ORIGINAL SINNERS

Who is the greatest of the Great Seducers?

1. Karl Marx
2. Giacomo Casanova
3. Plato
4. Mick Jagger
5. All of the above rolled up into a single 18th century seducer

The answer is 5. If you role up Marx, Casanova, Plato and Jagger into one 18th century writer and womanizer and philosopher and (con)artist you get the greatest of the Great Seducers: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) of Geneva, the author of Discourses on the Arts and Sciences (1750), Les Confessions (1770), The Social Contract (1762)  and, most importantly, Emile (1762)

Rousseau

Rousseau came up with the most seductive sentence in the whole dirty history of Western utopian thought. It occurs at the beginning of his political treatise, The Social Contract:

MAN WAS BORN FREE BUT EVERYWHERE HE IS IN CHAINS

In ten words, Jean-Jacques Rousseau bore the modern idea of childhood. Till then, children were considered little adults, miniature sinners, junior versions of their corrupt elders. But with Rousseau’s seductive ten words, childhood and children acquired the halo of innocence. Thus the centrality of Emile, Rousseau’s enormously influential “educational” treatise, on how to maintain the inner-innocence in the adolescent.

Rousseau’s idea is very simple. Man was born good and society corrupts him. Rousseau turned the Aristotelian veneration of experience and old-age on its ancient head. Human nature is good and society bad. Original sin was replaced with original virtue. Wisdom and goodness was now located in the child or the primitive human, the so-called “noble savage.”

Rousseau-for-idiots: Adults don’t get it; kids do.

Sounds familiar? Rousseau’s cult of the innocent child climaxed for the first time in the countercultural explosion of the Sixties when a generation of children all-too-innocently announced their intention to remake the world in their virtuous image. Today, this ideal of the innocence, the embedded virtue, the original purity of the child has returned wrapped in the cloak of digital idealism. Let’s tag it “Climax 2.0” in honor of those Silicon Valley teleologists who can only think in zeros and ones.

I thought of Rousseau today while reading an ABC news piece by Michael S. Malone entitled “The Leet Guide for Noobs and Nubs”. Implicit in Malone’s argument is that the  online words and symbols of teenagers, words like "leet" and "noob" and "nub" invented by kids to communicate with other kids, represents a linguistic purity that eludes adults. Online kids know how to talk to one another. The adolescent language of instant-messaging and texting has become the new thing-in-itself.

This seductive ideal of youth  is even more explicit in the work now done by Danah Boyd, a Web 2.0 utopian, by about the morality of the My Space generation. Boyd describes her work as follows:

“I study emergent social technologies that incorporate social networks, identity representation, sharing and performance (Friendster, blogging, IM...). I focus heavily on youth culture.”

In her sociological research, Boyd digitalizes Rousseau’s innocent child:

"Youth are not creating digital publics to scare parents - they are doing so because they need youth space, a place to gather and see and be seen by peers. Publics are critical to the coming-of-age narrative because they provide the framework for building cultural knowledge. Restricting youth to controlled spaces typically results in rebellion and the destruction of trust. Of course, for a parent, letting go and allowing youth to navigate risks is terrifying. Unfortunately, it's necessary for youth to mature."

Boyd-for-idiots: Analog parents don’t get it; digital kids do.

But what happens, however, if this “coming of age narrative” (ie: Climax 2.0) on an online youth community like My Space involves teenage pornography and voyeurism. What happens when, as the Wall Street Journal reported, the kids are into spanking and swinging and where Playboy Enterprises Inc. has launched a casting call for a "Girls of MySpace" nude pictorial.

Perhaps, then, the adolescent members of the My Space community are not quite as innocent as we are led to believe by the digital utopians of Silicon Valley. Perhaps we should revert to the pre Rousseau vision of the child as the flawed little adult, the original sinner. Then the crude behaviour of today’s online children becomes more troubling. Perhaps, then, we should be spanking our kids, rather than allowing them to spank each other.