Monday, July 07, 2008

The Dumbest Generation?

I'm not much for telephones. I don't like them. In my professional days I was practically tied to a phone but that was business. Other than that (and, I admit, long long-distance chinwags with my Dad), I pretty much consider the telephone something best suited to conveying necessary information with the grace of brevity. Don't get me wrong, I am talkative. I love to talk to people, face to face.

I know I am of my own generation. I know how much technology, value systems and other cultural mores can shift from generation to generation. Although I just got a BlackBerry, I realize that I'm on that slope where I'm no longer keeping up with technology and it seems I'm no longer keeping up faster by the day. Oh well, at least I can fall back on being a curmudgeon.

Whether I'm out on the street or in a mall or any other place where people transit or gather, I'm constantly amazed at the numbers of young people walking along, seemingly oblivious to the world, instead gazing intently at their hands into one of which they've embedded a cell phone. Or, if they're not checking their e-mail or texting someone they seem to have the damned things glued to their ears as they babble on while endlessly staring up into the sky. Not to pick on youth, adults have their own version of this game only it involves an extra element - the internal combustion engine.

What eludes me is who are all these people communicating with so often and what have they really got to say to each other? None of my business? You're absolutely right or at least possibly right but, still, the question needs asking.

The weekend Los Angeles Times ran a review of Mark Bauerlein's book, 'The Dumbest Generation.' Bauerlein, a former director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts, contends that the internet, far from leading to a more knowledgeable, better educated generation, has actually spawned a generation of dummies.

"In the four minutes it probably takes to read this review, you will have logged exactly half the time the average 15- to 24-year-old now spends reading each day.

...The way Bauerlein sees it, something new and disastrous has happened to America's youth with the arrival of the instant gratification go-go-go digital age. The result is, essentially, a collective loss of context and history, a neglect of "enduring ideas and conflicts." Survey after painstakingly recounted survey reveals what most of us already suspect: that America's youth know virtually nothing about history and politics. And no wonder. They have developed a "brazen disregard of books and reading.

...The problem is that instead of using the Web to learn about the wide world, young people instead mostly use it to gossip about each other and follow pop culture, relentlessly keeping up with the ever-shifting lingua franca of being cool in school. The two most popular websites by far among students are Facebook and MySpace. "Social life is a powerful temptation," Bauerlein explains, "and most teenagers feel the pain of missing out.

"This ceaseless pipeline of peer-to-peer activity is worrisome, he argues, not only because it crowds out the more serious stuff but also because it strengthens what he calls the "pull of immaturity." Instead of connecting them with parents, teachers and other adult figures, "[t]he web . . . encourages more horizontal modeling, more raillery and mimicry of people the same age.'",0,6248930.story

And, of course, when kids can't get behind a laptop they've always got their increasingly sophisticated and capable "mobile devices." The good ones (with web browsers) make it possible for them never to be out of touch with the world of SpaceBook - never, ever.

Until the past decade or two, when kids wanted the companionship of their friends they sought them out. Back then, instead of buying their kids cell phones, parents bought them bicycles. You at least got a chance to know something about your children's friends because they often wound up at your place. How do parents today have any idea with whom their children are really associating?

As I wrote last week, I fear that these technologies are making us smaller, less aware and far less resilient at a time when our world, our societies and we as individuals will be confronted with extremely complex challenges unprecedented in human experience. Decisions will have to be taken and, with them, adjustments of all sorts implemented. Whether we make those decisions or they're simply taken by a chosen few for a chosen few may come down to whether we have an alert and informed populace.

On this last point, I'm not optimistic. I see young people today who have little understanding of our rights and the critical importance of them. Let me give one example. Recent studies have found that young people have a much different view of privacy than was held by previous generations. They don't tend to care very much about government or, for that matter, corporate intrusion into their private lives. Their generation ought to be the strongest voice of outrage but, instead, it stands mute, preoccupied with scanning SpaceBook or text messaging people who may not even matter.

Will there be an awakening, an epiphany among our youth? We can only hope. If not, if they surrender to the technological Soma, we may be in for a Brave New World indeed.

p.s. the photo above is of Morgan Pozgar, the 13-year old who became America's texting champion. Pozgar defeated "West Coast Champion" Eli Tirosh, texting the message: "Supercalifragilisticexpialidoucious! Even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious. If you say it loud enough you'll always sound precocious", without abbreviations.

p.p.s. I bought the BlackBerry online, cheap. I got it as a emergency communication system for when I'm motorcycling in the boonies. Beyond that, I have very little use for it, even if I did know how to text message.


Red Tory said...

Excellent post.

I have to confess that I've never owned a cellphone, let alone a Crackberry.

As someone with four adult children, I share the concerns you've expressed, as well as those in the article cited. The next generation or two are going to get their clocks cleaned in the global marketplace by the Chinese and Indians, I'm afraid. At the risk of sounding like another cranky old dude, the kids of today are quite probably the most incompetent people ever in terms of being prepared for the challenges ahead of them.

The Mound of Sound said...

I fear you're right, RT. If, or when, the global marketplace comes to be dominated by China and India, what cultural and societal influences will be spawned?

Our Western democratic traditions have been nurtured in a relatively steady economic expansion. What if that grease runs out and our democratic values come to be tested by progressive economic retreat? Democratic generosity is plainly more acceptable in good times of plenty but, as we've seen from times of emergencies such as world wars, it quickly falls by the wayside when we're "up against it."

I was brought up to understand that we didn't have a single civil, legal or political right that hadn't been hard-earned, often paid for in blood. I also came to understand that we didn't have a single right that wouldn't be readily taken from us should we become indifferent to it.

The right to privacy underpins several other rights, including core political rights essential to a healthy democracy. When one falters it tends to weaken the matrix of all our other rights but, if it's gradual enough and offset by distractions, it can happen without protest. Grrrrrr.

Red Tory said...

Funnily enough there was a story on the AP this morning about the erosion of “free speech” on service providers such as Yahoo! The example cited was a photograph of a Romanian child smoking a cigarette that was used as part of a photo-essay on poverty in the former East Bloc countries. The good folks at Yahoo! felt it was inappropriate for the obvious “politically correct” reasons. Idiots.

Anyway, the point was that people are quite freely giving up their constitutional rights to privacy and freedom of expression with nary a whimper of protest. It’s all just par for the course in our fantastic new digital millennium, don’t you know?

Last week there was the vastly underreported story about Google being pressured to surrender all of its user information to Viacom as part of their lawsuit over alleged copyright infringement on YouTube. If that goes ahead Viacom will have access to all of the viewing habits of millions of people. And who exactly is going to control that information and what will they do with it? But nobody seems to care and on we merrily go…

The Mound of Sound said...

Remember Admiral Poindexter and the proposed "Office of Total Information Awareness?" Awesome. And the band played on.

Lore_Weaver said...

An interesting analysis, but it's doom and gloom are wrong.

As a Digital Citizen myself, I find that reading is more important now than ever.

People aren't getting dumber, people are being a different kind of people. The "old ways" are being revolutionized so quickly that people left behind are left to scratch their heads in wonder.

We're coming to a new age of social interaction. The epiphany that this was possible comes from facebook and text messaging. A mass globalization will occur that will unite the non-political masses of the world in a way never before seen.

Interesting times are ahead!

The Mound of Sound said...

I don't suppose you've got any emperical evidence to support your views LW?

"The "old ways" are being revolutionized so quickly that people left behind are left to scratch their heads in wonder."

Wait a second, that sounds a lot like what we heard from the neo-cons in the White House in 2001/2.

Unfortunately the studies tend to disagree that young people are reading more than ever. SpaceBook is a poor substitute for the information needed to make wise choices.

Anonymous said...

I have 2 daughters..16 and 18. Laptops, Ipod-phone, and, the oldest has now worked enough to buy a Crackberry. Friday or Saturday nights are get togethers and, they chat on-line around the world. They socialize, discuss and debate and, well, have fun. They write chapters of a story and the next person has to add to that chapter...some of the story's are very well written. There will always be young adults who try to find the easy way out...but...if both of my daughters and the 20 to 30 friends they have are any indication, then, I welcome the technology, the new technology and the new futuristic technology, I think it makes them more aware of the world, and, the world then becomes a little smaller. Oh...and your gonna love this MOS..the oldest applied to Ottawa U, and, wants to work with the NDP candidate in our area..:) I coach Jr Hockey...I have 2 teenage daughters...I have no issues with today's youth...they impress me, they know about education, and, they seem to have a better view of the world and how it works then I did at that age. Just my observations. billg

Anonymous said...

Try Asia for example. A person is in the middle of a conversation and their cell phone rings. They panic to get to the device and answer immediately then, spend time talking while moving away so you don't hear. I've walked away from people who don't have any manners when it comes to cell phone use. My cell phone is turned off at 9 p.m. Some people are flabbergasted at that one. A. Morris