I, for one, don’t.
I am getting the feeling that my optimism about the future is actually growing.
First there is Hans Rosling and his new effort to get people to unlearn what they think is true but isn’t. And kudos to him, and good luck!
Then there is Matt Ridley, who calmly and realistically points out how WELL we are doing in the world right now, contravening every “Common Wisdom” that the modern-world-haters spew out day after day.
Then, the other day my girlfriend was bemoaning the fact that kids walk down the street with earplugs or several sit in a coffeehouse at the same table focused on their smart phone apps, with the world around their physical bodies focused completely out. As is typical with most people over 50, she said, “That is terrible! There are all their friends right there! And what are they doing? Tapping away on their cell phones! They don’t even talk to each other anymore!”
Me? I get the exact opposite impression. These are people doing exactly what they want to do, which in my mind is the absolute best way to learn anything.
Long ago, I looked round me and saw kids – damned near all of them – playing and playing and playing, and smiling all the while, while adults – damned near all of them – were droning through their days with frowns and looks of quiet desperation. The adults were all busy more than 50% of their waking hours in those things called “jobs” – putting time in and mostly not enjoying what they were doing. Day after slavish day. What a thing for those kids to have to look forward to! Some of those kids may have been perceptive enough to see the brick wall at the end of their childhoods, but most were blithely unaware of the specter of impending doom.
One place my mind went to was to think that for kids play was their way of learning skills, skills that would serve them well in their adult-hoods. Even if those adult-hoods were a bit of a let-down.
(As an aside, I can still well recall my own letdown when I got to a certain point in school – school that I did extremely well in. I’d been climbing the ladder of learning success, and had a misguided idea that the learning process would go on and on, upward and upward, for most of my life. And there I was in late high school, realizing that even in college what were the highest things there really were to learn were not very far in front of me; I felt like I’d already reached the end of the plank and was about to be pushed off into the void, where there was nothing really to learn in their system. THIS, I thought, was not a good thing… Fortunately I was able to recover and find out that, like with kids, the world out there has a lot to teach us, mostly without formal schools.)
But there were those kids running and jumping and twirling and rolling over, and laughing their days through. And what were they learning in doing all of that? Muscle-control, hand-eye coordination, how to judge a ball in flight and catch it without it bouncing off one’s hands, how to bounce a ball and pick up jacks, accelerating their hands in precise ways and then slowing them to let the ball land, how to climb trees, how to balance on a bike, how to steer a bike by leaning instead of turning the wheel – all sorts of things that, once mastered, gave them not only the coordination to do many jobs well, but the confidence that whatever skills were going to be needed next could be acquired, too.
That was in the 1960s that I’d had that train of thought, and at that time hand-eye coordination was a needed skill, as were so many other skills, because many, many jobs were physical, even if one thinks of typing – which was one of the most common skills that the work marketplace afforded women to use. If there is one thing typing was then, it certainly was physical – dexterity and muscle memory, along with acute reading and listening skills.
Late in my senior year at high school, the State of Illinois Department of Employment sent people to give standardized tests to kids who were not going to go to college and who were likely to enter the workforce in a few months. Even though we were a blue-collar town, somehow the school didn’t have enough kids to fill out the testing classroom, so they went around looking for volunteers. My best friend and I were among the college prep kids, but we were always up for a test, something we excelled at. Long story short, one psrt of the test was manual dexterity, with the test requiring us to put two washers onto small screws and then put the three into holes on a board. We were scored by how many we did. I flunked, even though I thought I was pretty damned coordinated. That was quite all right with me; it was a test to see who was good at working on assembly lines! But I did really well on the test about spatial visualization, so much so that the school was told that I’d set a state record on that part. That meant I was good at engineering type work – which is exactly what I eventually ended up in.
So, one set of skills sets one up for one kind of work, and another skill sets another person up for a different sort of work.
In a world of manufacturing and assembly lines, physical skill picked up while playing physically were really good skills to acquire.
But guess what? Along the way those assembly line jobs got fewer and fewer, and those physical skills gained in childhood playing paid off less and less in the job marketplace. Different types of skills were going to be needed, and somehow kids putzing around, playing video games were actually learning some of the skills of their future job marketplaces. Assembly line jobs went to Mexico and then China, and American kids fairly quickly found that they needed other skills than what their fathers and mothers had been able to translate into incomes. The job marketplace is simply a lot different than it was 40 to 50 years ago.
My generation is still having trouble dealing with the change. It isn’t just, “Look at that kid, wasting his time playing those damned shoot-’em-up, slash-’em-up video games! How’s the kid ever going to find a job?” Well, Pops, the kid found a job, doing something VERY close to what skill he acquired playing video games. His assessments of rapidly-changing scenarios on a monitor do him well, when dealing with software that Pops never saw coming. But the KID did, even if he didn’t know the specific name for what was to come along.
And things have progressed farther in that direction, what with the explosion in smart phones and apps. As mind-numbingly simple as some of those apps are, they seem to be reaching a welcoming marketplace of minds that want to do things more and more quickly – and then go onto the next quickly-done thing.
Then, I have one more anecdote. I was kind of into New Age stuff at the age of 20 or so, and one of the books that came along was one entitled, “Jonathan Livingstone Seagull”. It was about a seagull who (not unlike the kids of the 1980s and since) wasn’t interested in the skill to stay alive as an ordinary seagull. Jonathan wanted to fly faster and faster and faster – and eventually he wanted to find, to achieve, “perfect speed”. Perfect speed was, to him, to arrive at the other location at the same moment he thought of going there. In other words, infinite speed.
In reading that, I myself put myself imaginatively into just that situation. I asked myself, if I am on the phone with someone in California (I was in Ohio), and if my attention is solely on the conversation going on. This was in the days of voice-only phones, and VERY expensive long-distance phone calls. “If I was fully engrossed IN the conversation, where WAS I?”, I asked. “Am I here? Or there? Or somewhere in between? Did the speed of the electrons flowing in the phone lines carry me at perfect speed to California?” My MIND was certainly not in Ohio, I can tell you that. I thought I was onto something that night. And I felt a keen kinship with Jonathan Livingstone Seagull – and not some pie-in-the-sky connection, either. To me it was going to be a real thing – to be able to travel at such a speed. When, I didn’t know, but I could see it coming.
And now, in a much bigger and more real way, that is what we have. Skype and WhatsApp and such apps/online programs are allowing me to visit my kids in the Chicago area when we can find time, and I still ask, Where am I when I am in the middle of that conversation, with them smiling and making facial gestures for me to translate? Am I in Illinois? Or am I in central Mexico, where my body is?
And when kids are texting or WhatsApping, or doing any of the many thousands of things that apps let them do – where ARE they? Are they traveling along with those electrons and laser beams, via modems and servers and satellites? We make friends who we sometimes never even MEET in the physical. I’ve even had two VERY good friends like that die within the last two years, and I miss them every bit as much as I ever missed nearby physical friends who’ve died.
Are we where our bodies are, or where our minds are? And when our minds’ connections shift from California to Illinois to Germany to Serbia during the Balkan wars in the 1990s (which I did, too), or to Hong Kong or Seoul or Ulaan Bator, when our attention is THERE, are we here or there?
Are humans learning the skills of the near-tomorrow, even now, in our coffeeshops, on wi-fi, on smart phones? As we see our world get smaller and smaller, do we ourselves actually get bigger and bigger? More inclusive of who and what is in our private worlds?
I bloody well think so.
So, when I see kids texting or thumbing at amazing speeds, I see their worlds getting smaller and smaller – and bigger and bigger at the same time – because the worlds inside of them is reaching out and expanding, with every new connection they make. I can’t measure their connectings by what they do solely with people 3 feet away, not like other (judgmental) old folks do. Not when they are reaching people 12,000 miles away, in the blink of an eye (depending on the wi-fi connection speed). Which is more important? Nearby or far away? Who in the HELL can tell? I can’t, and I refuse to decide. I know how important cyber friends can become. (And I can sometimes be more honest with my faraway friends than with ones right here – so is the sometimes phony me here even the same person as the honest one who’s attention might be in Costa Rica in 7 minutes or less.)
Old farts like my girlfriend (sorry, Darlin’, but true!) who still measure by obsolete yardsticks are missing the boat. And even if I can’t GO there with the youngsters (that lack of finger dexterity still is a bugaboo, I guess!), I can appreciate and KIND OF see where it is all going.
And, to me, where they are going is a pretty damned interesting world. And just think – their kids and grandkids will see it even further advanced. Wow.
(There is my optimism again!)