Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Is There Life Beyond The Jetsons?

The future blurs before us now, blazing a trail we have initiated and will perhaps be unable to halt or even slow. It is also possible we will not be able to follow this trail. If Prometheus has been unbound, what kind of future has been unleashed?

C’era una volta, an individual who embarked upon and completed a university education was considered a person of the world, one who had encountered a sufficient breadth of knowledge and had developed the ability to think broadly and critically. By critical thinking, I mean the ability to embrace life’s questions as an entré to a lifelong journey of discovery, where answers are more likely to be provisional, rather than arrival points. Such an education was meant to encourage independent thinking.

In the twilight of the humanist Enlightenment ideal of the university, we see that the corporate commodification of education has presented as the new ideal (indeed a new product for consumption in a marketplace that vaguely resembles a high-priced flea market) that education must be goal-oriented, the goal being, of course, career preparation. This model university is universal only in that it allows one universal opportunity to sacrifice the mind for an idée fixe, that of entering the job marketplace with a specialized knowledge.

If any trend has made education elitist, this is it. Where for hundreds of years, academia was able to engage with the corporate world without compromising independent thought, now this may no longer be possible. The public has been sold on the corporate advertising myth: education is too expensive to publicly fund. Now we will all have to pay more for education, so that we can learn less and ask fewer questions.

Technology, the primary tool of the captains of industry and finance, has contributed to a state of affairs whereby the average person, rather than being served by technology, is forced to run after it. Technology has not freed the human for contemplation and rest. Technology has become the equal opportunity slaver. Quite simply, if you don’t have it and don’t know how to use it, you are useless and will be left behind. If you don’t have the very latest, you are passé.

There was a time when auto repairs could be done by most everyone, with a few parts and tools. That time has been gone for decades, since the advent of computer components. While people are expected to know how to use computers, for the most part they do not know how computers work, much less how to repair hardware or applications. Where there was had always been craftspeople to repair watches and other items, there are few such people left—they are dying at an alarming rate, and there are no young people willing to learn their arts. There has been a revival in the art of handmade paper and books, but there any people left who do hand engraving? No, but there is a technician who can run a machine that will do a flimsy sort of engraving that has no character or depth. The computer technician can diagnostics on your machine and maybe (though sometimes not) solve your difficulty, although you will not learn what the problem was or how it might be avoided or remedied should it occur again.

With technology has come the expectation that humans can and will perform work at greater speeds, and for longer periods of time. People have been trained to answer their calls, rather than allow the automatic features to take messages for them. People have been trained to work through lunch and dinner and vacations. Business, because it has been globalized, is transacted 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In short, people have been and are being trained to live for work, not work to live.

There must be a breaking point. Where will it show itself? Probably the fruits of this will be marked by increased illness and individual dysfunction and inability to cope, but also in greater division and divisiveness among individuals and societies.

A computer can make millions of computations per minute, but it does not have life independent of the user. A computer is capable of diagnostic functions, but not of self-examination. The liberal arts university education promoted free thought that was directional outward, but also intended the ability for self-reflection. The blur of a future blazing beyond the Jetsons seems poised to obliterate independent thought, as well inwardly directed contemplation.

There is a remedy for this dilemma: we must remember that computers and other electronic devices do not live. We can turn them off. We must remember that the human mind is capable of self-reflection and abstract, expansive, outwardly directed thought. We must remember that thought does not cost money; our thoughts cannot be owned by anyone. We must remember that our minds are worth more than technology, and our thoughts will outlive the relevance of technology. The computer stops when it is turned off, but the mind at rest is still alive, awake, and at work during sleep, even if that work is only apparent as a dream.

Further, education never need end at a degree. Too many people stop reading and thinking, once the degree is in hand. A degree is not the key to your potential, not the key to your mind nor, these days, necessarily the key to a career.  

When the years of formal education end, the lifetime of informal education begins. A public library card is your free ticket to lifelong journey of learning, free association of ideas and free thinking. 

Take time, each day, to turn off all your machinery. Then, turn on your mind.

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