Blog Post

Piaget, Vygotsky, New Media

Yesterday's NY Times has an article on "Web Playgrounds of the Very Young." Disney and others, with virtual worlds such as Club Penguin, are designing complex alternative environments for six and seven year olds. I know I should be alarmed by the commercialization of child's play but that's been happening for a long time and I'm fascinated by the cognitive and social potentials for new media for tiny tots. Why leave virtual worlds--with their social rules embedded in imaginative play--to the "big kids"?


I've watched four year olds customize Pokemon and virtual worlds for preschoolers are just around the corner. I'd be interested in virtual worlds for learning-fun aimed at kids just learning language. Of course, the experimental psychologists would have a field day if images and easy manual manipulation (put the virtual blue peg in the virtual blue hole but not in the virtual red square) allowed the barely speaking child to perform complex social, ideational, and psychological choices of the type that gorillas and parrots have mastered. As with animals, the translation would be happening between the child's nonverbal imaginings and adults to whom that world is impervious. The pictorialized/verbalized performance on screen would be the mode of that translation, a window into what, on a more sophisticated level than we've seen, is happening in that infant mind. I'm convinced a lot is happening in there that is simply not accessible to us (pretty blind) adults because it is not communicated to "us" in a language we understand. Our precise language, on one level, actually makes us relatively gross and clumsy in our powers to translate without language. (It's not about slowing down and shouting.)


My excitement over the new field of neuroanthropology, and my excitement over early childhood ethnography of the type conducted by Debra Van Ausdale (The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism) is because I'm increasingly moving away from Piaget's development stages theory of infant knowledge acquisition in favor of Vygotsky's more fluid idea that everything a newborn is doing is a kind of scaffolding for everything else and the "doing" is cultural and interactive with those around that child who provide their own scaffolding for learning in every smile, frown, gesture, noise, both those directed at the child and those directed away from the child ("at" and "away" themselves being linguistic distinctions that are entirely cultural in their boundaries and definition and, I believe, differently perceived and unevenly learned as an infant develops). Expressing the relationship between the subject and object, outer and inner, world and self, the real and concepts has been the subject of philosophy since Socrates and no doubt long before in traditions with which I am not yet as familiar. Expressing the relationships (I/we, you/me, us/them) with precision means accepting divisions which are not self-evident nor intrinsic and, in fact, are entirely culturally specific and culturally determined. Western philosophy has developed a technical language discriminating the various aspects of the discourse (each with long histories of debate) that is virtually impenetrable to someone outside the discourse, and comes "bundled" with ideas of force (Foucault--truth as tool of power) that are not acknowledged and typically not even available any more to the adult. How to articulate the prelingual choices against world-chaos? Philosophers, anthropologists, linguists, psychologists, sociologists, and educators all struggle with these determinations. Never mind an infant just mastering his or her first language. The point is if adults, schooled in traditions of reflections on these issues, cannot articulate innateness, learning, development, culture, society, interpersonal relations, we certainly cannot expect the child saying her first words to do so. Yet, along with Vygotsky, I am suggesting that the infant is already experiencing and, more, developing the intimacies with those concepts that we call, as a shorthand, language but which is really everything all at once bundled into language which neatens, organizes, and shorthands far more complicated concepts against Deleuzian chaos (you can see why I love that Liz Grosz lecture).


Infants are embodying ( I mean that term) these concepts from birth, sometimes before (newborns can tell which sounds are "foreign"), elaborating them with greater and greater precision along with experience, maturity, and so forth. But if the first year of birth is about developing neural connections, sorting among the synesthetic shower of jumbled perceptions, bundled along with affection, discipline, danger, caution, language, culture, prejudices, and naming, by the time language begins to happen many of the fundamental distinctions upon which the history of Western philosophy is based are already absorbed and foundational to all else that is being absorbed. ("Absorbed" is a wrong word since we know that infant behavior is interactive--what G. S. Klein wittily dubbed the "we-go" rather than the "ego.") So virtual worlds for the barely lingual? Customizable worlds with social rules. If we can come up with the right tools, easily manipulable and visually enticing, if we can really see what these tiny ones are doing, we will learn a lot. We might even observe some of the issues that Grosz raises in "Architecture from the Outside," her analysis of the Cartesian mind/body dualisms embedded in our conceptions of "virtual worlds." As she says, "we don't have bodies; we are bodies."


That insight is what infants in our culture have to un-learn. Language is the shorthand that codifies the dualism that contradicts an infant's bodily "is-ness" and bifurcates mind and body, subject and object, and so forth, in contradistinction to early infant synesthesia (on a perceptual, proprioceptual, and cultural level, all together). Will we see all this in analyzing virtual child's play any more clearly than we have in analysing material child's play? Not sure. My doubt in how much we will learn from children customizing prelingual virtual worlds resides not with the kids but with us as observers; many of these lessons are there now in game play of preverbal infants but we cannot see it because of how our brains are bundled by language/culture/all that, including the verdict that children are ego-bound, developmentally limited homunculi. We look and what we see are shrunk-down versions of ourselves.


Cautionary note: I am not talking about innate or instinctual knowledge in this blog. Not very much is instinctual except a number of reflexes and, because of mirror neurons, abilities to react and give feedback to those beings and things interacting with the infant. What I am talking about is learning, every second, from every thing, all the time, senses, words, culture, affection, approval, danger, attitudes, norms, values. I suspect (in a lesson learned over and over with animals) that very small children, prelingually, are aware of and are processing far more social, cultural, and normative distinctions than we have dreamt of in our philosophies.


Here's the url for the NY Times essay:


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