Sunday, March 23, 2014

Dumbing it Down

I'm having a hard time deciding if humanity is getting dumber. There are too many moments in the day where it looks like we know more but actually seem capable of less.

I can remember standing in front of the mirror. The old dual sided metal razor in my shaking hand. My father stood behind me and reached over my shoulder to help guide the blade around my chin.

"Remember to us long, smooth strokes..." he said. His voice cut through the silence and I flinched, sending the blade deeper into my skin. I watched as a brilliant red drop of blood trickled its way down. It fell into the sink, which was half filled with hot water, and the red splash dissipated into a cloud of brown wisps.

Image taken from my Andrew's Alphabet collection

I also remember sitting in the backseat of a Dodge Omni. My mother was in the front passenger seat and my 16 year old sister was sitting behind the wheel.  My big sister, five years my senior, was learning to drive. Given the typical relationship struggles that occur between teenage girls and their parents, with the added bonus of a car crash on top of that, I was along for what I thought was going to be the best ride of my life.

"Ease up on the accelerator. Good. Indicate your turn. Good. Start to brake... slowly... there you go. Good." My mother was a primary school teacher and had been doing yoga for about as long as I could remember. She had this patience and calmness in her voice that was made for situations like this. Everything my sister did amazed me and I vowed that I would learn to drive as well as she did. At least that was the plan until some years later a car accident tore the dependable little Omni in half. It wasn't her fault, but sibling awe is fickle.

Image courtesy Bamman at en.wikipedia

We humans used to know how to do so many things. These little life nuggets would be passed down from generation to generation and there was a real sense of knowledge; of accomplishment; of pride in learning how to do something the way Mom or Dad taught us.

It seems that as our technology advances the information sharing across generations decreases. Just look up from your desk for a few minutes, or better yet conduct a job interview with a Millennial or a kid from Generation Y. It won't take long to notice the sense of entitlement. It won't take long before you receive a scornful glance that says, I've got more technology in the palm of my hand than there was in the entire hospital you were born in.

Fight the urge to verbalize your internal Churchillesque monologue that will be screaming In which I was born!, before thinking to yourself, And I was learning how to write code before you were even a glint in your parents eye. Before they got high and had three to many drinks while watching X-Files one Friday night, forgot the condom, and had an arrogant little shithead of a child pop out with a smart phone in his hand nine months later.

The copyright of this image belongs to 20th Century Fox.

It's a Me Me Me, now now now world. Are Google and a collection of "how to" YouTube videos suitable replacements for passing down actual knowledge? What will become of us when there are no more "So-and-So & Sons" scattered down Main Street?

Even still, for every case where I see knowledge unnecessarily bleeding away I find a case where the world we live in is getting better. Racism, bigotry, hate... these are all things that are heading the right direction. The Me Me Me, now now now culture allows virtually instantaneous activism - globally. You tell two friends and they tell two friends, topics start trending, people start talking, and before you know it behaviours are changing.

I've seen bills proposed by the government of my country quashed before they were even tabled due to public outcry. Outcry that would not have been heard had it not been for the Me Me Me, now now now crowd and all their fancy new technologies, Twitters, and Facebooks. I don't think I need to tell the people of Egypt what kind of impact this can have.

My parents never passed down any hatred while they were passing down tips on how to drive, shave, level a patio stone, cut the grass, hit a curve ball, block a shot, carry the 1, avoid splitting an infinitive, or turn the pot handle in - but - many other parents and leaders did, and continue to do so today. It reminds me of the "cut the ends off the roast" legend:
A young woman is making a roast for dinner and before putting the meat in the pan she dutifully cuts the ends off. Her husband, having seen her do this time and time again, finally asks, "Why do you cut the ends off like that?"

She replies, "That's the way Mom taught me. Must have something to do with the way it cooks."

The next time the couple was at the woman's parent's house for supper the husband asks of his mother-in-law, "Why do you cut the ends off the roast before you put it in the pan?" She replies, "That the way my mother taught me. It must have something to do with how it cooks."

A short time later, Grandma arrives for supper and the man asks, "Why do you cut the ends off the roast before putting it in the pan? Does it have to do with how the roast cooks?"

"Heaven's no," she replied. "We often had to feed so many people the darn thing would never fit in the pan."
Not everything that is known is worth sharing.

~ Andrew

6 comments:

  1. If you think Racism, bigotry and hate are heading in the right direction, go take a look at some of the key points in the current Quebec election campaign. The governing party launched the campaign over proposed legislation which is discriminatory, exclusionist and possibly even racist.

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    1. Compare things today with even half a generation ago. It is heading in the right direction. Not as fast as it should be, but it's moving. The governing party in Quebec won't get very far.

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    2. My suspicion is that it depends on the topic and the generation. This is recalling a study about "you can't teach an old dog new tricks". The answer was that as we get older the ability to add depth and create cross analogies gets a lot better. Whereas younger people tend to be more adaptable to completely new areas of knowledge. My point is that whether any group in general is getting dumber, holding their own, or getting smarter has a lot to do with the topic at hand.

      Some days I strongly suspect my inner child has turned into a cranky old man. When the 'me' generation were teens many followed as a rule believed "never trust anyone over 30 (years of age)". They then grew older to adopt an attitude of "never trust anyone under 30 (as in $30k salary)". BTW, $30k in the early 80s was still good money. In many ways I believe they (we) got smarter with years and in other ways much dumber. I also suspect this applies to every generation.

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    3. Thanks for stopping by, PM. I suspect any teenager from any generation operates under the "never trust anyone over 30" philosophy, and I agree that every generation has its share of ups and downs on the dumb scale. I think what makes today's world a little different is all the dumb is caught on camera and uploaded to YouTube before you've had a chance to have your morning coffee :P

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  2. We're definitely not getting dumber, and I'm not even convinced that our everyday knowledge is growing broader instead of deeper. The ways we learn are different, but this is what it's like in a post-fact world. Everyone lives in Umberto Eco's library, where the potential for knowledge is what matters. I don't need to learn to cook a steak from watching my dad. Now I can learn it twenty minutes before doing so, from five different sources, and get a comparable result. I can forget it just as quickly, because when I need to I can just learn it again.

    It's definitely different, and younger people are better adapted to doing it, but it doesn't mean that they don't pursue what we would think of as mastery, merely that they don't feel pressed to do so. I'd be more concerned, if there weren't ancient accounts of how writing things down would ultimately destroy civilization because the ability to look things up on scrolls meant that you didn't have to memorize everything.

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    1. As always, thanks for your insights Jim. I'm not sure cultivating generations of humans with RAM for brains is going to give us the best result, but I might just be paranoid because my brain is one good bump away from not being able to "just learn it again". As I mentioned, I'm not sure if the path we're on is the best one, I just know it's different. Now get off of my lawn you long haired hippy freak! [waves cane]

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