Nursery Rhymes: History’s Most Viral Startup?

By | March 31, 2011

(This is a copy of my weekly column for newspapers and radio.)

As the father of a child born in the era between the first and second iPads, I am made acutely aware that technology is driving baby rearing–just as it is driving everything else. But I find the field surprisingly uneven.

Nappies, for example. They’re definitely easier than in my day: Even I can change one. They carry logos of Winnie the Pooh and other lovable characters–all presumably a little surprised to find themselves so close, as it were, to the waterline. There are little adhesive strips on the side and wingtips for extra coverage and flair. All very nice, but I’m surprised not to find sensors, in there to register changes in, er, volume or aroma.

After all, we’ve got digital thermometers, digital bottle warmers, digital breastpumps, digital sterilizers, digital swings. I’ve counted more than 100 iPhone programs, or apps, simply for nursery rhymes. A British company has just launched an application that will let a harried father, marooned at work, recite a nursery rhyme over his iPhone which is then synchronized with a remote iPad application where his bed-ready daughter can watch the simulated action unfold—Jack falling down the hill, Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall, Baa Baa Black Sheep taking orders for wool.

I’m all for this: Walking into a baby store now is little different to walking into an electronics store.  I’d love to see more of this: I already record little ditties that then loop around so I can go wander off and prepare milk, brush my teeth, write columns, before my offspring notices. It’s not exactly quality time but the recording quality is excellent.

The bit that I don’t get are the nursery rhymes. Everything else is so, well contemporary, and we’re singing ditties that go back to the 14th century? Most of them of questionable taste: throwing people down the stairs for not saying their prayers? Cutting off tails? Marching soldiers up and down hills for no good reason?

I wondered whether this kind of thing was what I wanted my little cherub to know about. So I looked into it. Turns out, as you may know, that a lot of these rhymes were politically subversive. Often they were dangerous parodies of the ruling class. By making them look like they were for kids not only made them seem harmless, but made them easier to pass around and thereby spread.

It was then I realised that nursery rhymes were the social media of their day—a way to distribute information through peer networks with some protection from the powers that be. When one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 gave a sermon on Blackheath he started, simply, with a two line rhyme, asking whether any ruling class existed in the Garden of Eden: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” This was easy to grasp and easy to pass on, and the movement grew.

Nursery rhymes as a  harbinger of the political power of Facebook and Twitter? As long as we keep learning the words to Goosey Goosey Gander I guess we’ll have to acknowledge their abiding power. Helped on, a little, by our iPads, iPhones and other digital rearing technologies. I stand corrected: Still going centuries on, nursery rhymes are about as viral a technology as you can get.

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