The other day when I found myself positioned against the familiar “kids-these-days” sentiment, I decided to check my own behaviour. How many times a day, for example, do I check the status of my computer’s in-box? Or use Netflix? Am I, too, turning into a stimulation junkie?
Last night when I announced that I’d successfully managed to post my first real image on Facebook, my 14 year old grandson was not impressed. “It’s for old people”, he said. As luck would have it, I’m still miles behind my grandchildren with technology, and it makes me wonder about the nature of my blind spot for advancement as well as my grandchildren’s expectation that I close the gap between their ability to work with various technologies and my own. I must admit to not trying very hard, mostly because Facebook and several other on-line technologies appear to be me-centred, encouraging the broadcasting of self. But that’s not why my grandson doesn’t like it……it’s simply too ‘old.’ This is the same kid whose instinct to check “Snapchat”, his new favorite, is more insistent than the urge to shower; the same kid who ( cringe ) hasn’t yet been introduced to “Flanders Field” in English class, whereas previous generations have had to memorize it, thereby ‘digesting’ it, and boosting a commitment to brain storage. But then is a person’s ability to think dictated by his capacity to hold information at a personal level? Should wisdom be measured by memory? Perhaps the educational tools of yesterday are not designed to meet the educational needs of today and tomorrow, and just because I can recite poetry, I’m more of a dinosaur than a wizard. Perhaps.
All my life I’ve wanted a life that is perfectly serene because of its lack of concern with self. I haven’t achieved it yet. I want to live to be inspired, to be moved in all things. Instead, what I’m discovering is that almost every type of technology alienates me from some part of my life. Sometimes the ping-ping-ping of constant texting can be an interruption and sometimes it enables me to avoid difficult feelings and awkward moments. Over time, am I training my mind to crave the sounds my phone makes? I hope not because conversation teaches how to talk through difficult feelings and how to respect the feelings of others: social media teaches other lessons, it encourages performance rather than authenticity. And yet considering the continued march of technology over the centuries, reigning in our imaginations seems the worst possible plan for survival – putting the brakes on technology just won’t work. Ever since we learned how to make fire, technology has been how humans dream into the future. Innovation is woven into the fabric of who we are.
I was one of those overly sensitive kids in the 50s who worried about global starvation, animals at the pound, the Cold War, and smog. I looked into things too deeply, asking questions, daydreaming, brooding. I suspect my personality is the reason for the health issues I’ve experienced these last few years. I read in “Abundance” ( Diamandis and Kotler ) that, although our world has never been safer, we still worry more than ever before. According to the two authors, our brains are constantly sifting and sorting information, trying to tease apart the critical from the casual. The amígdala, responsible for primal emotions like rage, hate and fear, is our early warning system, an organ always on high alert, whose job is to find anything in our environment that could threaten survival. Once stimulated, our flight/fight response turns on, and once turned on it’s almost impossible to turn off. Bad news sells in the newspapers, these writers profess, because the amígdala is always looking for something to fear. Our early warning system evolved in an era of immediacy, when threats were of the tiger-in-the-bush variety. Things have changed since then. Furthermore probabilistic dangers such as a terrorist attack or an economic nose-dive, never shut off completely, convincing your brain that it’s living in a state of siege, when nothing could be further from the truth. The industrialized world has never been safer. “A desire to better the world is predicated partially on empathy and compassion. The good news is that we now know that these prosocial behaviours are hard-wired into the brain. The bad news is that these behaviours are wired into the slower-moving, recently evolved prefrontal cortex. But the amígdala evolved long ago when reaction time was critical. When there’s a tiger in the bush, there isn’t much time to think, so the brain takes a short-cut: it doesn’t.”
The disconnect comes between the local wiring of our brain and the global reality of our world……technologies are exploding like never before. But, the writers conclude, we can no more stomp out innovation than we can our instinct for survival.
We haven’t come across any alien species yet……..is that because they’re all addicted to their screens and have neither time nor energy for intergalactic exploration? Maybe. But let’s concern ourselves with our own habits. On this small planet our challenges are great: alleviate world hunger, slow population growth, lower global disease and infant mortality, preserve the biosphere and increase education. Teaching kids how to nourish their creativity and curiosity while providing a foundation in critical thinking, literacy and math, is the best way to prepare them for a future of increasingly rapid technological change.
So, how many times do I check emails? Twice, or three times a day, depending on my need for distraction. What, you say? Too often?
And how often is ‘too often’?