In a recent issue of America Magazine (10/26/09), there is an article from Mark Bauerlein, calling current U.S. teenagers “The Dumbest Generation.” What the article notes is that the current generation of teens is not necessarily more or less intelligent, in raw terms, than any other generation. Yet Bauerlein goes on to use this term “Dumb” to describe these teens because he believes the technology they employ confines them to immaturity.
This article fails on a number of different levels. First, there is the major problem of his audience. Bauerlein and the editors of America are making a clear statement that they expect no one under the age of 30 to be reading this article. Anyone who texts with any frequency, anyone part of the Dumbest generation is surely not going to be brought to enlightenment by use of such pejorative language.
One does not have to deal with the dominance of technology so unsympathetically. Two great examples are recent articles by novelist and blogger Carrie Frye (known by her initials and nom de blogue CAAF) and David Ulin, the books editor of the LA Times. Frye has picked up subtle signals of how reading on the internet for much of the day has affected her reading off the internet, i.e. her reading of books. Ulin, likewise, has noticed that during his normal time of peaceful reading after everyone in his house has gone to bed, he can no longer concentrate. It takes him 20 pages to slow down enough to read.
What I’m struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it’s mostly just a series of disconnected riffs and fragments that add up to the anxiety of the age.
Reading has become a task, a chore, a thing one has to make time to do. It is not something that the technology of our lives provides for. Ulin makes an analogy:
…[R]eading has become an act of meditation, with all of meditation’s attendant difficulty and grace. I sit down. I try to make a place for silence. It’s harder than it used to be, but still, I read.
For most of us, the use of these powerful technologies is seductive – but when is the use of any technology not seductive? The purpose of fasting from technology, or of structuring our use of technology, is to make us more aware of how mediated all of our interactions really are, and how different media allow for different types of connection.
Secondly, Bauerlein fails to demonstrate how texting is not simply the extension of a chain of technological advances. How many emails does Mr. Bauerlein send and receive in a week as a professor? How many in a month? It might be only half of the 1,742 text messages a month sent by the average 13-17 year old, but I question whether it is really much different. Instantaneous, voluminous communication is presumed in our culture.
Mr. Bauerlein does not seem able or willing to confront the reality that Americans are inundated by this technology. Unless he can deal with technology as a whole, and tell us why texting is creating something totally new and different, his attempt to induce parental panic will fail. The tools he needs, I think, are not so much in the social sciences which he purveys, but rather in theorists like Marshall McLuhan and… Plato. McLuhan, the Canadian media-theorist so popular in the 1960’s, helped to popularize the notion that media themselves participate in the creation of cultural events that history often interprets as based in logic or ideas. McLuhan looks at the question historically by talking about the transition from speech to writing, and from writing to printing. He looks then at his own culture and notes all sorts of fascinating things. I am a great fan of this quote: “People don’t actually read newspapers. They step into them every morning like a hot bath.” His point: the newspaper is about creating a strictly controlled atmosphere. I remember being shocked in high school when I was told that newspapers are written at a sixth-grade reading level. When I thought about it however, this makes sense. A newspaper is designed not for challenging reading, but rather for an even, almost imperceptible flow of information.
For Plato, too, there was a shock in dealing with the reality of the written word as opposed to the spoken. What it led to, however, was not a condemnation of the written word, but a recognition that certain technologies are good for certain things. If we can’t theorize about what a technology is good for, if we cannot think about our basic needs as humans, we will be pushed around by the technologies we create. McLuhan says, “Invention is the mother of necessities.” In other words, what we create shapes what we think we need, what we are driven to seek, unless we can step back and reflect on what these desires point to in us.
Ultimately, knowing how many times a person texts, checks Facebook, or emails is only helpful if we have thought about what real human interaction looks like. Every technology, from cuneiform wax to Google Wave, is shaping these interactions. I have no problem with a word of warning about technology, but in a culture in which all of us are inundated with it, sympathy and self-reflection have got to be the modes of operation. What is more, this self-reflection has to be striving for understanding of how technology is always shaping human interaction. Unless we think harder about the whole variety of technology, and the whole variety of human interactions, we won’t be sensitive to just how these texts are either helping or hurting us. I wonder whether medieval calligraphists, recently out of jobs, spent their time calling Gutenberg’s generation “dumb.” They might have, but he was too busy printing the Bible to notice.