It’s Comforting to Know These are not New Problems.

In his recent article at Slate, Vaughan Bell begins his article about the historical fear of media change with this outstanding lede:

A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, might have been the first to raise the alarm about the effects of information overload. In a landmark book, he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both “confusing and harmful” to the mind. The media now echo his concerns with reports on the unprecedented risks of living in an “always on” digital environment. It’s worth noting that Gessner, for his part, never once used e-mail and was completely ignorant about computers. That’s not because he was a technophobe but because he died in 1565. His warnings referred to the seemingly unmanageable flood of information unleashed by the printing press.

I remember sitting with my fellow freshman during our high school’s student council election speeches.  A senior-to-be named, and he clearly annunciated this as he took the podium, Jake John Robert Hast, began his speech with a diatribe against the youth of the day being lazy, incompetent, and not nearly as capable or driven as the generations that preceded them.  He continued in his staccato tone for a good three minutes reading from his endlessly flickering notecards until he reached a dramatic pause.

He looked up from his note cards and informed us that this was just not true.

It wasn’t even written in our parents lifetimes, or their parent’s parents lifetimes.  He was reading from Hesiod, who wrote in the 8th Century A.D.

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on
frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond
words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and
respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise
[disrespectful] and impatient of restraint” (Hesiod, 8th century BC).

According to Bell, it’s at the age of 35 when we begin to look scurrilously upon that which burst upon the scene in the form of new media, and this being my 35th year, I am paying close attention to how I feel about my social networks.  I’ll admit, there are some I could do without, but that is no reason for me to begrudge those who gain from those interactions.

I was part of a conversation today in which the group I was in was asked what we thought were essential skills for students to leave their K-12 schooling with.  The things we came up with were completely soft skills associated with living well, not hard skills that we are used to seeing in our curriculum.  We spoke of things like discernment, empathy, and ethical behaviors.  Reading through Bell’s piece, it’s easy to see how older generations get their hackles up about skills like this, especially when the means that the younger generations use to express themselves is one that is foreign or extrinsic to them.  If we can’t see how they are attaining these values, we worry.

Image Credit: “steckschrift” from wilhei55’s photostream

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