There was a thing going around recently. I didn’t see the ‘original’ but I did see the response. I’ll excerpt the juicy bit here, go read the whole thing.
Technology and the death of civilisation
It is a failing of human nature to detest anything that young people do just because older people are not used to it or have trouble learning it. So I am wary of the “young people suck” school of social criticism. -Steven Pinker
Late last year this photograph of children looking at their smartphones by Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’ in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam started doing the rounds on the web. It quickly became viral. It was often accompanied by outraged, dispirited comments such as “a perfect metaphor for our age”, “the end of civilisation” or “a sad picture of our society”.
Clearly, to lots of folk, the photograph epitomised everything that is wrong with young people these days and their ‘addiction’ to technology. These children were being distracted by their technology to such an extent that they weren’t paying any attention to the beauty surrounding them in the real world.
Only they weren’t. It turns out that the Rijksmuseum has an app that, among other things, contains guided tours and further information about the works on display. As part of their visit to the museum, the children, who minutes earlier had admired the art and listened attentively to explanations by expert adults, had been instructed to complete an assignment by their school teachers, using, among other things, the museum’s excellent smartphone app.
I wonder whether the photo would have caused so much indignation and disapproval if it had depicted students ‘ignoring’ the masterpiece while reading a paper leaflet or museum brochure instead. Though I suspect not. It would appear that, once again, reports heralding the death of civilisation at the execrable hands of technology might have been greatly exaggerated.
(The quote at the top is by Steven Pinker, who had a book out about how we’re pretty much living in the least violent era in human history a few(?) years ago that I understand is pretty good.)
Technology has always been a bugbear of… I’m not even sure who. Old people? I think Douglas Adams was right:
I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
- Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
- Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
- Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
These things like the top quote is talking about get old. It just isn’t true that things have really changed. The only thing that I’ve ever encountered that changes when a new information technology is introduced is you, and even then it’s in one very specific case. I don’t have a cite for this, but it’s in the beginning of The Information by James Gleick (which is a wonderful read). Basically, non-literate people have trouble with abstract reasoning. When asked a simple syllogism, it goes something like this.
“All bears from the north are white. Nanook is a bear from the north. What color is Nanook?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never met Nanook.”
Within a short time of learning how to read, they’re able to answer it correctly. (God, I really wish I had that cite.) But otherwise, all of the books about ‘Internet brain’ or whatever they call it are baseless and stupid. For a fun exercise, the next time you see a book or article or whatever about how technology is changing us–particularly information technology–try swapping out ‘the Internet’ or ‘Snapchat’ or whatever the complaint is about with something older. Like books, radio, the telegraph, newspapers, or the post office.
People said the same things about those! XKCD had a good summary of some recent ones:
So that’s all silly.
I’m lastly reminded of my favorite “kids these days!” quote. It’s from Phaedrus and for simplicity’s sake let’s just pretend Socrates said it (in the linked portion he quotes it and then agrees with it):
O most expert Theuth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them. And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.
Kids these days, with their hippity hop music, and their texting, and their basic literacy, amirite!