was viewed as positive, including some "healthy" interplay between parents and children, yet sex was, by its design, a private act, which should be performed behind closed doors and held in check by public expectations. Morally charged concepts, such as "sin" or "guilt," were gradually displaced by socially-directed concepts, such as "privacy" and "propriety." Most of these conceptions of eroticism would become core tenants of the self-help books or liberation literature of the sexual revolution; they would become the common wisdom of a generation which sought to expand the place of recreational sex within American life and to prolong the period of childhood sexual experimentation into a richer, fuller erotic life as adults.

So, what does this have to do with my work on youth and digital media? Not a lot. I am a media scholar, not a pediatrician or child pyschologist. But for the baby boom generation, Spock functions as short hand for all advice literature for parents. In practice, Spock himself was deeply distrustful of mass media even though he himself used the media very effectively to get his advice out to parents. Subsequent children's advice writers have tended to say very little about media or reduce their advice to parents to what I call the "just say no to Nintendo" position. That is, good parenting comes through restricting access to media: keep it out of the children's bedrooms; limit the number of hours.

I would argue, however, that parents have a constructive role to play in actively shaping young people's relations to media, helping them learn skills which will allow them to meaningfully participate in the new media landscape and develop a healthy, ethical, creative, and intellectually engaged pattern of media use. As I wrote in Technology Review several years ago, media literacy begins at home and parents have an active role to play in insuring that children acquire the core social skills and cultural competencies needed to become full participants in the emerging media culture.

It is not even clear that there could be a Spock of the Internet Age. Spock's books emerged within the context of a consensus culture; they were being read at a period of mass migration in which the dominance of the extended family was breaking down as children moved away from their hometowns as they started their own families and thus needed a different form of advice than their parents had required. Spock's books were read by almost everyone in the society where-as today's market for advice literature is increasingly fragmented, responding to a multicultural society with many different definitions of what a family is and what values should shape the interactions between parents and children.

But if we look at what Spock said in his books, we might construct some core principles of what advice to parents would look like:

1. Spock felt that parents should remain calm and trust common sense to get them through most problems. In the case of the Internet, parents would do better to try to find analogies between what occurs online and other more traditional forms of activities. So, in what ways is hanging out in MySpace like the teen haunts of previous generations? In what ways is joining a guild in a multiplayer game like signing up for sports? In what ways is Live Journal like writing for the school newspaper? And so forth. These analogies would only get us so far but starting from an idea of radical difference may cause parents to freak out about every aspect of their teen's online lives rather than focusing on real points of conflict or weighing risks and benefits of certain activities.

2. Spock worked hard to insure popular access to the latest thinking of academic experts. We've already argued that he was a popularizer of Freud and psychoanalysis; he also helped to bridge between cultural anthropologists like Margaret Mead and the American public. He wanted to insure that parenting was governed by reason and reliable information rather than having parents strike out blindly. He wanted parents to see their jobs in a larger social and cultural context and that's something which could help contemporary parents find the right solutions for their own families.

3. Spock taught parents to respect their children and see them as citizens within a democratic society rather than subjects of a totalitarian regime. Permissive child rearing doctrines then and now got a bad reputation because people imagined children as becoming tyrants and parents as reluctant to set limits. But Spock, in fact, shifted back and forth over time in his advice trying to counter both the authoritarian impulses of parenting in the immediate post-war period and the excesses of totally permissive parenting which came in its wake. Respecting children, listening to their point of view, but also providing leadership and governance within the family was at the heart of the social ballance he advocated. And that ballance is totally off at the moment where the internet is concerned. Some parents remain ignorant and indifferent of what their children are doing online, while others employ all kinds of surveillance tools to snoop on their kids. The key is, as I said in the interview, to watch their backs and not snoop over their shoulders. Parents need to engage children and youth in a process of reflecting on their own ethical choices and educating them about the risks they face as they move into this unfamiliar space. And that means adopting an informed perspective on the online world rather than acting in ignorance or fear. Spock's advice literature helped another generation learn what it needed to know in order to confront the social transitions of the post-war society. A new Spock would need to give them the information they require to manage the cultural, economic, and technological transitions of our own era.

To borrow a line from Leonard Nimoy, I am not Spock. I suspect there never will be another Dr. Spock given the fragmentation of our culture. But we can all learn things from Spock's legacy which would help parents deal with some of the challenges they face right now.