The (Dis)Connected Generation

O glowing box, I worship you…

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand. ~Confucian Proverb

 You know what, Wally? If we couldn’t read, we couldn’t find out what was on television. ~from Leave it to Beaver

There are two huge ironies to this post. The first of which is that I’m actually watching television as I write it (not really watching, but the box is on.) Then, it’s actually a response to something I’ve been reading this week, Dr. Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation, which I would heartily recommend to anyone seeking a greater understanding of why animals behave the way they do. It’s also a valuable look into the inner lives of autistic people (Dr. Grandin herself is one of the most widely known Americans on the autism spectrum.)

This post is also a response to one of the superficial “news” stories I read about how children of this generation are unlikely to ever know about technologies of the past. Things like VCRs, rotary phones, and paper maps instead of a GPS system. I’m not really a proponent of bringing back VCRs rather than DVRs or Netflix; however, the article caused me to stop and think. In this era of on-demand this and instantaneous download that, are we really creating a more intelligent generation? Or exactly the opposite? The answer is not in one extreme or the other. What do I really mean by this?

In Dr. Grandin’s book, she talks a great deal about working memory as opposed to rooted memory. Working memory is a sort of short-term storage device, the way a flash drive might be. It can be overwritten, deleted, and edited at will, and most of it is ultimately forgotten unless it becomes part of one’s everyday functions, in which case it might become more permanent. Think about all the stuff you were forced to learn and memorize in grade school: the Gettysburg Address, long division by hand, how to make a potholder on a cardboard loom. Unless you happen to be a historian, mathematician, or hobby weaver, the chances you recall any of these are relatively slim. However, if you learn early on how to ride a bicycle or tie your shoes, you will never forget. That is the main difference between the two types of memories.

She also discusses the idea of learning things firsthand. One study cited is that of spider monkeys raised in captivity who never developed a fear of snakes (no wild monkey would ever develop in that way, the innate fear being necessary for the monkey’s survival.) Another example is that of dogs who may “teach” one another certain phobias, however irrational they may be. Animals, like people, teach one another.

What does this have to do with people, or their many technologies? If we are able to access maps of Manhattan or stock charts or fantasy football statistics at will, does this make us smarter? Yes and no. We have made infinite leaps and bounds in technologies within just 25 years. Consider that 25 years ago, a Commodore Amiga was used to create the “cutting edge” special effects for a TV series like Max Headroom, only a few people had heard of a CD player, and cell phones, if they existed at all, were large, unwieldy affairs that resembled military field radios. To the children of today, such things probably seem as quaint as a Buck Rogers movie. They may see them in old movies and ask what they are. In short, they are as dead to Generation Y as the pharaohs of ancient Egypt.

The real trouble I see with the “on-demand” generation is twofold. The terminology “on-demand” in itself is disturbing. We wonder why the millenial generation has seen an exponential rise in cases of AD/HD, uncontrollable aggression, and autism spectrum disorders. While I don’t think TV and movies are a scapegoat, I don’t believe they’ve helped matters. Kids also need to be taught the virtues of patience, which is becoming an increasingly rare quality in our society. There are cases every year in which some poor fast food worker is shot because his or her customer didn’t receive a hamburger “on demand.” Children in schools who fight with classmates because they didn’t get toys “on-demand.” Maybe I’m just becoming one of those jaded “older” people, but I don’t recall reading half as many of these stories when I was growing up.  (Read Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell’s The Narcissism Epidemic for an in-depth look on this topic.)

But I digress. The real worries I have for this generation is that while they may see a flower garden or a sequoia forest or woodworking project on their iPad or Kindle, that is not the same thing as experiencing them firsthand. (Dr. Grandin points out that a captivity-raised monkey will not react to only a picture of a snake in terms of a fear response.) In the increasingly claustrophobic, insular world of 21st-century America, kids are spending more and more time in front of a screen and less and less time outside, or working with their hands. The knowledge may be out there in cyberspace…but unless the skills themselves are practiced, we risk losing them forever. Look at all the traditional Native American crafts and languages that have been lost to the horrors of reservation life, for example. Many of them are lost for good.

I try not to be too obviously anti-technology in my posts. In so many ways technology has enriched our lives, increased our lifespans, and made strides against disease and hunger. But unless kids get out and do something (and until schools stop living and dying by standardized tests), we will never make true progress. We are raising a generation of lab monkeys who know to press buttons to get food rewards…but do not understand how the system works, and don’t understand the deeper meaning of the button. I’d rather have a curious monkey who explores than one who blindly follows any day.

Instead of putting your kids in front of the TV, why not do something together? Bake a cake. Try a simple scientific experiment. Come up with your own fairy tale. Walk through the woods. Fly a kite. These lessons will last longer than many hours parked in front of the Wii. What they do, they will understand.

 I always welcome comments…click “Like” or write me at!



~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on January 9, 2011.

One Response to “The (Dis)Connected Generation”

  1. This is spot on Heather. My kids all struggled with pre-cal but they remember how we made soap. They joke today about the best toy being the giant cardboard box. In short, they are creative thinkers. In the long run, I think those experiences will make them better problem solvers.

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abandonen toda esperanza aquellos que entren aqui


You - philosophical, thoughtful, witty. Me - still thinks fart jokes are funny. We should DEFINITELY get together!

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