I think back at my father’s life when technology seemed to be barely a word, one spoken sparingly in the world outside of institutes of advanced research. Perhaps he heard it while listening to the CBC when the Russians announced they were sending a chimp to outer space but aside from that I cannot imagine another time before 1980 when the word would’ve meant for him anything other than television. Radio, telephones, and cars wouldn’t have qualified because they had been around almost his entire life and, frankly, there wasn’t a lot to them that would define them in today’s terms as technology. It’s different now, of course. As I look around at the desk in front of me I imagine if my father was still alive I would need to spend days with him to explain the gadgets and how they could even remotely be seen as tools of legitimate work.
I have two blackberries (long story involving IT policies limiting the user’s freedom), a phone that looks nothing like the Bell models he was familiar with (where are the wires? and what the heck is that thing with the loop and looks like an ear?), a Bose headset (for listening to webcasts), a laptop, a monitor, which of course he would see as a TV ( ”And this is work?” he’d ask), an iTouch (for fun and inspiration), and an Italian lamp whose LED bulbs, I’ve been told, will burn bright for many decades, maybe centuries, after I join my father wherever he is. All this stuff… well, most of it… is critical to my work and I would be almost useless in my job if it weren’t for their existence.
It’s easy to be seduced by words and symbols. Words can convince us that something we suspect to be true, that we want to be true is, in fact, true. Devices that make us perform functions faster are often symbols of sophistication and advancement but does their existence and utility, and my owning of them, mean I am any more intelligent than my father? I doubt it. Multi-tasking is certainly, almost indisputably, something my generation excels at compared to my father’s. But in comparison to mine, the same can be said of the generation presently in their 20s and 30s. Does their ability to juggle more things simultaneously translate into greater intelligence. Maybe… but I wouldn’t bet on it. There are many people asking these types of questions all the time and I want to ask, does it matter? Learning positive lessons from previous generations, whether concious or unconcious, lessons that improve life for many, is called evolution. Clearly that has happened for, well, forever. Shouldn’t the incremental progress be the focus and not whether this generation is smarter or dumber than the one before or after?
I’ve been in IT for my entire career and while I have seen, and been part of, the massive change of the last 30 years, I don’t feel any more intelligent than my father, the lover of good conversation, a variety of high-brow fiction, and gorgeous Italian arias. Sure I know and can explain, and am an enthusiastic supporter of (besides the devices I mentioned above), why a company would want to exploit virtualization and the Cloud, or how to build and track a web application. But my father knew how to set time aside after a long day of work, sit on the front porch at dusk in late summer, and as the heat and humidity lifted, listen to Ernie Harwell call balls and strikes as the Tigers marched towards the World Series. Who’s smarter?