Carl Wernicke: Change Is The Only Constant
It’s hard not turn into an old grump as you age, nostalgic for the past, convinced that the new generation is going to pot. Which, by the way, was one of my parents’ main complaints about my generation.
Anyway, it’s not a new thing for older folks to turn grumpy. Socrates reportedly complained that children “have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households.”
Sounds kind of modern, doesn’t he?
But it’s forgivable to wax nostalgic. As a species we are unsettled by change, and while we adapt with time, our first brush with real change is usually discomforting. So while today even grandparents post on Facebook and Skype with the grandkids, they probably didn’t take to these modern devices easily.
I remember years ago it being eye-opening that kids raised with touchtone phones didn’t know how to use a rotary phone. Many kids today probably have never seen one. But, so what? If you put me in a Model T Ford I probably couldn’t start it. But how often am I faced with having to start a Model T?
All this was spurred by recent articles on how the behavior of children is being shaped by devices like the Amazon Echo. Driven by artificial intelligence, these devices are increasingly able to interact with humans through ordinary language. Some children show a growing allegiance for the authoritative devices, and less for their parents, with their underpowered biological brains.
Naturally, there are people who don’t like this.
What to do? Well, generally I think time shakes all this out. I remember back when the slide rule was the epitome of handheld computing that many people objected that the new electronic calculators were producing a generation of mathematical illiterates. Today calculators are invaluable tools we wouldn’t think of being without. Did people object in the 1600s, when the slide rule was invented, that it was destabilizing? Probably. But I bet scientists and engineers hailed it as marvelous new technology that transformed their ability to calculate. And it was.
Remember when the Internet seemed like cheating to people who believed that the card catalogue and encyclopedias were the correct way to do research? Today we couldn’t function without it.
That said, I still think children should be taught to do math in their heads, that it does something valuable for the brain to create those connections. I remember as a newspaper editor how often a reporter would submit an article with a truly preposterous number that seemed, to me, plainly and obviously wrong. What it said was the reporter didn’t have the innate ability to evaluate what the numbers meant, or to judge their validity.
And sure, children should be taught how to do research beyond simply asking Alexa or Siri.
But human knowledge now expands by the gigabyte, and the complexity of even the simplest device is beyond the ability of most of us to even comprehend. I remember one of the best automobile mechanics I ever knew telling me he quit the business the day he opened the hood of his stalled vehicle and realized he didn’t have a clue what was wrong.
There’s no turning back. We will increasingly depend on machines to store knowledge, parse it, and feed it back to us. And while our interface with those machines will be deceptively simple – we’ll talk to them – behind the friendly voice they will be massively complex.
And a calculator with buttons? You’ll find them only in museums … right next to the slide rule.