Not so shallow after all ...
By Harry Eyres
Published: October 1 2010 22:49 | Last updated: October 1 2010 22:49
|Facebook, rather than traditional books, is a connection to the real world for today’s students|
The cohort of young people just going to university, which includes many of my friends’ children and my eldest nephew, is, as usual, the target of accusations of degeneracy and warnings about dumbing-down.
In the past, such jeremiads generally concentrated on the moral aspect of things: in one of his rare moments of intemperance, the Roman poet Horace berated the young women of Rome for learning Greek dances (the provocative young minxes), the inevitable prelude to a later career of adultery. He was writing at a time when the Emperor Augustus had instigated one of those doomed back-to-basics campaigns promoting a return to “traditional values”, only to find that his own daughter had been involved in a string of adulterous affairs.
When it comes to the current generation, the accusations centre less on moral looseness and more on an inability to concentrate, brought about by an addiction to computer games and the internet. The direst of the warnings has been issued by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows, buttressed by research carried out by Gary Small, director of the Memory and Aging Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Dr Small argues that the very structure of people’s brains has been changed by new media – to the extent, as Carr puts it, that “our ability to learn suffers and our understanding remains shallow”.
As an uncle/godfather/family friend, I have to say that my own impression of this generation is not at all that they are more stupid than we were (Carr’s original and brilliant article in The Atlantic was entitled “Is Google Making us Stupid?”); rather, I would certainly say they are intelligent in a different way. To risk a clunking generalisation, they spend less time than we did reading books and more time on Facebook. I once joined Facebook, with the aim of reconnecting with international classmates from my environmental policy masters at the London School of Economics. But it struck me that any meaningful reconnection would involve a physical reunion, and that Facebook can be a kind of proxy connection, holding out a promise that is not fulfilled and very much less satisfying than the real thing.
Facebook is clearly quite different for younger people, and often central to their social lives; they use it not as a substitute for real connection but a way to keep real connections going. I got quite irritated with two members of the young generation recently in Italy when, arriving in Lucca, they headed straight for the nearest internet café and seemed content to spend half the day in the virtual world, ignoring the 12th-century churches, the tree-topped tower, the elegant cafés and artisan shops of one of the most charming small cities in Europe. But they could have said their Facebook world was more real than my idealised vision of a largely dead culture.
I share with Nicholas Carr the sense that the move from books to Facebook has altered the texture and the weave of lives and imagination. Perhaps it has simply turned them inside out. Although Small at UCLA noted in the digital generation a lack of the ability to maintain eye contact or notice “non-verbal cues in a conversation”, my experience is very different. I think we shy book-readers, with big internal worlds informed by 19th-century novels, were often the ones who found it hard to make eye contact. The generation now heading off to college, or the ones I have dealings with, appear markedly better at socialising.
Take gap years. My nephew coped admirably when faced with a class of 90 noisy, underprivileged children in Bangalore; perhaps better than I did when, considerably older, I was confronted with a class a third the size consisting of infinitely more privileged kids in Berkshire. After much travelling, he spent another month teaching at a village school in the Darjeeling hills. Combining meaningful work and living with an Indian family with backpack travel seemed a less haphazard way of using the immense opportunity of a gap year than my own South American travels.
I know about these adventures because of a series of vivid and lengthy e-mails, far better-written and more revealing, not just of the places he visited but also of his state of mind, than the rather priggish diaries I wrote in my gap year (and never showed to anyone).
This generation seems to be good at travelling. A friend’s son was recently in Mexico and Guatemala, hiring a car in Mexico and proving fearless in double-bluffing a series of corrupt cops attempting to extract from him what Mexicans call la mordida. I would probably have paid up meekly.
My friend and I did laugh when his son, en route to Guatemala, reported that he and his mates had left their hire car at the Mexican border. We laid a small bet that the car would not be there when they returned. We lost; the son had befriended a Mexican woman who looked after the car as carefully as if it had been her own.
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