Digital culture: the new frontier

Eisenman compares the fax machine (electronic) and the camera (mechanical) as examples of new and old paradigms stating that:

‘with the fax, the subject [or the user] is no longer

called upon to interpret, for reproduction takes

place without control or adjustment… The fax

also challenges the concept of originality. While in

a photograph the original reproduction still retains

a privileged value, in facsimile transmission the

original remains intact but with no differentiating

value since it is no longer sent… The entire

nature of what we have come to know as the

reality of our world has been called into question

by the invasion of media into everyday life. For

reality always demanded that our vision be « 1


Even in the decade since Eisenman made his observations technological developments, in particular those relating to computers, have made transformations which are even more profound. This has altered the ways in which many children spend their lives, with computer-aided learning, the use of the world wide web and the Internet ubiquitous in most aspects of education, and computer games of an ever more sophisticated form directing children away from traditional pastimes. These games are especially interesting since there is much anecdotal evidence which supports the view that children, boys in particular, are experiencing an interactive three dimensional kind of play which demands an engagement with landscapes which are spatially challenging yet with no physical dimension for the participants. The health and safety agenda has overtaken the natural development patterns children were exposed to previously, restricting the healthy freedom children had to explore outdoors, free of parental supervision. The electronic landscape is filling this void, creating an environment where children hardly need to go outdoors at all. Today children spend hours immersed in their computer worlds at home, they are ferried to school in the family car and then may continue to work on the computer during their school hours.

Compare this to Joan Bakewell recounting her somewhat nostalgic wartime experience of a childhood in Stockport, England during the 1940s: ‘Children were out of doors, playing on the streets. After
air-raids there was shrapnel to collect, bombed houses to loot, ruined buildings, their walls tipping dangerously, to be explored…She goes on to describe a sense of freedom and excitement which came out of this uninhibited play: ‘it made us self-reliant, responsible for our own actions. It was assumed we knew how to look after ourselves. We roamed the fields and streams, climbed trees, trespassed into grand houses, collected frog spawn in jam-jars, picked wild flowers and took

them home to press___ Days when I wasn’t at school

were governed by nothing more than the need to get home in time for teaHer childhood was distinguished by a closeness to the real landscapes around her home and an uninhibited freedom from adult supervision which has almost totally disappeared, except for the so-called feral children described in Chapter 9.

Photographer Ansel Adams was at the height of his creative powers forty or so years before the invention of the fax machine. His work captured the legendary qualities of the American landscape (see Figure 8.1). His images enhanced the natural beauty of its huge rivers, mountains and lakes.

Looking at these stunning images the viewer tends to load extra meanings onto each, over and above the intended surface meaning. These are more than just landscapes; in Eisenman’s terms, these photographs are open to a variety of interpretations, just as the physical landscapes which were open to earlier generations of children could be interpreted in a variety of ways, through imaginative game playing and physical immersion in their real time spaces.

Подпись: Figure 8.1 Monument Valley by Ansel Adams (the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, Little Brown & Co., Boston).
Digital culture: the new frontier

Whilst Ansel Adams was taking photos during the 1950s, John Wayne was appearing in feature films set in that mythical nineteenth-century landscape. That was a world where the horizon seemed to be never ending and the environment appeared to challenge man’s everyday existence. The frontier exists beyond the edge of settled or owned land, and has a fatalistic charm for those looking in. These films encapsulated some of the most important electronic images of my childhood years. Narrative and metaphor could be interpreted by the childish imagination depicting man’s actions as a moral choice between good and

bad, heroism and weakness. The ideas presented within this narrative were enhanced and amplified by the monumental landscapes within which the films were set.

The technology available to the film industry in the 1950s was limited; most of what we witnessed was real time. Within our suburban communities during the immediate post-war years, the release of big budget films into local cinemas was established as an important moment in the collective weekly experience. Joan Didion first saw Wayne on screen in 1943. She wrote that ‘when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams… in a world we understood early to be characterized by venality and doubt and paralyzing ambiguities, he suggested another world, one which may or may not have existed no more: a place where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it’.8 Yet there are a number of other levels at which this can be read.

When Wayne walks off into the desert at the end of The Searchers, the landscape is framed by the door of a settler’s home (see Figure 8.2). The family have been rescued from the savage (as represented by the people who ‘don’t count’ like native Americans), and the wilderness beyond is apparently tamed as Wayne returns to his footloose life of isolation and social deprivation (perhaps roaming the empty spaces between
settlements). There is a sense of admiration for a man who requires no comforts; his comfort comes from the spiritual relationship he has with the natural world. His is a rejection of the modern western world of technological devices and ironically for an American icon, capitalism. There is, in addition, a physicality about the interaction between the actors and the landscape, a definition of all that is real, authentic, primordial. The Western narrative resonates to the American romance for a sort of individualistic masculinity.

Is this is a peculiarly male boyish take on the myth? Ask most women for their view of this drama and they might pose questions of rights, responsibilities and the need for people to take three steps back before they respond to a confrontational situation. Yet for many men there is something seductive about being immediate and spontaneous. The lawlessness of the relationships between men in the Western myth was what made it so attractive to young boys being drilled in the relentless lifeskills of discipline and self-control. Laura Miller describes it as ‘a lawless society of men’ which gave men the scope to operate outside the rules of law and society within… ‘a milieu in which physical strength, courage, and personal charisma supplant institutional authority and violent conflict is the accepted means of settling disputes…’.

Подпись: Figure 8.2 John Wayne, the final image from The Searchers (from the Art Archive Kobal Collection).
Digital culture: the new frontier

Monument Valley was the backdrop to many of John Ford’s films, visually a highly charged

setting with its soaring monumental rock systems reminiscent of a Gothic cathedral. It is an environment which film critic Philip French has suggested, in his book on the Western, to be a moral universe, rugged and uncompromising. The landscape was never just a landscape, the films were about the earth itself. Wayne’s myth is spiritual, a oneness with the natural world, yet seeking in some small way to control nature. The message had a moralistic tone, a human code in spiritual harmony with the wild environment to which all men remained subservient. Americans regard the loss of that wilderness with a sad regret, like the inevitable loss of innocence that goes with the transformation from being a child to being an adult.

However did this representation of a relationship between the early American settlers and the landscape ever really exist? Certainly Didion implies that it was a retrospective construction. It symbolized the loss of certain values which tied the refugees from the old world (mainly Europe) into the new world, where there was little of man-made cultural beauty. The landscape was the bond between the people and the state, the culture of the USA, expressed by wild and natural landscapes within which men could roam freely, prior to the development of an urban environment and the constraints of civilization. As Laura Miller points out in her essay ‘Women and Children First’… ‘When civilization arrives on the frontier, it comes dressed in skirts and short pants’. In other words, children and women need protecting, hence the imposition of law and order. Institutions like the prison are established and the first schools are built.9 Civilization, it may be deduced, is primarily one which relates to mothers and their children.

We began this section discussing the romance of the frontier in nineteenth-century Western mythology. Many obervers of digital culture have drawn analogies between the Net and the frontier notion. The frontier is an apt description for all that limitless freedom young people can find there, which is largely uncontrolled or it may even be described as lawless. The romance of the Western relates to the instantaneous nature of conflict and conflict resolution played out in a theatre which is a beautiful abstract representation of the great American landscape. The protagonists do not need lengthy discussion, negotiation and compromise, imposed by the rules of society, in order to resolve their differences. As previously stated, there is an instantaneous frisson of decisive action, a brief exchange of truths followed by assassination. There is usually only one winner, the person who is on the side of right and truth. It is that ultimate sense of power which was the basis of its appeal to so many young male children during the time I was growing up.

In a similar way, the many computer games give the participants that instantaneous hit of a connection with few rules or boundaries. They offer themselves for exploration like the frontier, yet are devoid of the physical dimension the Western landscape promoted. The Internet has evolved from an obscure system used by academics and scientists, into the global support system for millions of users worldwide. Like the Western frontier, the electronic frontier is largely unregulated and open to all sorts of misuse. Unlike the Western frontier, which was tamed as a result of its habitation by women and children, the Internet remains stubbornly free of effective controls (it was designed to be this way), and is to a large degree, a male domain.

For this reason, it feels slightly dangerous and risky, replicating the spontaneous collision of different anonymous people operating within a certain type of space, ‘cyberspace’, which arguably does not really exist. Francis Spufford explains the psychological pay-off for children using computer games… ‘in the small domain of a programme, he had what the big world rarely gives to 18 year olds: the chance to say yea or nay and have his instructions followed to the letter. It was a small but real power.’10

Eisenman’s view that reality was always interpreted in order to make it authentic and rich goes a long way towards defining the potential trouble for children operating within the new media playground. Whereas my childhood fantasies were for the most part played out in real landscapes, where everything was open to imaginative interpretation, and the ‘real time’ delays that entailed, the contemporary landscapes of computer games and the Internet are devoid of that potential for interpretation. Furthermore, they are immediate.

The instantaneous nature of the Internet and other electronic communications available to young people, such as the mobile phone, brings a sort of craving for progressively more extreme virtual worlds in which to live out their lives. This leaves very little which is open to their own imaginings. Modern digital culture is for the most part devoid of ambiguities. It is ‘given’ and to that extent it denies children their potential to stand back and develop thinking skills and the power of their own imagination. It limits the range of expressive mediums children are willing to explore with and restricts verbal dexterity. Take it away for a few

Digital culture: the new frontier

Figure 8.3

Matthew (aged 9) on a summer holiday deprived of his computer games is given a set of Froebel blocks.

weeks and watch how other forms of play will be exhumed, such as painting, drawing, block play (see Figure 8.3), and role play. Give it back to them and it will take over their lives again. Time will tell what effect this will have on coming generations brought up in the electronic landscapes of childhood.

Other dimensions of the transformation from the childhood experiences of the 1960s, and the way in which contemporary childhoods are now played out, should also be noted. The new computer games (a number of which will be described in the next section), present conflict situations devoid of any physical dimension and synthetic spaces with a dull abstracted terrain, across which the players float. This lack of a physical engagement with the landscapes of childhood, where the body becomes passive while the mind enters cyberspace, is very useful for adult carers and parents. We live in a world where the potential for violent physical dangers (at the hands of predatory strangers) is emphasized at the expense of the very real and widespread physical danger of too little physical exercise for our children. This goes largely ignored. The ‘virtual reality pod’ idea holds such attractions as an image of the future, yet it is pernicious for this very reason. Although Joan Bakewell’s recollections of her childhood are imbued with a mischevious sentimentality for a golden past, nevertheless the unregulated, isolating and extremely male – orientated electronic landscape can only ever be half a place in which to grow up. We should ask ourselves very soon, do our children lack danger?