A lot of us seem to have become less capable than we once were of the kinds of analyses we need to ensure that our own worlds stay safe – whether in business, in running our households, even in our critical examinations of character. This is often manifested in the choices we make about our political 'leaders’.
It is hard for example to have sympathy with anyone who now regrets what could be seen as the logical outcome of electing someone like Nigel Farage over and over again to a seat in the European Parliament. (Remember that Farage was Rupert Murdoch’s Times 'Briton of the Year’ a couple of years ago.) If the EU Parliament was that important – which it was – then it merited a representative of greater intellect, vision and stature than a small, chipped mind from the south of England. It didn’t take much analysis either to see that Mr Trump was not suited to the office of the American presidency. It should have been just as obvious to the British voter that David Cameron was an intellectual lightweight. A bit like Boris. You wouldn’t really want either of them to handle your business decisions, or your investment portfolio. So, the thinking might have gone, we’ll keep them out of trouble by making one PM and the other Mayor of London.
We don’t seem to be very good these days at judging character – judging it in the context of what we’re electing, or hiring it, to do. Maybe it’s because we’re a bit too ready to let our computers do our thinking for us. Can’t spare a minute to think of the answer? Never mind. Just Google it. How are your mental arithmetic skills? Google the answer. It’s faster and easier. A quaint concept, mental arithmetic. An ancient one. If you’re over 50 I’ll bet you’re a lot better at it than your kids. It’s been a slippery slope ever since they let students take calculators into the classroom. Now they seem to be able to take iPads and smart phones in the classrooms too. In some places, during exams. Where’s the learning in that? Where’s the retention?
Why do you think an impressive number of Silicon Valley executives send their kids to schools that don’t have computers and don’t allow electronics in the classroom? In 2011, when the New York Times revealed this phenomenon, it stated that there were more than 40 of these Waldorf schools in California. The fees are high. But that didn’t stop the execs from Google, Facebook, Cisco and other tech companies sending their kids to them. These parents believed the kids could learn the tech stuff later, when they might need it since, as one executive put it, 'At Google and all these places, we make the technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible.' In Scotland you might know Waldorf schools better under the name of Rudolph Steiner.
A staggering number of us have been dumbed down to the point where we’re incapacitated if the smart phone gets lost, or if the power goes out. We’re dumbed down by a fixation with Google and Facebook, and the facile, potted info we get from Wikipedia. Facebook and Google use algorithms so they can tailor the information they send us to our 'likes’, in case we get upset by having to deal with our 'unlikes’, whatever they are. As Angela Merkel has pointed out, we’re misled and subverted by our search engines. There’s truth in that. It’s another way of levelling us all out, of setting us up for the product marketers. Saccharin. Uniformity. Gosh! What corporation wouldn’t go for that? It’s how to make the mould fit all the little consumers – instead of the other way round. So we can think how special we are as we get sucked further in.
The result is that we’ve become alarmingly lazy. We’ve purchased more and more gadgets to bring us information, to make our lives easier. We rely on the 'knowledge’ our gadgets give us to be there whenever we need it. It doesn’t take much to see how our brains have been undermined, how our attention spans have ever-so-slowly been curtailed over the last 20 years or so. Just watch people walking to work some rush-hour morning. Half of them are clutching their smart phones, scanning for messages in case they miss something; punching in text. It reminds me of nothing so much as watching kindergarten children holding their teddy bears as they’re shepherded to the play-group.
In today’s fast-tracked world a lot of us are a little off-balance. We get side-tracked by fast-changing media bytes, by multiple television screen-changes per second, by information overloads that leave us knowing less than we used know because we don’t have time to deal with it all.
Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the inhabitants of the Highlands and Islands were cleared off the land shipped to America, Canada, or Australia, it wasn’t just the people we lost. We lost a vast amount of knowledge that they took with them. Knowledge of our history, and of the rich variety of cultures across our country. For theirs were oral cultures – with story and song to signify ritual and labour, seasons and plantings; tales of past generations, histories, mythologies and legend. Not much of it was written down. Most of it was in the heads of the folk who were driven off to the new world. When the people left, so did the fabulous nuances of their lives. The subtleties and the differences. The recounting and the records of it all.
Today it’s a bit different, but the end result will likely be quite similar. A sanitisation of culture and nuance; an ironing out of difference. Homogenisation. Ultimately a narrowing of knowledge. Because we’ve allowed our records, too many of our books, too much of our history, to be digitised. I call it the 21st century Clearances. Not of people; of our minds. But it amounts to a larceny in which far too many of us are willing participants. We participate every time we download a new programme or 'app’ and click on 'I Agree' beside a contract we haven’t read. It’s led to a massive loss of knowledge, and its replacing with 'selective’ information, depending on who or what is at the controls at Facebook or Google. What’s good for us is what we get. What is good for us is what we like.
Eric Blair would have recognised much of this for what it is. Control. Soma. He’d have understood one of the reasons why Apple changes its technologies every little while. Or why Microsoft does, why all the others do. It’s how they make money. It’s how they get the licence to go into your computer and update and upgrade while you’re asleep. We give them the licence to do it. Do we trust them not to root about in our files while they’re there? Sure, of course we do. 'If you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve got nothing to fear.' Our parents and grandparents heard that kind of phrase in the 1930s and 40s. They knew that it depends on whose idea of right and wrong the speaker was talking about. Do we?
Will you always have access to these files of yours? Maybe. Maybe not. After a few years it’s quite likely that you won’t be able to retrieve those records any more. Not easily, anyway. The records may no longer be readable because the programme you wrote them in doesn’t exist anymore. Either that or they’re on a different 'platform’. Sure, we’re told that they make these changes for our security, to protect us against hackers and thieves. But some of us can remember when someone came up with a compound that made a car tyre last for two hundred thousand miles. That 'someone’ got fired, and the patent was quietly buried. How can you make a profit if your product never wears out, never changes – and if it’s a service, doesn’t need some kind of constant fiddling in order to function properly?
So what does happen when the lights go out; when the power is cut? How many of life’s simple functions do we still know how to do ourselves? Let’s start with no electricity. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, James Clerk Maxwell. It’s been around for a while. But one day it’s gone. You’ve probably got a smart phone, with all the contact numbers on it – but the battery’s flat. You can’t recharge it. Your wireless connectivity is down too. But if you live where I do, your telephone land line still works.
What’s the number for the Hydro company so we can find out how long the power will be out? Can’t remember? Damn! Where’s the telephone directory? They stopped delivering it four years ago because the advertisers had disappeared. No one uses the printed one any more, they said. Oh, and they changed their emergency number last year. You can only find the new one on the internet.
Without power you probably won’t have heat. Maybe it’s December or January. Do you know how to light a fire? Or have you just got central heating? No fireplace. Do your kids know how to light a fire? My daughter does – but her friends don’t. They live in the city. None of them have fireplaces, or wood to burn. They love it when they come to our house and get to sit round a roaring log fire.
Perhaps you’re up in the hills and the GPS croaks. Do you know how to find North or South, East or West? If you were a Brownie or a Guide, or a Cub or a Scout you might remember how to find direction by using your wristwatch. But do you know what lies in any of these directions? A cliff or a bog perhaps, or a river you can’t cross. There might be a bridge a mile upstream, except you don’t know it’s there. Because you got rid of the Ordnance Survey maps when you bought the GPS. You’re hungry. Do you know what wild foods you can eat and which ones might kill you? Or how to catch a fish with your bare hands, or with a piece of wire – or with some string and a bent pin? Or how, and where to set a snare to catch a rabbit?
Maybe you’ll never need any of that knowledge, those skills. But if you live near the confluence of some of the world’s great hydrographic faults like we do, it’s not a bad idea to keep them up. Our earthquake insurance these days is getting up towards the price it cost to build the place a few years ago. They must know something we don’t.
Did I call it 'dumbing down’? It’s a lot worse than that. Our history, our collective memories, our reference points, are slowly being wiped out while our 'culture’ slides into a world of fantasy and game play. They are multi-billion dollar industries after all, and they employ a lot of people. So they must be important. How would we keep the economy ticking over if people didn’t buy into the distractions they produce? But we’re really being dumbed down because information has value, and it is well on the way to being commodified. For profit. We need to remember that it can only make someone – some companies – money if we relinquish it. Which is what we’re doing at a frightening rate.