Recently I’ve been taken aback how Fred Roger’s situation during the early years of television is so analogous to our own situation now. I believe that the principles and values embodied by Mr. Rogers throughout his life and career are those essentials of humanity that we should not fail to incorporate into all of our humane technology projects.
For everyone who did not grow up watching public television in the United States, Fred Rogers was a beloved and respected children’s educational TV host. His show “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” focused on emotional development by providing a slower format with plenty of silence for reflection. His strategy was completely contradictory to the trends then, and now, to make programming as fast, exciting, and noisy as possible in order to demand the audience’s attention. He is worth watching today because his messages about humanity are timeless examples of what a humane project must be.
When T.V. was brand new in the 1940s it was a technological revolution similar to the proliferation of computers and the internet. Mr. Rogers found himself in much the same position that humane technologists do now, he was disappointed by the content that he saw; most shows were low-quality and existed primarily to sell advertisements. The mission of our social media platforms today are strikingly similar: keep people consuming content, the content itself is low-quality and irrelevant, just keep the audience’s attention a little longer until the next advertisement.
Mr.Rogers had a different vision, he believed the T.V. medium could be used for thoughtful content that was genuinely beneficial to his audience. Instead of promoting mindless distraction his show engaged the audience with honesty, openness, and quiet; these were rare things to see in the media then, and they are rare now. Fred Rogers supreme commitment to the altruistic benefit of his audience is palpable in every second of his work. He was so intentional about his word choice that his production crew joked that he spoke his own language they called “Freddish”. His integrity to his values formed a bond of trust, acceptance, and love with his audience. He succeeded in fostering all the essentially good aspects of humanity.
Fred Rogers’ also contradicted the popular belief at the time that children were merely small yet fully functioning adults. We now have decades of research showing that people experience incredible psychosocial development during childhood, but this was not commonly appreciated at the time. I believe it is imperative that we stand on the shoulders of this giant and go one step further to conclude that children are not tiny adults, but rather adults are big children. Persuasive technologies have been designed to exploit the childish weaknesses in their adult audience, and have shown adults are just as susceptible as children to manipulation.
When building our own projects it is essential we incorporate the principals that Mr. Rogers embodied to foster genuine connections between people. When looking for direction read between the lines in Mr. Roger’s work to see his integrity binding the pieces together. I strongly recommend the book “The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers” by Maxwell King to understand how Mr. Rogers deliberately obsessed over the tiniest decisions to ensure his audience benefited as much as possible. I believe we can be more successful if we take notes from Mister Rogers, and try to build projects that are founded on the values and principles that he recognized were so essential.