This week is Web Summit week in Lisbon, the largest IT/hi-tech event on the planet, held annually since 2009 and for the last two years, in the capital city of Portugal. Fast advances in digital technology have changed the way we live, but are they creating the sort of world we want to live in and to what extent are we adapted to it?
Think back just a few years, to the mid-1990s when most people were not online and did not have anything more than a word processor, or a Spectrum (for games) at home, at the very most. The majority did not and neither had the vocabulary that we use today entered our dictionaries (if anyone remembers what a dictionary is). Conversations we have nowadays, using expressions such as "double-click with the left button of the mouse", "bitwise operations", "DOS attacks" and other NetLingo terms would have had us locked up not so long ago.
So as our dead-tree versions are cached out (paper supported documents disappear) and as huge-pipe hotspots provide us with eye candy (large-bandwidth places where you can pick up an internet connection showing attractive scenes on a screen), as meatspace shelfware (out-of-date real word materials) gives way to animes and 411 online (Japanese-style cartoons and internet jargon), how are we coping?
Thirty years ago, most kids sat in rows at their school desks and kept quiet as the teacher wrote on the board for them to copy or explained things as the pupils took notes. Learning was not playing, you did that in the breaks and it was not supposed to be fun, or sexy. It was something you did, dutifully, at school and the more you did it, the further away from a menial task or shop checkout you got in your career. The incentive was, the harder you study at home and the more attention you pay in class, the bigger your home and garden and car will be, cosmetic and materialistic images reinforced by the perfect family of one son, a younger daughter, a dog and a cat and a flashy wife standing obediently by the door, ironed newspaper in hand and slippers at the ready, as the husband came home, strode into the room, threw his car keys onto the table and flopped down in front of the television for an evening's entertainment.
The television, not so many years ago, had at most two channels, one of which started in the evening and the other, main one, had an interval between lunchtime and early evening, during which time there was a blank screen. The news was presented by a newscaster, one story at a time and ended with the weather forcast which if analyzed, was an example of elaborate speech wihout actually saying anything (it might be a bit rainy at times possibly with a few sunny spells in between and maybe on and off some light or heavy winds, developing in some places into gales or gusts in some coastal areas but should become a bit brighter later in the week although in some areas with clouds and a few sunny showers here and there). Like, WTF?
Fast forward to today. Asking someone whether they saw the weather forecast is in itself a question bordering on being the subject of a visit from the proverbial white van and two large men in sunglasses and overalls carrying you off screaming. It is certainly a sign of being uncool and not "with it". You check on your mobile or pull out a tablet and have immediate touch-screen analysis.
So we do not need the weather forecaster dithering around pretending (s)he knows what is going to happen this afternoon. But neither do we need a family meal composed of four people in four different chairs (if indeed not in four different rooms), eating four different junk food meals which have been thrown into the microwave sitting in front of four different screens - the kids probably with a headphones on, texting their friends, while at the same time interacting with three or four different machines; the television, in turn, has two hundred and seventy-five channels to choose from, the news presented with a drum roll and loud music with an aggressive, rhythmic beat, then shock and awe stories with warnings of flash photography and violent disturbing scenes (which has the viewer sitting forward in her/his seat) and multiple headers and footers flashing across the top and bottom of the screen presenting six stories at the same time.
Fast forward to a classroom in 2017, when the pupils sit around the classroom in squares with their backs to a non-existent blackboard, chatting away among themselves or tapping away on screens while the teacher is trying to explain something, and if the teacher insists too much (s)he may risk getting knifed or beaten up by the irate parents of a spoiled brat which has become desocialized for today's classroom by the technology surrounding it. Teacher Talking is no longer sexy, neither is the non-interactive class which must be fun and entertaining.
If you are presenting the history of toilets in the seventeenth century or the sexual habits of the baboon, maybe a soundtrack or a video showing a few close-ups will be tolerated for ten seconds but how to sex up Pythagoras' Theorem on the Hypotenuse or the subjunctive of second-declension Latin verbs?
Take a child from the 1970s and (s)he would adapt to the wizzy modern touch-screen era of swipe tech; take a child from the 2000s and the inverse is impossible, like reasoning that because the Sun comes up over the pine tree to the East behind the greenhouse and goes down over the birch tree to the West beside the garden shed, clearly it revolves around the Earth. The point is, our classrooms are teaching in the old style to today's screen-savvy students. The result is what we see - fictitious education results which look OK on an Excel sheet but are meaningless in real life, sorry... I mean in meatspace.
So if our next generations are starting out misphazed and unadapted, what next? Sit back and watch this video of the future:
John and Jake's parents made different decisions when their sons were born. John's mom decided that he should be chipped because this gave her tax advantages, cheaper health insurance and a reduction on her mortgage spread; Jake's resisted because they wanted him to have a traditional life in an analogical world. A free choice.
John's development at school was meteoric as from time to time he was tubed (placed in a device like a CAT-scan) and his chip was programed with the fresh information which it then imparted to his brain. Overnight he went from understanding simultaneous equations to doing advanced Calculus and he swiftly adapted to the ever-more demanding requirements of College study packages.
Jake's progress was more slow yet steady. He never understood why John seemed incapable of understanding the wonderful changing colors of Fall and why he would grunt at mealtimes, visibly disturbed that his interaction with his screen was being interrupted by the conversation of Jake's family during the meal.
John's fridge was permanently stocked with fresh produce as his Internet of Things automatically placed orders for the materials he consumed, paid by bank transfer and the home delivery service had the things he needed placed at his doorstep minutes before he arrived home. Jake had to make shopping lists and go to the supermarket, or the grocery shop which he preferred. But things were not all rosy for John.
His health insurance skyrocketed as his chip informed the Company that he consumed more than 15.2 grammes of alcohol per day and was getting overweight because of his diet, full of comfort food because of his hi-stress job and ever-stretching work schedule. The final straw came when he came home and tried to turn on his Unit (TV, Internet, Telephone) but could not because the service had not been paid. There was no money left in his bank account. A digital error by the Intelligent Fridge had ordered 50,000 cartons of yoghurt billed at 1,200 dollars a carton. When he rang the emergency number on Jake's cellphone (because his was cut off) a voice said "To speak to an operator please press 9" after which it said "Do you want to speak to an operator? Please say YES or NO". "Yes" said Jake. "To speak to an operator please press 9" after which it said "Do you want to speak to an operator? Please say YES or NO". "YES!" shouted Jake. "To speak to an operator please press 9" after which it said "Do you want to speak to an operator? Please say YES or NO". Unable to handle the quandary he was in, penniless, tired and hungry, John went down to his garage, attached a rubber tube to the exhaust, closed the end of the tube in the window so that the fumes would fill the car and tried to turn on the ignition.
"Ignition impossible. Insufficient funds in your bank account," an electronic voice spanged. "Jake," he mumbled to himself, "I need your help".
Por Hélder Palma - I created this work entirely by myself., Domínio público, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40322649
*Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey has worked as a correspondent, journalist, deputy editor, editor, chief editor, director, project manager, executive director, partner and owner of printed and online daily, weekly, monthly and yearly publications, TV stations and media groups printed, aired and distributed in Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, East Timor, Guinea-Bissau, Portugal, Mozambique and São Tomé and Principe Isles; the Russian Foreign Ministry publication Dialog and the Cuban Foreign Ministry Official Publications. He has spent the last two decades in humanitarian projects, connecting communities, working to document and catalog disappearing languages, cultures, traditions, working to network with the LGBT communities helping to set up shelters for abused or frightened victims and as Media Partner with UN Women, working to foster the UN Women project to fight against gender violence and to strive for an end to sexism, racism and homophobia. A Vegan, he is also a Media Partner of Humane Society International, fighting for animal rights. He is Director and Chief Editor of the Portuguese version of Pravda.Ru.