ORIGINALLY POSTED AUGUST 17, 2008
My son is eight years old. The other day I called him into my home office. I showed him the wallpaper I had just created (wow, I gotta admit, I wasn’t aware of the trick for having a “single” wallpaper span two or three monitors… sweet!). On one monitor I have a beautiful Hubble photo of galaxy M101, a spiral galaxy. On the other monitor, I have M10, my personal favorite, the Sombrero galaxy.
I asked him if he knew what he was looking at. “Some stars?”, he said. “No, a galaxy”, I replied. “Oh”, he murmured. “Oh?!? Don’t you get it? That’s BILLIONS of suns!”, I cried. “Uh-huh”, he said.
He wasn’t impressed. Not in the least.
I thought about his reactions not just to those pictures but to many of the cool things I’ve shown him lately, and it occurred to me that there’s a very sad trend there: kids today aren’t impressed by anything it seems. The amazing has become commonplace to them, and very little holds the kind of wonder that many things used to be for me and others my age.
I remember around 10th grade, I found a science magazine in the school library where some scientists from IBM had written out IBM in Xenon atoms! They used what was then a new kind of microscope (a Scanning-Tunneling Microscope if I remember correctly to move INDIVIDUAL ATOMS around. I was blown away.
Well, I found a similar picture for my son. He wasn’t thrilled. He actually said “So what?”. I said “You’re looking at atoms, and someone was able to move them around how they wanted”, to which he replied “Ok”
Now, granted, he’s only 8, so his brain just doesn’t have the frame of reference to truly get some of this stuff. Much of it goes over his head. I understand that. But it’s more than that, and it’s not just him. Every single day he is surrounded by marvels of technology that a mere 50 years ago was just so beyond the scope of what was possible and known to most people. I mean, a little under 50 years ago the first electronic calculator was born. A (relatively) small device that could do mathematics for you? People couldn’t believe it! Now, if your PORTABLE PHONE can’t do differential calculus it’s a piece of junk!
Now we have microSD cards that can store 32Gb of data (maybe more, who can keep up any more?) and it’s no big deal to him. I try to give him a frame of reference by showing him a STACK of old hard drives from maybe 10 years ago… I tell him “All those drives TOGETHER only has about 4Gb of data, so this one tiny little card has 8 times as much space”. He looks at me as if to say: “Dear man… thank you for trying… thank you for caring… but so f***ing what??”
I’ve also tried introducing my son to “old” computers, the C64, Atari, those kinds of machines. He likes some of the games, he’s big into video games, but it’s just not the same as it was for me. These were literally life-altering events for me, getting each of those computers and learning what they could do. Hacking code to all hours of the night, getting the memory map for the thing and figuring out what sequence of POKE statements generated various colors and sounds. All that was amazing to me. To him though, they’re just toys.
Now, I’m not looking for the same kind of paradigm shift in thinking that they were for me, but I wonder what it would take for that sort of thing to occur for him at all? I mean, would a Star Trek-style transporter do it? Would a Bishop-style android do it? He wasn’t even as thrilled with his first plane ride as I thought he’d be, as I was when I finally got to go on a plane at about age 19… I wonder if a trip to the moon would be any big deal to him?
I think it’s so easy to take for granted all the human race has accomplished, not to mention all that nature has to offer. We all do it to some degree I think, but the days of sitting around the ONE black-and-white television in the house and being amazed at what you were seeing are long gone. The days of those electronics kits that let you built a simple radio and that being exciting to a child are long gone. The days of looking up at the night sky and seeing the moon and being just utterly floored by the fact that people have walked on it are long gone. The amazing is now commonplace, and that sense of wonder and amazement that my generation had (hopefully still has!) is gone. I believe my generation may wind up being the last that has the pleasure of that sense of discovery, that sense of amazement at what’s possible, what’s been accomplished and simply what IS or MAY BE (maybe The Neverending Story had it right: maybe The Nothing is taking over).
I don’t know what it will take for this new generation to have those same experiences… I know it’s a heck of a lot more than it took for me, and I don’t see anything like that on the horizon. Generation Y has my sympathies.