Velcro’s Generation of Idiots

May I suggest a novelty ice-cube tray that would teach a kid math AND ice-cube tray usage?

The other day, the number one most-clicked-on article on the Boston Globe‘s website was this one, penned by a writer for the AP and headed: “Are we raising a generation of nincompoops?” While I must appreciate anybody who brings the word “nincompoop” into common parlance, my skin bristles at the easy way that this kind of generation gap journalism gets clicks. The author, Beth J. Harpaz, conjures up an unrecognizable array of incompetent youngsters in her lede:

Second-graders who can’t tie shoes or zip jackets. Four-year-olds in Pull-Ups diapers. Five-year-olds in strollers. Teens and preteens befuddled by can openers and ice-cube trays. College kids who’ve never done laundry, taken a bus alone or addressed an envelope.

This paragraph rhetorically obscures countless subtleties about the socioeconomic or geographic particularities of kids’ lives—a common problem when people think generationally. (And who’s ever seen a five-year-old in a stroller? Please comment below if you have.) But there’s also something new about this approach. Sure, there are a lot of anti-digital sentiments out there; one could compile a minor bibliography of books about the bad effects of the Internet on kids’ minds. (A 2008 book titled The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future [Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30], by an English professor named Mark Bauerlein, who is quoted heavily in this article, would definitely belong on the list.) But Harpaz’ bugbears are different: they’re not digital, but rather quotidian in nature. This article indicts ice cube makers and Velcro sneakers, along with pull-top cans and clothes hooks, as the perpetrators of ignorance and learned helplessness among the young.

This piece returned my thoughts to a major theme of the work I’m doing for my dissertation: the impact of ideologies of technological determinism on generational thinking. Technological determinism—or the idea that “technology changes us”[1]—has been roundly critiqued by several academic schools of thought, and is pretty much persona non grata in the current field of the history of technology. TD has been abandoned in favor of an approach that sees the development, adoption, and effects of new technologies as a complex historical process deeply related to other societal factors, including the American Studies trifecta: class, gender, and race. (See this great collection of essays, edited by University of Texas AMS alums Siva Vaidhyanathan and Carolyn de la Peña, for examples of this kind of work).

In Harpaz’ piece, standard-issue technologically determinist theory is mixed with a potent sense of generational judgment. So the omnipresence of in-fridge ice-cube makers rendered one child who visited Harpaz’ house unable to manipulate ice-cube trays to freshen his drink. What is it about this that horrifies her so? The terror and disgust that this incapacitated young person causes in the older observer seems to go beyond any reason—and the interest that Harpaz’ article generated proves that people find this concept at least compelling (if not completely convincing).

I think that the idea of a child dumbed-down by daily technological assistance frightens because it seems like the ultimate proof that “technology changes us.” Like the recurring, yet unproven fears that the consumption of violent media will create violent children, this fear is emblematic of a deeper distrust of the changes of modernity. Both anxieties stand in for—and preclude?—more complicated self-examinations: think of the children, and you won’t have to think about your own participation in the making of the world that the kids grew up in. After all, who bought the fridge with the ice-cube maker, and who installed the clothes hooks? And what should you be doing as a voting, consuming adult if you want the infrastructure of everyday life to be something other than what it is?

Next week: A report on my recent research on chemistry sets at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia.

[1] Or, as Emerson famously put it, “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.”