My wife and I went out for a 6 mile hike in the snow with our dogs today and a conversation about how much technological change we have witnessed in our lifetimes was triggered when she asked me this question:
Do we still have a DVD player?
We remarked about our journey from AM to FM to the Sirius XM. From TV antennas to cable to the Internet. From 45 and 33 1/3 vinyl to 8-track to cassette to CD and now digital. VHS/BetaMax to DVD to DVR and digital on demand and downloads. Cheap transistor AM only radios to boom boxes to the Sony Walkman to iPods and now every phone plays music, has a camera, can do email and texts – as well as actual phone. I bought a new Ford truck in 2013 with a sound system that has a 6 disk CD changer – it has never had a CD in it. I Bluetooth my iPhone to it when I’m not listening to satellite radio.
A lot of change over a mere half-century.
Prior to this conversation, I was thinking about a conversation I had with one of my kids about how I have observed that successive generations are progressively losing the ability to handle complex problems.
He asked me why I thought that – both of my boys are computer people, one works with digital graphics for TV production and the other works in data analytics. Both deal with a great deal of complexity in their careers so the idea I would think people can’t handle complexity didn’t ring true.
I told him I think it boils down to two things:
1- A high degree of specialization, and
2- Life now comes with a GUI interface.
First, specialization is everywhere. From the time kids are in elementary school, they are being prepped to do something specific and the educational track they are put on is geared toward developing skills to support that specialization. Kids wind up an inch wide and a mile deep when they might be better served to be wider and less deep, so they have options. Specialization makes you really good at one thing and clueless in any area outside that specialty.
What I mean by life having a GUI (old term for graphical user interface), is that now that the world is digital (electronic), there is an app for everything. Life is a touchscreen, not the physical twist of a knob or a flip of a switch.
When I was growing up in rural Mississippi, you had to know how things worked all the way down to the smallest component because when they broke, you had to fix them. I grew up working on carburetors, spark plugs and timing chains – carburetors were replaced by fuel injection and spark plugs never need to be replaced – timing and fuel control are all now electronic.
Contrary to the way things work today, in the not so distant past most things with which we interfaced were mechanical, we had to know how each component worked and interacted with the other components – today, digital technology has replaced our knowledge of these components with a chip and software – which we never have to understand think about. You don’t need to know how it works because when the push the button, it just works.
To a large extent, technology has stripped away the complexity from society for everyone except those who work with those technologies – and the “everyone else” is a large segment of our population. Not having to deal with complexity has reduced the ability of people to deal with complexity.
I also think this may be one reason why people, in the absence of complexity, seek to create it – often in absurd ways. It is natural for the human brain to seek challenges to expand itself – that is what separates humans from other primates. We seek to know, and as a result, we invent, innovate, improve – and even destroy. The technological progression I wrote of earlier would be impossible without that drive. When the brain doesn’t have enough to occupy it, it invents something to fill that void.
That’s how we wind up with 57 genders, postmodernism and progressivism. It is why people can’t read, write or think critically. It’s why they don’t even know enough to ask the probing questions.
The old saying is that idle hands are the Devil’s playground. A lack of complexity creates idle minds and an idle mind is the Devil’s Disneyland.