opinion

OPINION: There's some truth to Michael Leunig's controversial cartoon.

You’ve probably seen the backlash Michael Leunig received after his cartoon depicting a mother neglecting her baby for her phone was published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday.

There is little a mother can do these days without on or offline spectators slamming her. Mummy-shaming is real and rampant, and Leunig’s use of mummy was possibly a huge mistake, hindering his much more important message of our society’s addiction to social media. 

As if daddies don’t do the same thing, Leunig, please. 

Even though I understand why women took this cartoon as an attack on mothers, I believe Leunig was using the eternally profound image of mother and child to highlight what our addiction is doing to our most valued connections and society as a whole. 

Artist William Hogarth used the same image in the harrowing Gin Lane to highlight the road to crisis the gin epidemic was paving in London. We look at this work today as epic, powerful, I haven’t heard any criticisms from feminists saying, “We were all addicted. This is mummy shaming. Do you have any idea what the dudes were doing? You do NOT want to know. Seriously.” 

Gin-Lane
William Hogarth's Gin Lane (1791)

While we all recognise the benefits of iPhones and social media, we are starting to smell something sinister. Our dwindling attention spans, our sweaty skin when our battery falls below 20 per cent, our thumbs jumping to their three favourite apps every 15 minutes for fear of missing out. 

 “I’m addicted to my phone” has lost all meaning as we are all nervous social media junkies waiting for our next influx of thumbs up to scratch a range of recently raised itches. We sit tight, ready to defend our addiction with a barrage of furious tweets before taking a moment to reflect, to have considered conversations that don’t begin and end with curt 40-character knee-jerk reactions. 

As responsible adults, shouldn’t we be rigorously questioning this technology that has the average American check in every 12 minutes, that statistically eats up 3–4 hours of our day?

In the book 10 Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, the father of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier, explains in great detail the way tech lords in Silicon Valley have shifted from selling us stuff to offer a “free” service, to modifying our behaviour with algorithms. Punishments and rewards are diligently dished out to keep our attention on a leash so tight we become irritable, paranoid assholes, as Lanier puts it.   

Like any addict, we have all, at one point or another, been shocked by our behaviour. How did it come to this?

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Did I just spend five hours watching The Kardashians? 

“TRUMP CAN GRAB ME ON THE P$$&Y” – did I just read that correctly? I shall take my awful day out on this stranger. 

Oh my god my selfie got 100 likes…YES...but…but…what about my saladgram…not one single heart. WHO AM I?

Dopamine, cortisol. Dopamine. Cortisol. Cortisol. Cortisol. Dopamine. We get given more doses of cortisol because there is nothing more addictive than negativity. Jaron Lanier says forget Left and Right ideologies… the algorithms are programmed to take us in one direction… down. 

Watch: Life with and without your mobile phone. Post continues after video.

Lanier doesn’t demonise the creators of these apps, he knows them, these guys are his friends. 

“I don’t think this is a matter of bad people who have done a bad thing, I think this is a matter of a globally tragic, astoundingly ridiculous mistake rather than a wave of evil.”

The fact that this free product needs to be paid for has led to a machine that is designed to drag us in for as much of our precious time as inhumanly possible. 

We have all had moments with family, friends, partners where we have felt our presence was not as important or pressing as what they held in their hand. And it hurt. I do worry about children being introduced to their most primal and important connections with this kind of Goliath distraction. I once asked a kid how his parents spent their weekends and without batting an eyelid, he said they were always on their phones, as though this were a normal hobby like hiking.

What might it feel like to have your parents pulled away to an invisible world where their desires and fears go for a regular rollercoaster ride? What would it be like to know your seemingly mundane childhood can’t compete with an algorithm that has collected all their private data to create a customised cacophony of triggers?

Blink and you’ll miss it,” society is always saying to new parents. So why are we blinking? Why is our fear of missing out on what the world is doing trumping our fear of losing these precious moments that cannot be captured on a phone or described properly in an emoji-laced post?

I believe this is what Leunig was asking us and his use of the mother/child image may not have been so thoughtful in 2019, a time when women are ordered to do it ALL just to be told they are doing it ALL wrong. Of course, women can easily get their backs up and dismiss this social commentary as misogynistic mummy shaming, but I believe this piece, like Gin Lane, was asking where we will all end up if we continue to walk this way, phone in hand, petrified of missing out.

Read the other side of the story: "Leunig. Let me tell you all the things I'm doing on my phone while 'neglecting' my child."

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