We are, in many ways, badly made. A foal walks within hours. On YouTube, you can watch scores of baby turtles hatch and scrabble right down to the surf. It takes us a quarter century before our minds work properly. They say having kids is like letting your heart walk outside your body. The whole thing seems improbable, how much care a human being needs to survive, but cognitive psychologists say this is the secret of our species. The brain plasticity that makes us so needy also makes us creative, and capable of the kind of play that can make our worlds change.
Remind us of this the next time we are trying desperately to finish an editorial note before the kids wake up and start screaming.
Kids can be hard to see clearly. What are you having? Walking around pregnant is a great way to test the line between oppressiveness and good will, which is sometimes nonexistent—the stranger who immediately, excitedly asks about the gender of your fetus, as if you could know. Kids precipitate intense hope and fear and nostalgia, mix up the past and the future completely, which is why we project so much not only onto “our” kids (who are not our property; if anything, most days, the opposite seems true) but onto childhood as such.
Like everything, all this had to be invented. Medieval Christian theology regarded babies not as angels, but demons. In paintings, even the baby Jesus looks like an old man. The heroes of epics, up to at least Dante’s Commedia, were not young, but middle-aged. Scholars have shown that for childhood to become what it is now—among other things, a protected site and a source of sentiment—a lot of things had to happen, and of course they did not happen for everyone. Some people are never allowed childhoods: to the cops, a twelve-year-old playing with a toy looks like a killer. Other people never have to grow up: to venture capitalists and the business press, the forty-something CEO who messes up just needs more time to grow. There may be little that feels more obvious than the imperative to protect the innocence of children. Yet innocence as a category is anything but.
This issue of the magazine tries to move beyond commonplaces, while also analyzing what those commonplaces are about, in the first place. Our authors examine the relationship between youth and technology. Relationships, plural, we should say. Because, as the cliché goes, it’s complicated. One of the first myths to dispel is that only one kind of connection is at stake. The singular reflects the idea that kids are a blank slate: naturals, “digital natives,” the ones whom large scale innovations should target, whether it’s the One Laptop Per Child initiative or Google Classroom.
Some pieces investigate the persistence of history that an emphasis on the youthfulness of technologies and technologists obscures. One writer points out that, although the money in Silicon Valley is often presented as new, much of it is in fact inherited. Indeed, tech’s dynasties raise the question of whether “new” money even exists, if wealth is ever created ex nihilo or only, like a face that travels through generations, changes shape, updates. Another writer looks at algorithms developed to manage the dispossession of Indigenous people in the nineteenth century, and how this same technocratic regime of laws and logics are now used to apportion shrinking water supplies in the climate-apocalyptic West. It can be unsettling to recognize the continuities of systems of oppression, how often our tools have simply been updated to remain the same.
But sometimes, more disruptive updates slip through, the kind that repurpose the system. The purpose of a system is what it does, cybernetic theorist Stafford Beer reminds us. When the state trains you in STEM for a communist utopia that never arrives, it turns out you can use those skills to hack the planet. It turns out, if you want to get a glimpse into the torture chambers of the War on Terror, you can set the geolocation on your Tinder app to 19.9031 N, 75.0967 W: Guantánamo, Cuba. Some of the young guards may turn out to be like you: bored, lonely, in love, ambitious, uncertain, hoping for a change. They won’t stay long. This does not make their role warehousing those whose own youth has disappeared into the blacksite less horrifying; it makes it more.
Other contributions in this issue look at various attempts to protect young people from technology. These include parents and teachers, but sometimes also the kids themselves. Sometimes the kids long for less technical times, when the world felt more open for self-discovery, when you had to go cruising, instead of having the TikTok recommendation algorithm tell you you were gay. The tech industry tends to claim the mantle of youth in order to pretend it has no history and to bolster its ownership claims over the future. In this issue, we speak with recent college graduates who have gone into tech and have come to doubt these narratives, but who still want to use the power that the industry lets pass into young hands for good. Notwithstanding the lucrative business of defining and branding distinct generations, we find that one feature of youth today is that there are far too many kinds of kids to generalize about.
As we close this issue, schools across the United States are starting back up in person. For many kids, the pandemic turned schooltime into screentime. Other kids stopped going to school at all. At night, after we finally get our own kids to sleep, we open our New York Times push notifications. They are frightening. In August, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced that nearly one in five new Covid-19 cases were children. A number of them have developed “long Covid.” Former star athletes are sleeping all day. Former star students cannot focus. It is hard to know how good the data is. It feels impossible to know what to do.
They say children are the revenge of grandparents: in them, we come back to haunt ourselves. If we didn’t sleep, they don’t. If we whined all the time, they do. Kids are where we see the past return. But they also carry our hopes for the future. They make us feel that certain things can change, that maybe we can do better next time. The pandemic has made abundantly clear that we are all interconnected spatially. Kids help us see how interconnected we are temporally. Now now now now is their favorite saying, second only to Again! They are reminders of our shared vulnerability, of how each generation makes the next. We promise we’ll do better next time. Next time, we’ll get it right.