The Seductive Screen
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
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