The Seductive Screen

I'm reading The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, by Mark Bauerlein. Oh, I can hear the screams of anguish over that title from digital age apologists. I won't argue the author's arguments here. I'd rather you read this book and decide the truth for yourself. If you're a parent it may open your eyes to a few myths prevalent in our society and cause you to question what your youngsters are doing with their time.

 Even as someone who has been passionately interested in science and electronic technology from the age of seven, I've come to harbor serious doubts about the direction they're taking us. Bauerlein's book confirms much of what I've come to feel is true on the basis of my experience in a number of fields of electronic technology over the last fifty years, not to speak of having observed Mindport's visitors for the last fifteen. Technology's liabilities seriously compete with its advantages. Our overwhelming dependency on it actually undermines the sort of creative mental processing, and acquisition of physical skills, that made its development possible in the first place.

 You may notice that there are no computer screens on our exhibit floor at Mindport, no video, per se, outside of a couple tiny screens on the video feedback exhibit and "Vidic Projections." This is a matter of conscious choice. I've been in too many museums where you see video or computer screens everywhere; windows into other worlds which are not HERE and NOW. In my opinion, we're all slipping way too far into the netherworld of "cyberspace," and I include myself in that estimation. I've wanted Mindport to bring us and our visitors into a sense of immediacy with the present that the presence of screens tends to thwart.

 Indeed, I do like to keep in touch with the news and blogs on line, but I recognize that there's a point where their pursuit verges on addiction. They immerse me too much in an abstract reality that in this era seriously dampens my spirits and saps my energy. It takes conscious effort to wake up to real life and stop flagellating myself with the echo-chamber of the Internet, where opinions ricochet around like images in a hall of mirrors, and where you have to be well informed already in order to judge whether there's any merit at all to what you're reading on the screen. I find myself wondering where this sort of preoccupation will take youngsters who are less experienced than oldsters with digital "mind candy" . . .  this alluring stuff, which when taken in excess, has an effect on minds paralleling that of sugar's assault on the teeth.

 To me, the most disturbing aspect of the preoccupation of the young. . . I mean people between the ages of 6 and 26. . . with "social networking," cell phones, video games, and the like, is that this digital dependency is preventing the next generation from becoming prepared for the likely future, which I believe will be far less oriented toward technology than the vendors of electronic gadgetry would like us to believe. Our electronic infrastructure is highly vulnerable. Its perpetuation demands huge amounts of energy, numbers of skilled personnel, and access to many exotic chemical elements (such as tantalum and neodymium) which are imminently in short supply. Considering this, along with the current state of the economy, the rapidly depleting supply of energy from cheap oil, and the state of our environment, a downgrade in our "techno lifestyle" is nearly assured. If nothing else, relatively few of us, within the next few years, may be able to afford frequent computer updates, expensive Internet access, and the ever-obsolescing gadgetry that we now take for granted. Certainly, by the time the current crop of youngsters comes of age, things will be looking very different than they do now. Hence, when a college student is heard to say something like, "I don't know how I could exist without my ------- (computer, Blackberry, iPhone, you name it), I wonder what will happen when a few million of such techno-addicts are forced to exist in just such a "deprived" state.

 Some may accuse me of being a curmudgeonly "doomer," but I'm actually quite optimistic about the possibility that we can lead happy and satisfying lives unburdened by sophisticated and expensive technology with all its associated trimmings. The truth of this is suggested by all the positive feedback we get about our mostly low-tech exhibits at Mindport. That, plus my clear memory of having spent quite a contented early childhood during an era when you still had to call the operator to get get connected to your friend via telephone, reminds me that the current flood of gadgetry might be likened to sickeningly sweet icing on the cake of life.

 When I was five, in 1949, there were no personal computers, telephone answering machines, or wireless anything, other than radio receivers and a few TVs. Life then was quite OK. We kids played in the woods and in a nearby creek. On Saturday mornings I listened to Big John and Sparky on the radio while my parents slept. A couple years later I was excitedly entertaining myself by making electromagnets with insulated wire wrapped around a nail and connected to a flashlight battery. I built a microphone by laying a pencil lead across two carbon rods salvaged from flashlight batteries and mounted on a shoe box. People gave me radios which I tore apart to see what made them tick. By age fourteen, I'd earned a ham radio license and was revamping World War II aircraft receivers and building a transmitter. The idea of talking to people far away excited me and one of my early contacts via radio was with another ham operator in England, my signal radiated from an antenna wire stretched across my bedroom ceiling.

 It's ironic that if people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs grew up amidst distractions equivalent to those that tempt contemporary youngsters, they probably never would have acquired the sorts of skills necessary to develop the personal computer. These men are about a decade younger than I am, but they still were youngsters in an era when technology was of a size that you could learn something about it by disassembling it and tinkering with it. Nowadays, kids of comparable age are sitting in front of computers, absorbed in video games and social networks devised by other people, few of them showing much interest in how the computer physically operates. If they tear apart a cell phone or a computer, their budding interested is thwarted by incomprehensible micro-electronic components. Granted, the video games may be great fun, and they may be providing an education of sorts, but it's alarming that one career they're readying young people for is that of the drone pilots who now conduct warfare in Afghanistan from bases in Nevada.

 With all I've said in mind, please have a look at The Dumbest Generation. I'd love to hear what others think about the book and about the primrose path down which our high tech equipment seems to be leading us. You can drop me an email at kevinmp1[at] pentachron [dot] com if you feel moved to write me on the subject.

By the way, Mindport's around-the-corner neighbor, The American Museum of Radio and Electricity, offers some excellent alternatives to excess screen time for people of all ages. Check out their SPARK program and their ham radio classes . They're two possible  ways to moderate the screen habit and engage technology more creatively.