Three Questions

1. What can I expect of children whose understanding of language is not yet nearly as well developed as my own adult linguistic skills, without asking too much of them?

2. What ought I to expect of children without contravening educational, psychological, moral and aesthetic requirements, particularly since it is not always easy to bring those four into line with each other?

3. And the third question, unfortunately, is: what does the market allow me, want me or forbid me to do in a rapidly developing media society?

from Comparative Children’s Literature by Emer O’Sullivan (trans. from Boie 1995)

What Is Your Concept Of Childhood?

If we compare Americans and French, it seems as though the relation between childhood and adulthood is almost completely opposite in the two cultures. In America we regard childhood as a very nearly ideal time, a time for enjoyment, an end in itself. The American image of the child…is of a young person with great resources for enjoyment, whose present life is an end in itself. With the French…it seems to be the other way around. Childhood is a period of probation, when everything is a means to an end, it is unenviable from the vantage point of adulthood.

– Childhood In Contemporary Culture, Wolfenstein (1955)

I am neither American nor French, so as an adult who grew up in New Zealand, I’m wondering about my own view of childhood. Is it possible to fit neatly in the middle, viewing childhood as neither particularly good nor particularly bad? I certainly had worries as a child. I distinctly remember that one of my greatest fears at the age of five was to arrive home from school to find the gate shut. Dad had built that tall gate several years previous, to keep me in, after I ran off  ‘to see the lions’ at the age of two and a half, wearing nothing but a nappy and a bib (I’ve heard that story many times), but I feared that if I ever came home from school and it was shut, I’d never ever get into the house again. I don’t know quite what I thought. Perhaps I was expecting permanent banishment. In fact, I never thought that far. My fear was irrational. So every morning before I left for school I told mum to leave the gate open for me.

Mum remembered the gate almost all of the time. Except for once. When I got home it was shut tight and I couldn’t reach it. I screamed and hollered so loudly that the mother from across the road came and rescued me… and changed my pants. How humiliating. I suppose my own mother had got caught up at the shops or something. I wasn’t permanently banished. I don’t remember worrying so much about the gate after that, though.

These days I worry about bigger things, but I’m better able to cope with those things, so the worries seem neither more nor less significant than that simple childhood fear of abandonment. Childhood would be blissful, perhaps, if we could approach it with the carefree spirit of adulthood, knowing all that we know as grown-ups.

I do find it interesting that different cultures have different general concepts of childhood, because the American view of childhood as bliss, and its depictions in certain stories, has never sat right with me. It’s nice to know that this is due in part to my culture, and not to some terrible repressed memories I must’ve had, colouring my relatively pessimistic view forever after!

The Opposite Of Beer Brewed By Monks

Episode 55 of 99% Invisible goes into the strange psychological phenomenon whereby certain consumers will pay huge amounts for a scarce commodity. Alcohol and handbags seem especially open to this marketing manipulation, and in this case beer, not because beer connoisseurs are being manipulated per se, but because there is a monastery in Germany whose monks brew beer — but only enough to generate funds for the monks to get by on. Turning a profit is not their business. The beer is good, apparently, but adding to its goodness is the story behind it: the monks don’t brew on Sundays of course. Nor do they brew on Fridays, because they don’t eat on Fridays. To pick up a box of the stuff you have to phone first and make a reservation. It’s hard to get through on the phone, especially since the lines are only open at certain times of the week. Then, if you manage to get through, in order to pick it up you have to drive and drive and drive through the countryside. Consequently, the beer fetches a very high price, even for its high quality, and there’s a blackish market on eBay.

I mention this because apps are the opposite of monk-brewed-beer.

Apps are available anywhere, anytime, to anyone with a device. Apps are the opposite of ‘limited supply’. They are the opposite of exclusive. The opposite of exclusive is ubiquitous; the opposite of expensive is free, and there seem to be a lot of consumers who expect good apps to be free, knowing that when they’re downloading an app, they’re not depleting any sort of resource. A traditional point of view, based on years of evolution.

The difference of course is that in order to deliver an app to the end-user, unless the end-user spends significant time scanning the long list of new apps list coming onto iTunes each day, the developer has had to spend time and resources (probably both) making the end-user aware of its existence. That long country road is no shorter, but it is traveled instead by the marketing team, not by the end-user.

Inviting Programmers Into Creative Teams

Episode 59 of the 99% Invisible Podcast explores what happened when artists were brought on board to work with architects on a project in New York City. Some of the architects didn’t like this much, being used to owning the creative talent and having the artistic sway, but the project manager told them to like it or lump it. Artist input did result in a creation quite different.

This made me wonder how things would be if programmers were given more creative sway in publishing houses, especially as big publishers move tentatively into the digital world. Programmers are not known for their creative bones, instead for their attention to detail and methodical mindsets. Yet the programmer in this house counts photography among his hobbies. Creativity and attention to detail go very well together, if only creative streaks are let loose.

On the one hand I can’t understand why we’re not seeing far more creative storybook apps coming out of the largest publishing houses, who I presume have much bigger budgets than ours, and who could really push the boat out if they wanted to. On the other hand, I can see that if programmers are not adequately invested in a project — if they’re paid by the hour, say, and told what to do by the designated creatives — the acquisitions team (and author illustrator teams) may not have the foggiest idea of all that is possible. It takes an experienced programmer to know that.