Wednesday, May 16

One Minor Tactical Oversight

I recently read (via audio-book) Now You See It by Duke University Professor Cathy Davidson. It was a richly layered book, discussing overlapping themes in the science of attention, educational paradigms, modern technology and global business.

Ms. Davidson made some excellent points, and certainly provided abundant food for thought. I won't get in to them here, but the book is well worth reading if you have the opportunity.

Despite the many valid ideas, it was a single assumption that she spoke aloud only once that most stuck with me: the information revolution is irreversible. This was a linchpin for many of her arguments - we need to embrace new technology because it's not ever going away. What does it really matter if we let go of a few clunky skills our machines have made obsolete?

In theory, it's a perfectly reasonable point. Except for one minor tactical oversight: it isn't true. The technology on which we so willingly depend is not guaranteed to us in perpetuity.

In fact, it's not nearly as stable and secure as most of us like to believe. Shut off the power for as little as a few days and you can watch the world begin to crumble. Remember the panic that people registered just a month or a two ago when it was thought that excessive solar flares might interfere with satellite access? Better still - think of the countries restricting access to the Internet and other technologies Western countries take for granted right now.

Or, God forbid, a One Second After scenario hits and an EMP shatters every electronic device we have. What happens to the young adults who have none of those "obsolete" skills to fall back on? Who can't read a map, use a compass, do basic math without a calculator or even know how to use a card catalog to look up survival books in their library? Let's not even think about how their brains are so wired for electronic reading that they'll struggle to read real books even if they find them! (See The Shallows for more on that.)

So while I appreciate the passion and good intentions of people like Ms. Davidson, I cannot in good conscience agree to let so many precious skills be rendered obsolete. It costs us nothing to learn the old skills alongside the new and in a crisis those skills could save countless lives. Let's not cheat ourselves out of a Plan B, shall we?

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