“We’ll always cherish the stark before and after culture shift of our adolescence. We had isolation and then access, drought and then deluge, 2 channels and then three hundred, CV’s and then chatrooms and our parents didn’t have the time to filter through … and decide what was beyond our emotional grasp; thus the mishmash; a generation gifted with confusion, unease and then revelation. Maybe that makes my generation unique.
The generation I see solidifying itself now? They were born connected, plopped out into the late nineties into the land of ‘Everything that ever was is available from now on’.What crazy acronym will we slap on the thumb-sore texting multitudes of the 21st century? The waif-nodes? The wired’s? Anything is better than ‘Gen X’, which is what we got. Thanks Douglas Copeland.”(Oswalt, 2011)[i]
‘Why?’ is a question that we no longer need to ask ourselves because if ever we are unsure of something the answer is always only a touch-screen away. I wonder though if this ‘deluge’ of information is actually making us any smarter – if any of it is actually taking hold – or if we are simply becoming reliant on technologies ability to do our thinking for us.
This constant flow of information is inherent in my generation. We were born in the deep end of the ‘deluge’ and while this may have taught us how to swim it’s also crafted us into a culture unable to stand without the support of its water’s buoyancy – and so swim we must. While in this stream we find ourselves taken upon currents with cult-like desire, we are driven to interests and conclusions as the water wills; there is no more sense of discovery – no parched throat that desires – as every inch of our thirst is now instantly quenched by the internet’s inexorable tide.While I do feel that this is, at its core, a contemporary issue I also understand that its roots spread back to the very beginning of society, or at least according to the Bible they do.
Everyone knows the story of the engendered two and their garden, of the asp and its apple and all could recite it currently with ease[ii], though few seem to have really considered its message. The temptation that the first humans hadn’t the will to resist was not one of material goods, it was not of power, nor ecstasy, no, it was of knowledge. The apple was imbued with the omniscience of a god, it granted the ability to know all that could be known about our expansive earth and yet its form fit snug within our ancestor’s palm.
Today that ancient prophecy is being enacted again and this time it is us that are being tested. Sure the snake has adapted since but it still shows some familiar features; it is sly, hairless and sheds its skivvies like a second skin. The temptation though is the same, knowledge, and it comes in much the same form, an apple.
There is no greater advancement in knowledge and avarice than that of Apple’s iPhone. A list of its possible uses would be impossibly long and instantly redundant and so I will not even attempt to write one; instead I ask that you simply pull the device from your bag or pocket and examine it for yourself; you don’t need me to tell you about it.
Now I don’t want to sound like some zealot, I don’t actively believe that the device is a sigil of Satan, nor that it will bring about the end times. I am no Luddite and hold no intrinsic distaste for technology. In fact this very essay was written and researched on a laptop computer, whilst the above quotation – the fruit from which this very piece was conceived – was extracted from an Audiobook which I listened to on an Apple iPod – a foreign voice in my head giving instructions. So though I may question technology even I am not separable from it and this is what makes me wonder: When you signed that contract – 12 or 24 months of omniscience for a flat, industry standard rate – were you moving yourself forward or simply repeating the very first mistake ever made?
While there is certainly some merit to the miraculous technology currently made available to the masses, I just can’t separate this list of pro’s from what lies on its periphery, I can’t see that it isn’t just one big con. As we walk through the city or sit sipping a café au lait on some friends couch we are want to discuss life, the universe and everything; changing topics, tenses and tones with every footfall, every rattle of the spoon and though for a time this will be fine eventually we always hit a wall – be it brick or porcelain – because there is a limit to our understanding.
The real question lies in how it is that we go about finding an answer; it used to be that you would have to actually learn something on the topic, find a book or someone who had read a few that could give you the answer. It was a hunt, whereas now we are simply shooting fish in a virtual barrel. Having the ability to instantly recall unknown details – from something as commonplace as directions through to the time and date of Saglieri’s death – is no doubt an impressive and useful feat; but we are only kidding ourselves if we feel that this is our knowledge, because really it is the device that impresses, Steve Jobs that impacts and not us, the user.
It reminds me very much of something that occurred each and every year in High School; when you would step into a classroom for the first time that year, nervously set down your burden of books and then tear one of the tomes open for the first time – its pages still stuck shut by that Printing Press placenta – to discover just what this class was going to be all about. Either aloud among friends or in secret, hushed waves of whispers the message would float out; even if you had forgotten to bring your copy that day, as I often had, you would quickly know whether or not the course-writers had been clever enough to provide an answers section in the back of the book.
Sure some of us were simply pleased because they enjoyed the added security of checking their own answers before they presented them to the teacher- perhaps alongside a shiny red apple, and yes it could certainly be beneficial to backtrack from the solution on some particularly confronting questions. For the most part though people were just happy to have the option of cheating if ever they came to need it and honestly we all spent a recess or two quickly hammering out some responses to questions that we had completely forgotten were due.
Having the answers available at the flick of a finger feels good for a whole host of reasons, but I don’t recall it ever actually doing me any good. I can’t think of any instance where it helped me understand a concept, or increased my aptitude in the subject come test time. No, having the solutions at my fingertips only ever enabled me to enact some sleight of hand; if I didn’t understand something I could effectively cover it up, pretend to be passing until it came time for the test and even then it only took another lie to dissuade the teacher. ‘Nerves’ you’d say, and they’d understand, pat you on the shoulder and flitter off, but in real life I fear such impish trickery may not be so free of consequences.
Answers then should not be the ultimate end, as an unearned answer is an ultimately meaningless thing. What good is ‘42’ if you cannot comprehend the question? That is why teachers would so often berate you with the bromide ‘Always show your workings out!’ Though we often ignored it then, and many still do now, there is a valuable truth inherent in that statement. All knowledge of value is found in the working; answers aren’t important but methods and formulas are. To again delve into cliché, it is the journey and not the destination that counts; though nowadays, thanks to technology the journey has become obsolete. Why walk when you can teleport?
There is though a certain comfort to be found in that access and instant satisfaction that is near impossible to wean people off. Even now – studying subjects far too subjective for a simple answers section – I find myself drawn towards that pool of communal concepts. When I finish reading a book – for fun or study – it is always much easier to read one of the many published responses than to write one of my own; easier to construct an opinion like Frankenstein did a man than it is to stop, sit down and think solitary thoughts. Easiest of all is simply finding a quote from some more talented source that sums up your thoughts and strumming that dogmatically until your fingers bleed. And it won’t be hard finding one; you won’t have to look very far. That is why this generation doesn’t ask ‘Why?’, because we can ask Google.
And this isn’t necessarily such a bad thing, we have made remarkable progress in the purported three-thousand years that have passed since we as a species first skipped town, leaving our mistakes and responsibilities behind. In fact it has been argued that the majority of that progress has occurred over the last hundred years and that ‘The twenty-first century will see almost a thousand times greater technological change than its predecessor’[iv]. This potentially peculiar factoid is explained by the fact that our capacity for advancement appears to accelerate as our access to knowledge does. In other words progress is not an incorporeal concept, it does not exist in a vacuum – to be accessed only by those deemed ‘great men’ – though in a structural sense it is men that progress most readily mirrors ; to be more specific their population scheme.
Once upon a time there were two traits, knowledge and ingenuity, and when they were first brought together their union birthed an idea (The Wheel!) and when combined with those original ingredients that idea begot another (the Cart!), which then begot further ideas (The Car!) and on and on until eventually this intellectual inbreeding begot the iPhone that we are discussing today. Though the iPhone itself is simply a cipher for our contemporary crises; these ideas have been left alone to re-produce long enough that information is now hitting the point of critical mass.
Of course this is a relatively minor issue when seen scaled against the scope of the modern days many other problems but I see it as something of a precursor. That the leap between our generations, between X and Y, is of a comparable magnitude to that other XY division begs the question: what will happen next? What then of Gen Z, the ominously titled end of the line?
As I see it there are two paths ahead of us; evolution and regression. If we can dam this incoming tide of information and put it to proper use then we could be set to make the biggest leap forward since we first set our amphibious eyes on the sunny sea-shore; if though we cannot, or will not, do this then we will find that Z’s ‘before and after culture shift’ will be the most brutal yet as a result. If we continue to abuse the newfound great power of our technology – and the great responsibility that comes part and parcel – then we face a futre of drought where thought has been forced into redundancy, only relevant to a select clique of aficionados who collect logics like LP’s.
Both options are on the table – quite literally for the majority of us – and the difference between them is no more than a flick of the finger. We have to decide to step up onto dry land again lest we soon dissolve into the sea completely. All I ask is that you think about this and then ask yourself ‘why?’ or better yet, ‘why not’?[v]
[i] Patton Oswalt (2011). Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. New York: Scribner. 23.
[ii] The Holy Bible: King James Version. Iowa Falls, IA: World Bible Publishers, 2001.
[iv] Ray Kurzweil. 2001. Accelerating Intelligence. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.kurzweilai.net/the-law-of-accelerating-returns. [Accessed 01 June 11].
- Heron, G (1971) Pieces of a Man. Bob Thiele, ed. New York: Flying Dutchman
-Lenski, Gerhard E. (1984-04-01). Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification. University of N. Carolina Press.