Reading Slate Can Kill!


The heavily circulated story of a baby who died while her parents played a computer game has inspired a remarkable feat of fearmongering from Slate columnist William Saletan. You can read the whole thing, or you can just skip to the crescendo:

Maybe this is just a weird story about a sick couple on the other side of the planet. But look in the mirror. Every time you answer your cell phone in traffic, squander your work day on YouTube, text a colleague during dinner, or turn on the TV to escape your kids, you're leaving this world. You're neglecting the people around you, sometimes at the risk of killing them.

Before you turn from this blog in horror and double-check that you've been remembering to feed your children, here's Bryan Alexander unpacking Saletan's rhetoric:

It's fascinating how the author shifts from observing one type of interaction (person to software) to a second (person to person, mediated by software) without realizing it.

This unacknowledged slide is related to the old expression "stop talking on the phone"—one doesn't really talk on the phone, but talks to someone else through the phone. To the caller, which is more important, the other person or the handset?

Saletan's revivified argument also turns a blind eye to all pre-digital distractions, be they pre-Web radio…books, or just daydreaming. It's a classic move for those expressing fear of new technologies, especially in the US. Question: are any of those other technologies or media or practices not "virtual"? Are they ok now in their absorption, validated by being non-cyberspatial?

For Saletan, the "real horror" of the story is that the "balance of power between the worlds is shifting. Here and there, virtual reality is gaining the upper hand." I don't accept the "balance of power" metaphor, but if I did, I'd say virtual reality came out on top around the time our ancestors invented art and language.