Thursday, February 18, 2010

What's the Matter With Kids (and Gadgets) Today?

I'm never sure if the themes I find in my reading come to me from the outside world, or if my subliminal, half-formed thoughts cherry-pick articles and ideas. Whoever is responsible for it, I've been finding some interesting articles about gadgets, the Internet, and the way people use them and are, perhaps, used by them.

Last week I was intrigued by Book review: You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier. The reviewer and the author whose book is reviewed are both fascinating. From the review:

....He discusses how pack-like attacks arise on the Web wherever there is an opportunity for "consequence-free, transient anonymity." The topic hardly matters: "Jihadi chat looks just like poodle chat."

He describes the sad, stressful lives of young people who "must manage their online reputations constantly." He makes the point that the free use of everything on the Web leads to endless mashups, except for the one thing legally protected from being mashed-up: ads, making advertising the one thing on the Internet that can be "owned."

....The preface says he is grateful for the "real human eyes" that will pass over the following pages, and for the "tiny minority" of humanity that still reads books. Yes, Jaron, we are still here. We few, we happy few.

Jaron Lanier's slim volume intrigues me, with chapter titles like The Noosphere Is Just Another Name For Everyone's Inner Troll, but much of what's in his new book he has already discussed in a long essay, One-Half of a Manifesto. Those of us on a budget may read it there for free. This "read it for free" aspect is of concern to him, not in terms of lost revenue, but in the way blogs and rss feeds can make everything appear to be "one book," by quoting without attribution. Nothing I read by choice does that, and I never do that intentionally, because I love footnotes, hyperlinks, and all scholarly reference techniques. However, I do monitor a Pocahontas County website where this is the norm. It's tangentially related to my job, and it offers an education in all types of bad Internet behavior, including plenty of anonymous trolls.

While Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto book looks interesting, so does the Washington Post's reviewer, Ellen Ullman, a former software engineer...the author of "Close to the Machine" and "The Bug: A Novel." Maybe it was her wry "Yes, Jaron, we are still here" that got me, but I wanted to know more about her.

She has eleven essays archived at, and a number of on-line interviews, including What's Bugging Ellen Ullman? A conversation with the author of "Close to the Machine," and "The Bug: A Novel", where she suggests some things computer science students might want to learn:

...I think if you could somehow teach students to understand that Linux or Windows or Java or C++ are just current implementations of old ideas, and to understand that what's new has roots in long-standing ideas that have gone through permutations. Computing is not a brand-new profession. It's a generation or two old by now. It has a history. I really would have people understand the history of computing much better. I mean a detailed survey of the different operating environments as they came and went over time, what they were good at, and what they were not good at. These ideas are getting lost.

The Red Tape Chronicles is also fretting this month about Internet users and their gadgets, in Why so much FAIL in the digital world?

There are many valid defenses for technology. It's just a tool, of course -- the Internet doesn't kill brains, people kill brains. Obviously, a tool that allows people to find virtually any fact ever known within a few seconds can help make people a lot smarter.

Even [Michelle] Weil, the Technostress author, is quick to say that technology is not the problem: "The problem is the way people use technology, and the expectations they have for it," she said.

People have come to depend too much on gadgets, and fail to plan for the logical possibility that they will occasionally break down....Meanwhile, too much alcohol, too much chocolate cake, too much exercise--all these things can be bad for people, just like too much digital exposure....All those bad habits existed before the Web and continue to exist in spite of the Web. It's fair to ask, then, where the fault lies for "The Dumbest Generation" -- with overexposure to digital media, or with adults who don't force the kids to turn off the laptops and listen once in a while.

The book Red Tape cutter Bob Sullivan mentions, The Dumbest Generation, by Mark Bauerlein, asks the novel question, "What's the matter with kids today?" The answer is MySpace and Facebook.

According to recent reports from government agencies, foundations, survey firms, and scholarly institutions, most young people in the United States neither read literature (or fully know how), work reliably (just ask employers), visit cultural institutions (of any sort), nor vote (most can't even understand a simple ballot). They cannot explain basic scientific methods, recount foundations of American history, or name any of their local political representatives. What do they happen to excel at is--each other. They spend unbelievable amounts of time electronically passing stories, pictures, tunes, and texts back and forth, savoring the thrill of peer attention and dwelling in a world of puerile banter and coarse images.

Anyone who thinks this is mere intergenerational grousing, the time-worn tradition of an older generation wagging its finger at a younger one, should think again....

I recently taught for a semester in a local middle school, and I met many kids who had all these vices and deficiencies. I've also met adults of my generation who fit the description. Wouldn't it be wonderful if no one were ever lazy, and everyone availed themselves of all the opportunities life presented them? I certainly don't have the answers--I have my own laziness to wrestle. If you're interested, The Dumbest Generation Web presence has articles, reviews, and links to Mark Bauerlein's other books, as well as videos, presumably for those who don't read easily.

1 comment:

Evelyn Green said...

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