Robots aren’t the cure for lockdown isolation
My only child misses her friends — robots like Moxie are not the answer
The worst thing for me about the lockdown was the way it impacted my 3-year-old. As she’s an only child, I’ve always worked to ensure she has plenty of opportunities to develop her peer social skills. Whether in preschool or playdates, she seemed to be developing just fine as a little social creature.
Deprived of the company of other kids by lockdown, she went into a kind of mourning. After a few weeks she said to me sadly one bedtime: ‘preschool and dance class are gone now, so it’s bye-bye friends’. Then she seemed to adjust, which worried me even more.
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I was right: when preschool reopened she didn’t want to go. It was too much, too loud, too busy, too many conflicting demands. Watching her on playdates since, I’ve seen her struggle with peer interaction in a way she never did pre-lockdown. She’d become rigid, controlling and anxious. At the slightest sign of pushback she’d implode and come running to me, wanting me to make her friend do what she wanted.
Luckily, a solution is on the market: Moxie the robot. According to the sales website this internet-connected machine “provides play-based learning that is paced to weekly themes and missions with content designed to promote social, emotional, and cognitive learning.” Available to pre-order now, it’s been in development for years but Embodied, the manufacturer, must be eyeing the many one-child middle-class families with worries similar to mine and marvelling at the way lockdown has just mushroomed their market.
I won’t be ordering Moxie. The reason this ‘soft skills’ robot won’t work, and in fact will worsen the alienation and misery of those children on whom it is foisted, is precisely because it’s designed to use machine learning to tailor an educational soft-skills journey for each individual.
In all our negotiations with other humans, we’re forced to confront the agency and otherness of people who aren’t us. A degree of conflict is inescapable as we work out how to plot a path between intersecting and sometimes competing desires. When my daughter comes running over on a playdate asking me to be the policeman in a conflict with her friend, my usual response is to refuse. Learning to do this without top-down intervention is a fundamental skill — or should be, and an acceptance of this ongoing process is core to any willingness to participate in human society.
In playdate conflicts, I try and help my daughter find ways to resolve things on her own, or accept that others won’t always do what she wants. But because Moxie is a thing, a machine; it will never do this. It’ll never disagree in surprising ways, or otherwise ambush a child with its otherness. It’ll never object to playing Lego rather than dressing-up, for wholly arbitrary reasons. It won’t ever be in a bad mood one playdate, or interested in Paw Patrol rather than Cinderella.
Instead, it’ll offer carefully structured ‘learning opportunities’ that never jar the child out of the prison of his or her own reality and desires. It’ll teach the opposite of democratic, mutualistic engagement with a genuinely free other, accustoming a child ever more completely to live in a bubble of content-optimised narcissism. Whatever the answer is to how we socialise children in an increasingly anti-social world of radically atomised individuals, Moxie ain’t it.
I well remember watching the original broadcast in the late ’60s, and at least once since; but Mr Roberts shows that the connections between that past vision-of-the-future and our miserable present are far closer than my memories could disclose.
This seems to be a universal quality of prophecy ” whether the prophecy is based around a religious theme, politics, the fate of a nation, or the fates of people. There are those who hear the prophesy when it is uttered and it makes them wonder; and then in the future there are those who hear it again and realise ” “Ah! That’s what he meant”. This is a mystery; and because I am a Christian I tend to incline towards a spiritual origin for such insights, whether they are specifically religious or not. There are so many well documented instances; and although they might be attributable to uncommon human insight and imagination, it is their function that give them their power. Fortune-telling it is not.
Examples that stand out are: Alexis de Tocqueville’s prescient critique of democracy in Democracy in America (1835″“40); Heinrich Heine’s astonishing prediction of the rise of German power, all the more terrifying for the author’s deployment of pagan imagery, in The History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany (1834); and, of course, those prophesies of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley in 1984 (1949) and Brave New World (1932) respectively, which have lost none of their power by being so often repeated. In many places in the Gospels, especially those of Luke and John, Jesus’s disciples remember things he had said or done, and now see them in a new light ” e.g. John 12:16 “His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him.”
Biblical prophecy is on a completely different level from the insight or deductive imagining of de Tocqueville, Huxley and others. But we do well to take these secular authors seriously and to heed the warnings they offer. This article does that very well indeed. The parallels between the harassing of Peter Hitchens and the equivalent scene from The Prisoner are striking and disturbing. (His nonchalance is powerful. But I suspect it’s a good job the police were there.)
The problem is that those harassers, and the leaders of the elite institutions who lend false validity to their nefarious behaviour, are so blinded by their ideology that they are incapable of seeing what the prophecy is telling them, and if they can see anything of the prophecy’s truth-telling, they think it’s acceptable or even desirable. So, I suspect, they would not even imagine that there is anything wrong with the society described here by Mr Roberts:
I get the feeling the Village is very much where the elite institutions of our society want us to end up ” a progressive, international community with no past and no sense of place, where we celebrate continually, avoid debate and difficult facts with mantras, reward non-conformity with ‘re-training’, and punish ‘Unmutuals’ with mobs. There is a large, and growing, blob of pure Village throughout our public life, and it’s seeping into our private lives too. Can you trust everybody in your DMs?
The article was very perceptive,hitting nails on the head which we can expect from Gareth Roberts, and an excellent comment with very useful insights with which I totally agree
Many thanks for this timely article! The present Western Cancel Culture, as might call it, should not be equated to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, but it can certainly be compared to it in the ways the author describes. But we still have far more rule of law and other remedies that China lacked in the 1960s and 1970s. Let us use them wisely and well, privately and publicly, and add as much common sense as we can muster.
How many Remainers have noted the outstanding (non) performance of their beloved EU since the appearance of Covid19.
Why have pretty much ALL the comments on this article been stripped off? Are we just wasting our time here?
It was a serious question, seeking a moderator’s response. There were at least another half dozen comments here, many of which I disagreed with but that’s not the point – does UnHerd practice censorship? Why were they removed? They seemed to be pretty much in topic and not inappropriately worded. Is debate on UnHerd’s comment forums worth engaging in?
Strange as well, that none of those removed have even like your comments? Maybe they are bots?
What a great article. I vividly remember ‘The Prisoner’ and, especially, his cry of “I am not a number. I am a free man”. As I started to read this I was thinking it should be reshown but feel the irony would be lost on a lot of people watching it. It might even confirm their beliefs! To think of all the freedoms we were fighting for back in the 60s and to see what is happening today makes me rather sad. This is the inevitable part about growing old – we think they were the best of times and today is the worst of times. Every generation thinks that to some extent but I am worried about the brain washing my grandchildren seem to be subject to. When I was their age I could read papers, watch the news and get a, reasonably, balanced view of the world in order to make an opinion. The MSM of today have made that virtually impossible. While on the subject of virtue it would be great if , every time someone of influence virtue signalled, a klaxon would go off and we would all be aware that it was, probably, insincere. We could call it the “bullsh*t monitor” !
Perhaps the French President should stop massaging Mrs Merkel’s knee?
Covid will in my view massively boost populism
Although many of us have suspected a Maoist-type movement is going on in the West, we’ve been gaslit to think we’re just being paranoid, racist, elitist and reactionary – just like the everyday Chinese of that time (and no doubt still to this day to some extent). To hear confirmation of our concerns from a flesh and blood descendant of the Maoist horror is truly enlightening. Thank you.
“Had readers been asked to take a guess at the effects of the post-2008 crisis in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Lehman Brothers, then I think very few would have forecast the sheer scale of the turmoil that was about to unfold.”
Nonsense! Nearly EVERYBODY was forecasting all sorts of disasters in those days, FAR worse than anything that actually happenned. Hyperinflation, the complete collapse of both the Euro and the US Dollar, starvation, blood in the streets, you name it. Misery loves company, and some political prophets actually seem unhappy when the disasters they predict do not materialise.
There was a bit of a NATO war hawk vibe to this. Doubling down on the Nordstream-2 pipeline would seem to be the rational thing to do, and Trump looked like a bully trying to stop it. So what if Trump’s opposition had bipartisan support? Mindless Russophobia is the game that virtually all American politicos love to play. Where is Ronald Reagan when we really need him?
Interesting stuff. Thank you!
Conducting research on childminding in Ireland revealed that it’s an approach some single child parents use. It’s a small mixed age group of children which often works on family-like lines. Very interesting finding.
Ding dong the populists are dead. Liberalism is back.
From where I sit in the US, there’s a problem with this quip, which I think lies in the complicated definition of liberalism, combined with the inaccurate exclusive attribution of populism to the right wing. Bernie Sanders is a populist.
By classical liberal standards, i.e. Western Liberal notions like e.g. individual sovereignty, liberty, and equality [of opportunity], the right wing is actually who is currently most championing liberalism at the moment.
But if your definition of liberalism is, “whatever someone came up with 5 minutes ago”, then OK, maybe you’re right, once right wing populism dies, “liberalism” will be back.
“President Trump hasn’t been shy in using the might of the American state against the protestors”.
I must have missed that (unless you mean not using tear gas to clear Lafayette park).
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