The publication of this book is the culmination of a journey that began a quarter of a century ago when the first of the authors, Nachshon (Sean) Goltz, happened to undertake an unplanned ‘experiment’ on the effects of media. Sean spent the better part of a year sitting on a couch and carving wood, while avoiding all media, save only the radio—which he listened to every day, for most of the day. At the end of that year, Sean exposed himself to the very worst of cable TV—including the shopping channel—which he watched every day, for most of the day. This went on for several weeks, until Sean experienced an epiphany. He stood up, turned his back on the TV, and crossed into the other room where he wrote down the Five Laws of Media Engagement, much as they appear here in this book.
As Sean wrote, he felt as if a higher power was dictating the words to him. Not long after, he described to me how he was riding on a bus, his thoughts so immersed in understanding the media laws that time itself slipped away, seemingly standing still. This enabled Sean to connect our subjective experiences of time with the ways that different media manipulate this. “I was so excited by this understanding that I immediately wanted to share the knowledge with others,” he explained, “I assumed that advertising agencies, dealing with the media, would be the natural audience. I faxed a one page description of theory to several advertising agencies.” Needless to say, none of them ever got back!
Yet the Five Laws light a torch that led to many years of research for Sean, first a Master’s thesis and later a PhD dissertation at Osgoode Hall Law School, in which he explored the regulation of children’s video games and virtual worlds—focusing on the ways in which these media hamper children’s cognitive and imaginative development. Nevertheless, it was always a challenge to explain these ideas to others. There is a strong resistance in many quarters to any talk of how media can be harmful, even to young children. Being primarily a legal scholar, Sean was also a disciplinary ‘stranger’ to the field of media ecology. An expression of their resistance was delivered in the cold welcome he received on the Media Ecology Association list serve hosting hundreds of scholars in the field. There were many scholars who did not want to take on board new ideas, or tackle new problems, or disrupt their disciplinary comfort zone.
But not me. When I first heard Sean’s ideas I knew that modern media was like junk food for children’s minds, but I also knew that the evidence exploring this topic was highly controversial. I heard the oft-repeated arguments from other scholars, “Haven’t people always said that any new media is harmful for children? Didn’t we say the same thing about Saturday morning cartoons? About the first motion pictures? About reading comic books in the early 20th century—or novels in the 18th?” Yes, of course, concerns have been raised about any new medium, and usually with some justification given the depth of changes that are wrought: new communications technologies change our culture, our values, our style and form of education. This is why they always require thoughtful and purposeful adaptation.
This is the genesis for the ideas we present here. I was happy to come on board, and use my experience with scientific research to make the case that new media harms children—particularly the kind of harms that we call here ‘virtual’ or ‘intangible’—these are the harms done to children’s lifestyles, to the values and habits that media consumption cultivates, and how these shape the broader culture. And there is a case to be made that these are wholly novel challenges, that we are witnessing the introduction of media that subject us to psychological conditions we have never before experienced: video games and virtual words, fully immersive virtual and augmented reality, human-brain interfaces, biohacking and Artificial Intelligence. It is impossible to underestimate the depth of the change these new technologies bring to our fundamental social systems: childhood, education, socialization, family life, economic participation, as well as regulation and the laws that govern these domains.
In light of these new technologies, it is time to change our ideas about regulation. As in many other fields, new technology is forcing us to think differently as regulators and legal scholars, to look deeper into the conventions adopted in the field of regulation and move beyond prohibitive and command-control-style approaches and towards relational and values-based approaches that see regulation as part of a vibrant cultural sphere. It is not a question of choice, but one of necessity. Failing to adapt, to employ creativity and innovation in the construction of new regulation for new technologies could have serious consequences for the coming phase of human adjustment they will bring about. At stake is what values we will hold, our notions of humanity and personhood—as well as our creativity, our imagination, and along with them our very ability to adapt to the coming changes.