As an addendum to the series I’ve posted this week about mental health and online living, I thought I’d write about some modern technological aspects that led me to create Kora Blackmore.
Readers of the Factory Girl trilogy will know that Kora and Roka are two identities within one body. I had the title of the first volume, The Girl With Two Souls, long before I put the scenario together, but one of the later inspirations was a brief mention of an extraordinary psychological effect. In India, there is a variety of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) where two personalities alternate on a day by day basis. I was so struck by this peculiarity that I made it the heart of Kora’s disorder.
But what was the origin of Kora’s illness? The Edwardians of her time, being Christians in a highly ordered, buttoned-down and judgemental society, considered her to have two souls, with Roka deemed the extra soul. But that was a false belief. Kora has DID. As more is learned about her childhood, and especially following the meeting with her mother in Africa, the reader becomes aware of the dreadful circumstances of her upbringing. Sir Tantalus Blackmore, desperate to find some way out of the dilemma he faces inside the Factory, attempted to alter Kora’s entire character by having her raised by automata. This shocking revelation, mediated earlier by the notes deciphered from Nurse Law’s automaton, shows that Kora lacked basic human contact from an early age. She lacked eye contact, touch, some aspects of speech, and more.
Could Kora’s upbringing have any relevance to some of our modern practices? Surely not. But what about the practice of giving infants screens to watch? What about toddlers? Children of school age, online?
There is in fact a strong correlation between the extraordinary inhumanity of what Sir Tantalus did to his child and what is presently happening to internet-age children.
A basic point, elaborated by Dr Mary Aiken in her startling book The Cyber Effect, will illustrate this. It is commonplace these days to see parents with their young children in situations where the parent concentrates only on their smartphone. Aiken relates an incident where a mother and infant sat on a train seat opposite her, and for half an hour the mother stared at her smartphone, never once making eye contact with the infant. Aiken was moved to ponder the consequences of that deed. In her opinion, the consequences will be catastrophic.
Infants need constant eye contact, face-to-face contact and skin-to-skin contact in order to survive, to grow, to develop. The modern practice of allowing children – under the guise of ‘interactive’ apps or ‘educational’ games – to spend hours each day attending to their screens is more damaging than has yet been realised. Aiken herself, an expert in this field, is aware of the paucity of research in this area, but she is clear on the dangers. Interactivity comes from other human beings, not from the vacuous, over-stimulating, quick-changing stuff online. To grow up with reduced intimate human parenting is to lack the absolute basics. To grow up in such a world is to face depression, anxiety and relentless stress later on. (This is seen a lot in Japan, and even more in Korea, as described in the third part of my blog series, but the epidemic is spreading across the globe.) We are turning potential human beings into something akin to AGIs.
Kora developed a deep-seated mental illness, DID, because of what she lacked in childhood. She separated parts of herself that she could not bear to feel, to experience, into an entire separate character, that she then lost contact with. To the outside observer it seemed as though she was two children. And she was. But she could have been one.
The cold, callous, empty hands of the internet will not raise the kind of children we would recognise. It will raise something else.