I saw the best minds of my and other generations destroyed by Youtube videos, friends sending me 3am emails furiously denouncing the conspiracy by the powerful to sell us the idea that the climate is changing, kept awake by the conviction that the Twin Towers were a mere hologram, or convinced that Isis is an illusion created by the CIA.
Having just sent some thoughts along those lines to a friend who had also read this essay detailing how soon and how easily our offspring are, thanks to Google, being entranced by and drawn into a world which is infinitely crueller and more absurd than our own, I was startled to see that the very first comment on the piece included a link to another article centred on the very same poem I had (in my glib manner) just quoted.
Such serendipitous connections are, of course, infinitely abundant on Youtube, which plays a particular role not just in the lives of very young children but also, as another friend recently pointed out, in the growth of the alt-right. As the writer says, and as that semi-regular succession of emails from newly- (and, mercifully, usually briefly-) converted conspiracist friends confirms, the role of the platform in the spread of political propaganda is terrifying to the point of nausea. In a not unrelated phenonmenon, it’s a salutary and unsettling experience to see how our baby daughter’s face lights up when it meets the screen of our phones. Like all sensible parents we had decided that we would keep the whole world of digital screen technology a dirty secret from her for as long as humanly possible; anyone who sets out with this intention soon finds that given the preponderance of Whatsapp calls, Skype and so on combined with our evident dependence on it for our own purposes, the talismanic qualities of the device are impossible to disguise. One creeping influence is indeed Youtube, with its immediate and infinite access to hours of nursery rhymes. We are allowing her to be led right into the jaws of the monster that will seize her imagination and attention as soon as it gets a chance.
The article describes how the word salad titles of the billions of videos aimed at infants (typical example: Wrong Heads Disney Wrong Ears Wrong Legs Kids Learn Colors Finger Family 2017 Nursery Rhymes) right from the moment they can tap on the device are an indication that they are produced not by conscious humans but by algorithims set to maximise views and thereby income. Perhaps the non-syntactical way in which such mechanisms operate resembles or is a part of the same phenomenon as Trump’s seemingly incoherent appeals. Such messages, although ostensibly nonsensical, bypass our rational brain and go straight for the limbic system, triggering our deepest and least conscious fears and desires. If we combine what we know about Youtube on a political level and the formative effects it has on very young brains, it starts to make any dystopian fantasy such as The Matrix or Brave New World almost quaint and comforting. Even leaving aside the horrors of Twitter (which at last now with 280 characters stands a chance of becoming more thoughtful and respectful) Youtube is becoming the 24-hour two-minute hate, opium-of-the-masses and soma all in one.
More disturbing still are some of the reflections contained in this must-must-must read account of how the Brexit and Trump nightmares came about, which includes several points of crossover with the previous article. The head of Russia Today once said that
“It is important to have a channel that people get used to, and then, when needed, you show them what you need to show. In some sense, not having our own foreign broadcasting is the same as not having a ministry of defense. When there is no war, it looks like we don’t need it. However, when there is a war, it is critical.”
Evern worse than finding out that a friend has been spending dozens of hours puffing away contentedly on the crackpipe of Youtube conspiracy nonsense is discovering that they are being exposed to the pseudo-radical manipulations of RT (often in the form of Youtube clips). I know that within a couple of years our daughter will start clamouring for access to the likes of Nickelodeon and Cbeebies (along with, it should go without saying, Youtube); if Putin and his cronies ever hit on the idea of creating a version of Russia Today for children, we really are screwed.