I’ve seen this Einstein quote quite a bit lately, usually framed by pictures of various young people texting in places where they should be engaged with either the natural world or another human being. And yes, it is true, engaging with some size screen has replaced many more social forms of interaction. This seems to have consequences that are disheartening for those of us who believe that the very best of human qualities, for example empathy or non-creepiness, cannot be developed through interaction with a computer. I will say, however, as someone who has done a fair amount of research about technology and its psychological ramifications on the creative spirit, that I don’t think we’re being fair to our “generation of idiots.”
Let’s consider for a moment “The Judgment of Thamus.”This fear that technology could interfere with our intellectual capabilities is not a new one. It occurred to Plato, too. In Phaedrus, Plato recounts a conversation between the god Theuth and the then king of Egypt, Thamus, in a story commonly referred to as “The Judgment of Thamus.” Theuth was considered the deity and discoverer of numbers and calculation, and some sciences, but also letters. The god approached King Thamus, offering all of his impressive inventions and encouraging the king to distribute and share these inventions with all Egyptians. King Thamus wasn’t keen on this idea of letters. Theuth assured him that the utilization of letters would improve Egyptians’ memories as well as their wisdom. Thamus was pretty sure that letters would make his people only remember symbols, and not encourage them to actually think with their brains and their souls. Sound familiar?
This past year I dipped my toe into the world of online teaching. The class was called “Technomythica,” and addressed what some of the Greco-Roman myths have to offer in terms of lessons about how humans should develop and use technology. Now, this class was specifically for home-schooled students, so I was teaching a group of young people who rely fairly heavily on modern technology. After 14 weeks of classes, each student was to present a project that reflected his/her understanding of the crucial points of the myths. The projects were amazing. 12 and 13-year-old students clearly understood what I was getting at: that even our most ancient stories, the very foundations for our modern belief systems, are both encouraging and warning us about what the creative impulse can create and destroy. Their conclusions included some profound insights: Prometheus warns of the necessity of forethought, and that the quest for knowledge can lead to unintended consequences. Psyche shows us that we must at all times be aware, and that ultimately the valuable things in life take thinking and hard work. Icarus warns us of our limitations, and Odysseus’s run-in with the Cyclops teaches that ingenuity and being crafty makes even the weak powerful. I was pretty impressed.
So what does any of this have to do with the fact that they won’t put the darn phones down? I think we need to remember the lessons that my students learned, and consider context. It is our job as a community to cultivate a world in which we use our tools for edification and entertainment, ever mindful of the ramifications of an over-reliance on these tools. Aren’t those the kind of challenges we have always faced? Haven’t we always had to adapt as the world changes, figuring out how to uphold our values as a culture? It is the responsibility of the family and the community to temper and protect, as well as teach the safe and edifying uses of our technology. And change is fast and furious; for generations the elders have looked at the younger generation with shaking heads and concern about what has been lost, while the younger generation looks forward with enthusiasm and brazen hubris. That doesn’t make any of us geniuses or idiots. It makes us human.
Einstein also said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is an idiot.” Let us be very mindful that the tools which we are using to measure the intelligence, creativity, and potential of our children is appropriate to the age in which we live. Because someday soon, these texting-in-inappropriate-places children will be bewildered adults, concerned that the younger generation has lost a grasp of the cultural values they have worked their lives to preserve.