[op-ed] What this world is coming to

This is a Janus column. Janus, the two faced god who faces simultaneously the future and the past.

Perhaps those of us of a certain age (probably anything over 15 or 20) will come to be known as the Janus generation, (Gen Jan in the shorthand of generation naming), with one foot (and a big piece of our brain) on either side of the digital revolution.

The basic Gen Jan experience is that of ambivalence. We experience the convenience and fun of new technologies such as cell p honing, emailing, googling, word processing, but regret the loss of experiences that have been basic to us.

“Is google making us stupid?” asks the title of a recent Gen Jan newspaper story. “Every leisure hour we spend on Facebook is an hour we’re not doing what we used to do with our down time: reading a book, cooking a decent meal, going for a walk in the woods…even watching TV or a movie.”

People are flocking to the e-book. But a friend of mine is certain that it’s a fad, that what he thinks of as a “ real” book will survive forever. “ They’ll see the error of their ways,” he says. and get back to a book that smells like a book.

I cherish the memory of getting becalmed in a small sailboat with my son at the cusp of cell phone dominance. We drifted for hours, had to p addle, and missed dinner. The cook was more understanding than she would be today. These days even a cell phone resister like myself would feel that I couldn’t get away with going for a sail without a cell phone. But I remain glad my son had that experience of nature off- grid, of being, as it were, up the creek without a cell phone.

It was reassuring to be skyping, cell-phoning, e-mailing with that same son when he spent two months in Costa Rica, but we are nostalgic about our experience in another age when in two months on a remote Caribbean island we were connected with the rest of the world by one or two of those onionskin aerograms.

In googling, using calculators, e-books, etc what’s happening to handwriting, to memory, including our memory of that old standby of education, the multiplication table? To libraries?

Members of Gen Jan bemoan the loss , especially to the young, of what we take to be certain indispensable human experiences, of nature, solitude, getting-away-from-it all. But how much time do we spend much time lamenting the loss of the pre-automobile world? That slower (and perhaps in many ways more delightful) world is simply gone and nobody thinks we are less human for it. We don’t waste much nostalgia on the profoundly different pre-Gutenberg world when there were in the whole world a handful of books, albeit beautifully decorated by monks, on the shelves of only the richest.

From the future we will look like the ones missing key human experiences. Maybe a teacher will try to explain how we were: “ Well you see, back in those days there were no cell phones (or iPhones, GPS or Blackberries). When you left the house you were forced to cope with this thing they called “alone.” Sometimes they felt “lonely” or “bored.” You could even get “lost.” (Audible gasp from the students.) So what we know to be the fundamental social, gregarious nature of human beings was…simply not possible in those days. Can you imagine?”

As resistant as I was at first to word processing, emailing, googling, I now, Gen Jan though I most surely am, really have a hard time imagining going back to doing without them. A day unplugged (as when we lost power in a storm recently) feels incompetent, colorless, lonely, sort of depressing.

It’s comforting to think that the Gen Jan way is the fundamentally human way, but what’s fundamentally human is in probably in the process of being redefined. It’s comforting to think that we can have the past and the future too, but as with autos and books and novocaine change is a substitutive, not additive, phenomenon.


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