“The Encroachment of the Buzz”

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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.

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14 Responses to “The Encroachment of the Buzz”

  1. Mark Bauerlein says:

    This blog post came across my desk, and it must be the 100th time people have countered the arguments in Dumbest Generation with the easy point, “But Plato feared writing, too.”

  2. Michae! Magree, SJ says:

    Thanks for the comment, Dr. Bauerlein. Unfortunately I can’t agree that you summarize my point about Plato. But since I am late to the game (number 100, apparently) I suppose your patience with such criticism has worn thin.

    I would say that my point in invoking Plato was to say that in criticizing modern enslavement to technology, we need to think about communication technology in terms of what sort of human needs it addresses and neglects. Plato combined a profound ability to be both aware of the limitations and dangers of writing, while at the same time writing voluminously, in a manner that he hoped would bring people back to authentic self-knowledge. Your book may address these points; I was expressing in this blog post my disappointment that your article did not. I don’t think this is an easy or a cheap point. Perhaps I am missing something.

    Thanks for reading, and I hope we can continue the conversation.

  3. Mark Bauerlein says:

    Let me switch to another point. I think, Michael, that saying that I am trying to “induce parental panic” is, indeed, an easy out. Let’s put my arguments in the context of the billions of dollars going in to marketing web tools and inserting web tools into classrooms. If we’re going to push back against the digital age juggernaut, it has to be direct and insistent. The skeptics are but a tiny part of the battleground, and although I wish it were true that “sympathy” and “understanding” can lead us toward better uses of technology, that approach gives away the field.

    • Michae! Magree, SJ says:

      Mark, I completely agree that skeptics like us are a tiny part of the battleground. It’s a question of strategy. I think that, outnumbered and outspent as we are, guerilla tactics might be far more successful than “direct and insistent” ones. I think of “sympathy and understanding” not as white flags but as weapons in helping people break free of whatever technology binds them.

      So I’m saying that parental panic is going to be counterproductive unless it is based in a positive idea of what the goal is. One of the things I liked about your article in America was your description of a teenager’s bedroom: phone, computer, TV, texting, IMing, chatting, emailing, and all in isolation from parents and siblings. Better than banning texts, what about insisting that homework be done at the kitchen table? What about making any use of technology a public event of the home? Both seem to attack texting right at the spot it grows: alienation and isolation.

  4. “Reading has become an act of meditation.”

    I’ve experienced the same in myself. Reading takes more effort than it used to, but is also more rewarding. The value of the discipline found in reading also is also more meritorious.

    I read once that the danger of the Blackberry in corporations is that employees suddenly feel an importance that they don’t have. Or I should say a misplaced sense of importance. When small messages are coming my way, I feel important and productive, but that feeling doesn’t necessarily match reality. The overy all busy-ness of texting does not match productivity. Bits of information fly around, and anxiety lots of anxiety…about nothing. But that’s it. A bit more meditation would do us good.

  5. Virgil Kaulius says:

    It’s not an encroachment of buzz as it is a catering
    to innate level one, maturity: Lawrence Kohlberg’s
    findings that most of the population is immature
    remains relevant, but too little discussed! That is
    the problem. It isn’t as much technology, therefore,
    as it is us: we are always and everywhere, the
    problem. In that, little has changed! And, teenagers
    still take 12 years to get through high school:
    that period has as yet never been shortened, for
    the majority of the poplulation, nor extended!

    Too many different historical decades of life get
    distracted in myopic nonsense about perceived
    challenges to the human psyche when it is the human
    psyche that stays the course since Adam left Eve!

    Nothing has changed in our psyche. All we have
    external to the “self” is various tools, means,
    and technologies that assist communication with the
    self first, and with others outside ourselves, second!

    That most start life in the Aesthetic Stage, but
    tend to stay there, is a second level of analysis
    in this discussion! Kierkegaard remains unapplied!
    So therefore goes the abuse of cell phones, as if
    this generation needs the stupid friggin things,
    as if they have more to discuss and say than
    any other generation! What nonesense! In the
    Aesthetic Stage, distraction, immediate gratification,
    constant novelty, anything to not actually think,
    rules. And rules the day, sad to add, it does!!!

    Would that research and theorizing zeroed in on
    the waste of time spent doing Twittering junk,
    would that meaningless time spent on communication
    devices were assessed, and found wanting, were
    attacked and not the technology itself, or the
    users thereof! (My two teenaged sons are if
    anything, smarter than I was as a teenager,
    because of the greater tools used by them
    that furthered their psycho-mechanical interactive
    mental skill sets!)

    CBC Radio had on a scientist that has stumbled
    onto the fact that our brain DNA is being affected
    by such over-use of such technology, and effecting
    permanent biological change. Now, that is meaningful
    to relate to and injest in our discernments for
    Reading the Signs of the Times more accurately:
    are they taking us to the greater good, or to
    meaningless time divestiture from other better
    pursuits, or….?!

    Lastly, even personality type theory, in the only
    scientifically validated product from Jungian
    Psychology, the MBTI, speaks to the issue of Stages
    in life’s way: one moves through 3 stages of life
    in growing in maturity in accessing the ever deeper
    inner recesses of the authentic self, a process
    that takes a life time on a par to the 3 Stages
    of the Spiritual Life as enhoused in the Catholic
    Ascetical & Mystical Theology tradition!

    All else, technologies included and not excluded,
    take second place to this pilgrim life we all
    experience. And some surmount with transcendental
    growth. Some using technologies and others abusing
    them. The call to maturity never ceases while
    technologies come and go.

    A “PS” is in order though: our contemporary military
    find that the North American “mind” is better
    equipped for strategic warfare than any other
    nation today, due to the youthful years spent
    playing computer games! Etc. Go figure!

    And as for Plato: “As regards to my essential
    teachings, I have never written them down
    and I never will. They are handed down from Master
    to Disciple in a face to face encounter and
    a self-sustaining fire catches hold in the
    heart of the Disciple!” It is in this interaction
    in which the self-sustaining fire catches hold
    that is the living essence of the interaction,
    it is its fruit! (Plato’s Letters)

    I worry today more against Pseudo Science than
    whether teenagers are smart or not! It’s always
    their parents that are the problem! As are
    the parents, so go our youth: in any, and every,
    generation!

  6. Virgil Kaulius says:

    Mike, whereas your comments are kosher and germaine,
    the issue of parental values few seem to tabel
    in matters such as these.

    And in the raising of our two boys, that was center
    stage, resulting in two exceptional Catholics
    handed to the world on a platter. That’s what isn’t
    being done by just too many parents, nor analyzed
    by pros in order to put more parents under the
    spotlight, and stop over-analyzing what the kids
    are doing when the latter are the product of
    parental values!

    All supported by Andrew Greeley’s research for the US
    Bishops as to whether Catholic shooling or Parental
    home life are determinative of youth formation,
    conducted decades ago: Parental values determine
    a kid’s future. Not schooling!!!

    So in our over-information age and knowledge
    explosion times of white water learning, we need
    to get researchers to maybe take a course or two
    in philosophy in order to “think” more accurately
    in applying their respective body of knowledge!
    At least that is Jung’s insight in Personality
    Type Theory: in fact, most of the poplulation
    does NOT know how to “think” properly!!!

  7. […] There are cries of alarm at (15 years ago) couch potatoes, and (today) internet junkies.  As I said about texting a couple of weeks ago, so too I think the recurring alarm about TV and internet sapping our […]

  8. Brock Menard says:

    I would first like to start off by saying that your criticism and argument against Mark Bacerlein and the “Dumbest Generation” was fair and concise. Particularly, I agreed with your main point about the younger generation’s technological acceleration and that older generations do indeed use various forms of technology such as email to communicate with one another. Quite frankly, the technology that is provided to our era is much easier and accessible. I also agree that Bacerlein’s attempt “to induce parental panic will fail”. Today, parents understand how convenient texting is and, for instance, are able to keep track of their teenage son easier. However, is it not true that our society is only concerned with convenience and at times the quest for convenience ultimately strays us away from what God wants us to do.
    On the other hand, as a result of society’s desire for technology, society ultimately sacrifices strong relationships. People say things that they normally would not say to someone in person compared to over the internet or through means of texting. As a result, I am afraid that the people skills of the generations to come will continue to decline. In addition to this, society becomes more attached to better and more “convenient” technology. This then leads to society’s addiction to consuming. Unfortunately it is our American nature to search for the next best thing because and follow the societal trends. In a sense nothing is ever good enough and we are always looking for something better. All in all, society has shifted its values from family and religion to consumerism.

  9. John Kopriva says:

    “They expect no one under the age of 30 to be reading [‘The Dumbest Generation’]”
    I agree with your criticism of this statement. One thing is for sure, for most kids, this article is a few clicks away on their computers and phones.

    I feel with all this technology that seems to be developing daily, one can choose to either embrace it or reject it. Now I see where Bauerlein is generally coming from. It still catches me off guard when I receive a facebook chat message or a text with words such as “wut up?” or “I ben goo”. Meanwhile, my mother is trying to find the apostrophe so she can be grammatically correct and show ownership in a text. It is a valid point that we, as in teenagers, are falling into bad habits with the way we speak or even communicate. A lot of things may seem impersonal and hidden behind a screen. In addition, we expect information and response instantaneously. You said it yourself, “Instantaneous, voluminous communication is presumed in our culture”. However, I totally agree with your criticism of Bauerlein in regards to calling us a “Dumb” generation. I believe we are some of the most informed people in the world. Using your newspaper example, it seems as if by the time you see the newspaper most of the “breaking news” is outdated. People have already received the “ESPN Alerts” via text or seen the front page of Yahoo news by simply turning on their phones.

    Now does having all this information make us smarter? Not necessarily, often times it distracts us away from real classroom learning (which has been very much affected, I think positively, by technology). However, I think as long as we do not fall into consumerism and spending all of our money on the latest new device, but still staying updated, this technology will continue to make us better.

    Thanks!

    • Adam Merkt says:

      Recently I read a story about the ACT, the essay question on a certain test was something alone the lines of, what modern piece of technology or modern societal change has had the most impact on your generation. As many would guess, the number one answer was the cell phone. Interestingly enough, the overall average on reading section score on that test was down, following the trend of falling reading section scores seen on the ACT in recent years. While I agree with the first point made about Dr. Bauerlein’s failure to articulate his message to the right age level, I do not agree with the other reasons for the article’s “failure.” Bauelein is correct in his statement that my generations reading ability has declined. This is demonstrated by the falling average in reading scores, which shows that students in this age, dominated by the cell-phone (as proclaimed by the students who answered the essay question), are losing the ability to swiftly read and analyze a small piece of writing.

      Bauerlein’s titling of the article, is in fact quite accurate. In my high school classes I have recognized that many of my peers are not able to formulate a sentence and convey their ideas to a teacher and the rest of the class when called upon. This inability indicates a lack of understanding of vocabulary and personal social skills, two of the most important indicators of a teenager’s maturity or lack-there-of. The problem for kids of my generation is that they would rather sit down and play a game as trivial as trivial as the “Paper Toss” app on their iPhone than sit down and read a book, an activity which in the long run, is definitely more productive and gratifying.

      (Junior at Marquette High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin)

  10. Michae! Magree, SJ says:

    Brock, John, and Adam:
    Thanks for your comments.
    I want to just take a moment to reply to Adam’s critique of my post. I think you may be missing my point. I do not disagree that reading skills may be declining because of texting and other modern technologies. My points were two: 1) calling a generation “dumb” is hardly a great way to start correcting behavior, and 2) technology is always serving a purpose, and the crucial thing is to figure out how it can best serve great human goals. What we don’t want, as you point out, is the for the technology to dominate us to the point where we always prefer “Paper Toss” to reading a good book. I think if you re-read my post, you’ll find that we don’t really disagree. I’m taking the argument in another direction.
    Thanks again for your comment!
    in Christ,
    Michael

  11. Mike:
    It’s fascinating to see how then, those of us
    who are supposedly “reading” are reading your
    original post: MIS-reading it! So, here we sit,
    not those against whom the original article was
    directed, behaving no differently than them?! Huh?!
    I posit it proves that the problem whatever it is
    supposed to be in each writer’s mind, has not in fact
    been either defined, or articulated, or asked?!

    My own position is that the America magazine
    article does not identify the problem at all, but
    tries to look like it is!

    My own Behavioral Sciences plus Spiritual Life
    formation underpinned the raising of two sons
    who used all this condemned technology and turned
    out to be superior to me: what does that say to
    the originating author? Secondly, as a former
    Senior Management careerist drawn into employee
    training, in our Age a computerized one, I reject
    out of hand the stupidity of any reference to a
    dumbed-down generation! Maybe purely, and only,
    from a myopic social sciences base, but not at all
    from both Jungian Psychology and from Behavioural
    Sciences as taught in any Graduate School of
    Business.

    I think we all need to dig deeper, sort out our
    collective hidden agendas, or try to identify what
    they are within the unknown psyche, and re-double
    our efforts, if so desired, to redress this issue….

    And I know Tom Merton wouldn’t at all agree
    with the dumbed-down nonsense, not when he himself
    sought the solitude of a professional Hermitage
    when already within a Monastery of silence setting:
    it sure did not, and the cave experience does not,
    hamper, hurt, curtail, or offset social skills
    whatsoever! Few attained his heights!
    Too few, sad to write!!!

    More influences our social lives than mere
    external tools of any and in all generations:
    all external tools of the mind are independent
    of the psychology utilizing it from within.
    The two are mutually exclusive!

    “Many people think they are thinking when all
    they are doing is rearranging their prejudices!”
    – William James

  12. John Barrett says:

    Wow! This article really made be think about how technology affects human interactions. Often times we, as a society, are thrust into technology with captivating commercials and advertisements, and we never really think about how it will effect us. You said, “the use of powerful technologies is seductive,” which I absolutely agree with because honestly we are all looking for the fastest and greatest thing the market has to offer.
    However, I disagree with the statement about Gutenberg because I feel that it was used out of context and in a rather opposite situation. Although both Bauerlein and the calligraphists would be referring to technological advancements in proceeding generations, they essentially were serving opposite purposes. While texting is an quick, easy, impersonal way of staying in connection, I feel Gutenbergs printing press was personalizing the people’s relationships with God, drawing them closer. In that effect I feel Bauerlein may have a point; modern technology is distancing us from what really matters making us “the dumbest generation.” In your article you said that in fasting from technology we can view the effects of our connections. Certainly sending 1000+ text messages a day is drawing us farther from our family’s in front of us, but closer to friends farther away, while maybe 500 emails is simply maintaining student teacher relationships ect. The only point I’m making in that everything, including technology, is good in moderation. When we are hospitable and allow others in our lives instead of bridging relationships through meaningless text messages, we really are building a better relationship with God.
    I read a later article of yours the top things of 09 and you were saying how lists distracted us from the truth in Jesus during the holiday seasons, but in that same way does technology distract us from reality before our eyes? Your views have been eye opening, and I thank you for opening mine. John Barrett

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