Teens, Tech And The Tides Of History

Three tech gifts Santa might leave under the tree (from left to right): the Seagate 3.5-inch Pushbutton Backup External Hard Drive; the Magellan
This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer
Humans seem to take very well to inventions that simply make everyday life easier and more convenient – the light bulb, the flush toilet and sliced bread. Inventions that alter the way we communicate and entertain ourselves seem harder for our species to swallow gracefully.

"Radio is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome," T.S. Eliot, a student of alienation, declared in the early days of the wireless.

"I can only imagine very stupid people looking at it," H.L. Mencken, a scholar of fools, said of television half a dozen decades before Paris Hilton.

This impulse that new is worse, when combined with the eternal tut-tutting about "kids today," goes far in explaining why grown-ups worry so much about the weird things kids today do with gadgets and gizmos. I'm sure the guy who invented the smoke signal was brutally besmirched by his father, who thought the owl call was perfectly adequate.

I have a large measure of confidence that archeologists and historians working on the incredibly warm 23rd century planet will not conclude that late 20th century and early 21st century media innovations such as a code-speak called Instant Messaging, or a music box called iPod or a make-believe room called MySpace inexorably set us featherless bi-peds on a path of alienation and ignorance.

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I know that the remarks from T.S. and H.L. above are spasms of Luddite snobbery. But here's my dirty little secret: I agree with them in many ways. And I worry about kids today and their techno-toys.

As Eliot imagined that listening to songs and gags at home instead of in theaters, pubs and parks would be a sad, isolating escapade, I can't see how a virtual community can be a real community, how being friended on MySpace is like hanging out with a neighbor or how IMing is meaningful communication.

As Mencken saw Jack Benny and John Cameron Swayze as poor substitutes for great books and important journalism, I just can't believe that reality television, video games or the search for the coolest ring tone are proper substitutes for, well, anything. Kids today.

This is essentially an un-American attitude. Progress is the American way and with that necessarily comes the belief that each generation rises higher than the one before it. A New York school teacher recently wrote a letter to Newsweek saying "the youth of our country have always exceeded the expectations of the previous generation."

Much evidence tells me that my un-American thinking is also un-correct.

As an editor, I helped send a small squadron of bright reporters (who all use IM with gusto) out into the cyber world to find some bad news about teens and technology. They found almost none. As long as screens – televisions and computers – aren't put in front of kids until they are somewhere older than 3-7 years-old, there is no evidence that they erode attention spans or imaginations. And teenagers seem to have harnessed technology to communicate more and better, even if it seem like less and worse to me and my fellow fossils.

As a parent of a teen and an almost-teen, I see tons of kids who on the whole do have the traits I think must be atrophying because of lives lived too much online, on cells and on call; they're social, polite, imaginative, articulate, learned, and athletic. I don't know many cyber slugs.

Cell phones and computer screens are far down the list of the obvious big problems we all see, far behind drugs, poverty, divorce, de facto segregation and materialism.

But it's early. I do think the pace of change in daily life caused by technology in this period is great by historical measure. The Internet is a big invention. It is hard to measure such things in the present tense.

Mostly I think technology puts teenagers at risk for more – more exposure to everything, good and bad: peer pressure, marketing, sin, vice, opportunity, good works, other lands and people.

Something like that is too big to be labeled good or bad. It is too big for teenagers not to jump into and too big for grown-ups not to worry about. We're all doing our jobs.

Dick Meyer is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com and author of Against the Grain columns.

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By Dick Meyer