“Pure Language” and the Dirtying of Technology in Egan’s Novel
In the digital era, children are exposed to digital devices and the internet practically at birth through iPods, iPads, and iMacs–an element of modern childhood completely foreign to the parents raising these children. In the chapter “Pure Language” from A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan’s character Alex, a new father, believes he has a responsibility to protect his child from digital devices, implying that children are put in danger when exposed to the internet and social media. However, Alex’s choice of career and interactions with others reveal that adults are equally at risk while using social media and digital communication, if not more so, than the children they are theoretically trying to protect, causing us to question whether children are the ones endangered by these forms of technology in the first place.
Egan uses the medium of fictional storytelling to create a relatable parental character, connecting to and sympathizing with parents responsible for modernized, tech-savvy children in order to bolster her argument that digital communication and social media are not just dangers for children, but for all generations. Egan uses the inner monologue of Alex in order to show the fear parents feel for their children in the face of the internet and modern digital devices, yet also arguing that these technologies are unavoidable in childhood today. In Egan’s portrayal of a slightly futuristic New York City, it is standard for children to have “kiddie handsets” (Egan, 313), a form of smartphone designed specifically for children; however, Alex agrees with his wife that their own daughter “would not [have a kiddie handset] until age five” (Egan, 313). Alex and his wife clearly support the “childhood at risk” discussion. According to Craft, the “childhood at risk” argument “emphasises inherent vulnerabilities in childhood” as well as adult responsibility for children, “exploiting parental fears…[and] delaying traditional milestones of adulthood” (Craft, 176). Alex actively restricts his child’s access to digital gadgets, proving he believes that he is protecting his child by limiting her use of these “kiddie handsets.” Evidently, Alex thinks both of his child as vulnerable and technology as threatening. By feeling a need to protect his child from the handsets, Alex demonstrates his belief that he–and, in turn, parents in general–is responsible for upholding the notion of childhood that his generation experienced–one without digital entertainment and communication.
Egan’s choice of the age “five” as the end on Alex and his wife’s ban on technology also demonstrates the ephemeral time limit of this ban and parental control in the face of digitization in general. Beyond this young age of five, a restriction of the use of digital devices is no longer plausible, indicating that childhood is already too inherently digital, despite parents’ desires to prevent these personal devices from taking over their children’s lives. At age five, children usually enter the traditional school system, starting with kindergarten. At this age, parents’ control is considerably minimized because of a child’s constant exposure to other children, other adults, and the use of computers in school. Through the choice of the age five, Egan argues that in these digital times, there is little an adult can do to keep children from the digital world, which in this day of age could be thought of as a “milestone of adulthood” (Craft, 176), or nowadays, childhood. Though Alex attempts to delay his child’s transition into both a new era of childhood and a new stage of life, like is suggested of adults in the “childhood at risk” perspective (Craft, 176), there is only so much he can do to keep his child away from electronics and the internet, proving that Egan believes these technologies are central to today’s concept of childhood. When Alex’s handset vibrates, his daughter points to his pocket and exclaims, “Das mine!” causing Alex to question if it was “possible his daughter could feel the vibrations through his body” (Egan, 321). Alex’s panicked reaction, though slightly absurd, demonstrates the fear that he and other parents feel towards smartphones in relation to children. His worry that his child is capable of feeling the handset through another human is never actually disproved, alluding to parents’ concerns that children are already too powerfully connected to digital apparati. The italics on “mine” also show that his daughter assumes ownership over the device, implying that these handsets are integral to a child’s identity, property, and childhood itself.
Through Alex’s interaction with his daughter, Egan creates a moment that parents can sympathize with while also arguing that the shift in childhood to include digital communication devices has already occurred. Through the structure of society in Egan’s “Pure Language,” such as children’s role in the market, Egan exposes the generational gap between youth and adults and affirms the power that children gain from digital devices. In Egan’s world, children are known as “pointers” because “any child who [can] point [is] able to download music,” making them the “arbiters of musical success” (Egan, 313). Without handsets, a child’s ability to point would have no impact on anything; however, when combined with internet-capable devices, a child gains enormous purchasing power. Thus, with a simple point, children can heavily influence not just the music industry, but any market utilizing online sales. This condition of Egan’s society supports the “childhood empowered” debate, which emphasizes the “marketisation of childhood” and “greater sense of personal agency” that children feel as a result of technology (Craft, 177). Egan chooses the music industry as the example for childhood’s heightened consumerism because of its emotional associations, as it is an industry people often feel strongly towards because of its nostalgia and artistic significance. Thus, if children are the “arbiters of musical success,” or the new authorities on art, readers might feel a new level of distaste towards the “marketisation of childhood,” not because of the damage it might do to children itself, but to society as a whole.
Though Alex expresses fear of his daughter losing both good values and the innocence of childhood as a result of the internet and handsets, he neglects to realize the effect of online networks on his own character, supporting Egan’s argument that adults are even more negatively impacted by the online world than their allegedly vulnerable children. Upon entering the music industry, Alex is given the job of recruiting “parrots,” people with online personas tasked with creating buzz in their social networks about various topics or events. (Egan, 315). In order to select the perfect parrots, Alex must rate each candidate using three metrics on a scale of 1-10: “how much they need money (‘Need’), how connected and respected they [are] (‘Reach’), and how open they might be to selling that influence (‘Corruptibility’)” (Egan, 315). Egan uses Alex’s career as a jarring example of how adults and their morals, too, are endangered by the internet and social media networks, not just children. Alex’s career requires him to dehumanize his friends online both by comparing them to animals–specifically parrots, which are often thought of as nuisances–and quantifying them in such a simplistic manner, devaluing them to three single-digit values in order to assess their worth to him. Thus, through his digitally fueled career, he becomes the corrupted. Through Alex’s job, Egan asserts that social media and smartphones pose a danger to adults as well.
While some might argue that Jennifer Egan’s medium of fictional writing does not give her the authority to enter the academic debate surrounding the effects of technology on children, it is principally Egan’s use of story that allows her such a unique contribution to the discussion of digital childhood. In most academic papers, it is frowned upon to employ emotional appeals as part of an argument, but in prose, emotion is a substantial asset, especially to Egan. Through prose, Egan creates Alex, the perfect character to appeal to adults (particularly parents) and convince them of her argument that online communication is detrimental not only to children, but also adults like Alex and like the readers. Alex himself disparages technology, saying that “every byte of information he’d posted online (favorite color, vegetable, sexual position) was stored…–that he was owned…, having sold himself unthinkably” (Egan, 316). While any academic paper could say that the internet takes advantage of people’s willingness to give up information without knowing the consequences, only Egan’s prose can do so in such an engaging way that creates an emotional connection to the readers who, too, have comically posted silly information like their favorite vegetable online. The self-deprecation in the line where Alex pities himself for being “owned” also helps to make Alex more relatable and strengthens Egan’s point that everyone is at risk online, even and especially adults. Without prose, Egan would be making the same argument as everyone else in the academic debate surrounding childhood, instead of offering an unprecedented perspective involving humor and feeling.
In “Pure Language,” Egan creates a world in which the internet and electronic devices are threatening forces, thus arguing that these technologies are also destructive in our own society. However, not only children are jeopardized by these devices. In fact, because children are growing and learning alongside these forms of technology instead of having them enter their lives as alien forces like adults have had, children are instead freed by the internet and smartphones, fully knowing their capabilities both good and bad. Children have grown up using the internet and its communication methods, and know better than to share their personal information online, unlike adults like Alex. Nevertheless, because they have grown up in a digital world and know nothing else, it is incredibly difficult to protect children from the internet, especially since they do not see it as a menacing entity. In fact, adults are the ones who are more vulnerable in the face of internet-capable devices because they fear them and are not wholly aware of the internet’s enormous capacity. Egan contends that internet electronics are a force to be reckoned with for adults; they are the ones offering up their favorite sex positions on the web, after all.
Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Print.Craft, Anna. “Childhood in a Digital Age: Creative Challenges for Educational Futures.” London Review of Education 10.2 (2012): 173-90. Web.
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