A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Changing the Channel

It occurs to me that a meta-expectation of especially today’s young people is the goal of making everything easier and easier.   This is not an action that they “expect” to do for themselves, but rather is something done by something or someone beyond their horizon.  Of course, it is not only the young; this has become a part of the social norm: automatic door locks, clap hands to turn on or off the lights, de-ice windows with a switch, use a handheld remote, set the timer – have the timer set automatically.  

There are hundreds of new devices every year to “solve” our hundreds of automation “needs.”  It seems as if the goal is to be able to know almost nothing, have no special skill or responsibility, pay almost no attention and still be perfectly competent to travel, protect, adjust and adapt, produce some desirable product and generally function in the world.

But someone is inventing and designing these devices and systems: Then someone is competent to think through the problems, learn the details of chemistry, electronics, physics, mathematics and mechanics required.   It has not always been that only a learned elite knew how the world’s objects and processes worked.  Once everyone hunted, gathered, planted, stored, built, traveled, traded, created, manufactured, etc. and generally knew how to make, fix and adapt the tools and processes of the community.  Today the world comes to us over a wire or just out of the air and there is little to no curiosity as to how this happens, what is required or what might be the consequences. 

We are told that we couldn’t possibly live without these automations.  I have watched a child refuse, with Draconian consequences, to be separated from a cell phone as though it were a respirator for the lung-sick.  There was an evocative cartoon in the New Yorker from the 1960s: a car has slid off the road in a snowstorm; the man says to his wailing child, “I can’t change the channel; this is real life.”    We can no longer even imagine enough dissonance to create a joke about our present situation.   If we slide off the road, OnStar calls a central phone bank as it happens: changing the channel has become real life.

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