Care, Not Control
The Convivial Society: Vol. 4, No. 11
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. This installment could be read as an addendum to the last two or three posts. But it also stands on its own and focuses on one simple idea: we should not confuse the promise of control offered by certain technologies with care. It also highlights one critical sphere, where, in my view, the presumption that there might be “one best way” causes immense and unnecessary angst: caring for children.
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As I thought about what I’ve written over the last few weeks, I realized that much of it could be summed with a simple imperative:
Resist the temptation to confuse control for care.
Implicit in how digital technologies are often marketed is the promise of greater control as if it were equivalent to greater care.
I chose the word control because it captures a wide array of possible practices and technologies. The promise of control might be expressed, for example, through technologies that offer the possibility of improved data-gathering, planning, monitoring, calibration, customization, scheduling, outsourcing, security, or documentation. In each case, we are encouraged to reduce the skill of caring—either in the sense of taking an interest in or looking out for the welfare of another—to one of these various forms of technological mediation. Technologically mediated expressions of control also suggest relationships of distance and detachment rather than presence and involvement, which can in turn imply a certain evasion of the risk and obligations that care can entail.
All of that said, the temptation to confuse control for care might be most pronounced when the form of ostensible control manifests as surveillance, where surveillance is any of the various ways we can measure, watch, monitor, or record at a distance.1 In fact, my line about not confusing control for care had two antecedents from a few years back which both distinguished between surveillance and care. The first was a phrase from Alan Jacobs in a series of reflections on attention from 2015, “Attending to Technology.”
“Surveillance as the normative form of care” is the specific phrase I had in mind, and it occurs in the context of Jacobs’s discussion of the case of Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, parents who were charged with child neglect when they tried to teach their six and ten-year-old how to walk home from a mile away. As Jacobs notes, “whether the Meitivs were right or wrong in the degree of responsibility they entrusted their children with, what they did is the opposite of neglect — it is thoughtful, intentional training of their children for responsible adulthood.” Charges were later dropped, but the episode is instructive nonetheless.2 More from Jacobs:
I think this event is best described as the state enforcing surveillance as the normative form of care. The state cannot raise its citizens, whose natural and social home is the family; it can only place them under observation. Perfect observation — panopticism — then becomes the goal, which the state justifies and universalizes by imposing a responsibility to surveil on the very citizens already being surveilled. The state’s commandment to parents: Do as I do.
But by enforcing surveillance as the normative form of care, the state effectively erases the significance of all other forms of care. Parents might teach their children nothing of value, no moral standards, no self-discipline, no compassion for others — but as long as those children are incessantly observed, then according to the state’s standards the parents of those children are good parents. And they are good because they are training their children to accept a lifetime of passive acceptance of surveillance.
The second instance comes from a 2017 talk by Audrey Watters, who was then our leading light on matters related to the ed tech industry and has more recently turned her wise and critical eye on food and fitness technologies in her new venture,. In 2017, Watters made the following observations about surveillance in education:
The proctoring software and learning analytics software and “student success” platforms all market themselves to schools claiming that they can truly “see” what students are up to, that they can predict what students will become […]
But these technologies do not see students. And sadly, we do not see students. This is cultural. This is institutional. We do not see who is struggling. And let’s ask why we think, as the New York Times argued today, we need big data to make sure students graduate. Universities have not developed or maintained practices of compassion. Practices are technologies; technologies are practices. We’ve chosen computers instead of care. (When I say “we” here I mean institutions not individuals within institutions. But I mean some individuals too.) Education has chosen “command, control, intelligence.” Education gathers data about students. It quantifies students. It has adopted a racialized and gendered surveillance system – one that committed to disciplining minds and bodies – through our education technologies, through our education practices.
All along the way, or perhaps somewhere along the way, we have confused surveillance for care.
It is not surprising that the examples supplied by both Jacobs and Watters involve children.
The confusion of control for care is especially evident in how monitoring or surveillance technology is designed for and marketed to parents.3 After posting my Ellul-inspired critique of the idea that there is “one best way,” I heard from a couple of readers who pointed out, rightly, that this fixation with the “one best way” is particularly damaging when it is applied to raising children.
This immediately rang true. It would have been the perfect illustration of my central claim, which is that believing there is “one best way” tends to generate unattainable goals and unsustainable pressures. So allow me to mention it here in passing, if for no other reason than to potentially liberate even just one parent from the joy-killing, anxiety-inducing myth that there is “one best way” for anything having to do with raising a child. Having recently been the father of infants and then toddlers, I can assure you that the pressures brought to bear on parents to approach childrearing not as a labor of love and an art of moral consequence but as a (pseudo-)scientific, data-driven, surveillance-addled, consumerist fantasy project are intense, relentless, and well-funded.
Parents are caught in an unfortunate bind—well many binds, but this is the one I have in mind just now. We are often raising children in isolation from extended intergenerational networks of support and care, which can mean the loss of good models, practical wisdom, mutual help, and emotional anchorage.4 We may then find ourselves casting about for the best advice and counsel we can gather from the marketplace, with each product, technique, approach, and brand assuring you that they are the “one best way.” The best foods for an expecting mother, the best way to feed your child, the best approach to sleep, the best monitors, the best cribs, the best formula, the best toys for early education, the best preschools—on and on it goes.
It’s one thing, of course, to fret about missing out on the best coffeemaker or whatever, it is quite another to believe that if you don’t discover the one best way with regard to something having to do with how you are raising your child you will somehow damage or disadvantage them for life. It is not hard to see why so much anxiety and guilt now insinuate themselves into the minds and hearts of parents.
There are powerful interests with goods and services to sell that profit from perpetuating the myth of an optimized childhood, with its attendant fears, anxieties, and guilt. It’s all built on a lie. The truth is probably something like the inverse. The real trouble doesn’t come from failing to discover the “one best way.” The real trouble comes from believing there is such a thing in the first place. There isn’t. And anyone who has incurred even a modicum of guilt on account of this misbegotten ideology can and absolutely should absolve themselves.
Almost three years ago now, I wrote about nine general principles that informed how I thought about children and technology. The first, “resist technocratic models of what it means to raise a child,” bears directly on the idea that there might be “one best way”:
“While we focus on specific devices in our children’s lives, we sometimes miss the technocratic spirit we are tempted to bring to the task of raising children.
This spirit was captured rather well a few years back by Alison Gopnick, who distinguished between two kinds of parents: carpenters and gardeners. Gopnick has a rather specific set of anxious middle class parents in view, but the distinction she offers is useful nonetheless. In the carpenter model, parents tend to view raising children as an engineering problem in which the trick is to apply the right techniques in order to achieve the optimal results. In this view, ‘parenting’ is something you do. It is work. And the point of the work is to manufacture a child to certain specifications as if the child herself were simply a bit of raw, unformed material.
In the gardening model, parents do not conceive of their children as a lump of clay to be fashioned at will. The focus isn’t on ‘parenting’ as an activity, but on being a parent as a relationship structured by love. While the carpenter by their skill achieves a level of mastery and control over the materials, the gardener recognizes that they cannot ultimately control what the seed will become, that much is given. They can only provide the conditions that will be most conducive to a plant’s flourishing.
Of course, any discussion that starts with ‘There are two kinds of x’ will undoubtedly have its limitations, but I think it’s useful to remember that we do not make our children, we receive them as gifts. Naturally, this does not alleviate us of our responsibilities toward them. Far from it. But it does change how we experience those responsibilities, and it does relieve us of a particular set of anxieties that inevitably accompany any project aimed at the mastery of recalcitrant reality. Parents have enough to worry about without also accepting the anxieties that stem from the assumption that we can perfectly control who our children will become by the proper application of various techniques.”
Or, I would add, the assumption that we can perfectly protect or that we can perfectly assure the best future, etc. However noble the motives, and I certainly feel their pull, aiming at control, predictability, and the elimination of all risk will inevitably work against us. The quest is self-defeating. And when we employ technologies that treat surveillance as a default form of care, we may very well be undermining our ability to realize some of our most cherished goals with regards to those we care about most.
For my part, I try to remember that …
surveillance does not equal care.
surveillance cannot guarantee safety.
surveillance will not alleviate anxiety.
surveillance cannot substitute for presence.
surveillance can undermine trust and responsibility.
Because refusing surveillance can feel like relinquishing control, however illusory such control might be, all of this can feel risky and precarious. And, in truth, it is. But the thing to remember is that surveillance cannot deliver on its implicit promise and it brings another set of risks into play. In the case of children, the risk that they will not mature into healthy independence, for example, or that they will fail to cultivate certain skills and capabilities. Or, even that they will not learn what it means to trust and be trusted, especially as they get older.
The thing about surveillance technology is that it tempts us with the possibility of extending our attention beyond the limits of our embodiment. Perhaps the allure of surveillance as a form of care can thus be understood, sympathetically, as a way of coping with the demands placed on our capacities to see and attend to all that we are expected to see and care about and optimize in a digitally networked society.
I’m tempted, in closing, to suggest that it might be helpful to oppose the skill of attending5 to digitally mediated monitoring and surveillance. Care implies a form of patient and deliberate seeing. Maybe care simply is that kind of seeing, or perhaps it is more modest and reasonable to say that care is grounded in such seeing. So the outsourcing of our seeing, of our notice, of our attending vision already precludes the realization of care.
I have in mind chiefly the ways we ourselves deploy surveilling and monitoring technologies, but, of course, just about every tool we use in this way also generates data about the user. Also, of note are the power asymmetries that consumer surveillance entails. For more on that read “Luxury Surveillance” by Chris Gilliard and David Golumbia in the late, great Real Life Magazine.
Rob Horning also recently wrote about the consequences of persistent surveillance: “Care and control are conflated not only in the eyes of the person performing surveillance but also in the object of it; having been convinced by tech marketing and the smothering experience of tech products, one might look for the experience of someone else’s control in order to know that one is cared for.”
It is obviously the case that thick communities of kith and kin can sometimes be difficult and constraining or even abusive and exploitative.
In the linked essay from 2022, I wrote:
“Subtle shifts in language can sometimes have surprising consequences. The language of attention seems particularly loaded with economic and value-oriented metaphors, such as when we speak of paying attention or imagine our attention as a scarce resource we must either waste or horde. However, to my ears, the related language of attending to the world does not carry these same connotations. Attention and attending are etymologically related to the Latin word attendere, which suggested among other things the idea of “stretching toward” something. I like this way of thinking about attention, not as a possession in limited supply, theoretically quantifiable, and ready to be exploited, but rather as a capacity to actively engage the world—to stretch ourselves toward it, to reach for it, to care for it, indeed, to tend it.”