"Arkangel," an episode of the Netflix show "Black Mirror" directed by Jodie Foster, had me cheering — which is a little odd, seeing as it is an incredibly horrifying tale of what can happen when parents get what some think they want: the chance to watch what their children are doing every minute and shield them from all misery and harm.
Sara is a little girl whose mom (played by Rosemarie DeWitt) implants an "Arkangel" chip in her, which allows Sara's mom, whenever she tunes in on her tablet, to see what Sara sees. The chip also allows parents to pixelate any disturbing things they do not want their kids to see, including violence, blood — even two people arguing. So when the girl's grandpa has a heart attack right in front of her, the girl can't see him; she sees only pixels. As the trailer for the episode ominously puts it, "the key to good parenting is control."
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, basically the same problems we're seeing creeping up today in real life. As we try to shield kids from all risk, frustration and unhappiness, we are depriving them of the chance to develop some street smarts and resilience. Nobody wants kids to be mercilessly bullied, but kids need a bit of exposure to the imperfect world.
In fact, that's why therapy for highly fearful people is called exposure therapy. By being gradually exposed to the thing they worry about or fear, people grow less sensitive to it and thus can go about their normal lives. It is the opposite of giving those fears control over your life.
The Arkangel device gives parents just a little more power than tech is actually giving parents today. Already there are apps that let you watch on a map where your child is walking, see what they're looking at online, hear what's going on around them in real time, read their texts, scan their Snapchat photos and even tell their temperature and heart rate from afar.
A new app being developed by a company called Kiddo promises to compare the food your children eat with the exercise their Fitbits show them getting.
If calories consumed are greater than calories burned, the app then lets parents prescribe certain amounts of extra exertion: "That sundae means you have to do 23 more jumping jacks, Olivia!" We are told we can and must control everything our children do, see, think, worry about and, apparently, eat.
Parents are just starting to understand that with great power — in fact, with superpowers never before afforded to human beings — comes great angst. After all, if we can watch everything our kids do, must we? What about our relationships with the children? What about privacy? Are our kids our prisoners, to be constantly supervised? Our patients, to be constantly monitored? Or our pets, to be chipped?
That all feels wrong. Yet: What if something "bad" happens and we could have prevented it with more vigilance?
That's the push the marketers are giving parents. Now that you can see all and prevent all, why wouldn't you?
If you watch the "Black Mirror" episode, you'll see, in Gothic detail, exactly where that could lead. But if you skip the show, all you have to do is try imagining what it would have been like if your mom could have seen everything you were doing from toddlerhood through adolescence and what that would have done to you — and her.