Our Technological Adolescence

Note: I am writing as a citizen and resident of the United States of America but I believe that the ideas in this post apply equally to all of us as human beings as fellow citizens of the world.

We hear it every day. Us vs. them. Right vs. left. Republican vs. Democrat. Red vs. blue. Globalization vs. protectionism. Urban vs. rural. Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. All lives matter. How did we get here? Why do we seem to be more divided than ever?

A lot has changed in the world over the last twenty to thirty years. Technology has become a bigger and more dominant part of our everyday lives, changing the way we relate to each other and to the world around us. How are we handling that change? I would answer, “Not well.”

As human beings, we have a tendency to hold on to what we know best and resist change when that change is scary or particularly unknown. As we do this as individuals we start to seek out others who think like us, for comfort. Our journalists have been taught to distill stories down to “just the facts”, largely erasing the broad spectrum of struggles that are going on by individuals that don’t fit their story. (See this wonderful article for the beginning of a solution to this problem in journalism.) While this is understandable, it only serves to divide us further.

Collectively, no matter what “side” we are on, we all seem to be deeply dissatisfied with where we are politically and culturally. We are asking ourselves and each other (or we should be), “How did we get here and what do we do?” Perhaps an analogy will give some perspective and provide some direction. By way of illustration, I will share something a little personal.

Growing up, I was the “good kid” in my family. I got good grades and did what I was told (mostly). I graduated second in my high school class and attended Georgetown University receiving a bachelor’s degree in Russian. By all outward definitions, I was a success. But inwardly, I was still an adolescent. I had made no decisions about who I was at a fundamental level. Worse, I didn’t even realize it. I had goals and ideals, but these were ones that I had received from my community. I wanted to help the world not blow itself up. That’s why I studied Russian at (what we didn’t know then was) the end of the Cold War. I wanted to have a wife and family, so I got married and had children. But I wasn’t connected to what it really meant to be a husband and father. I simply expected things to happen and just fall into place like they had throughout my life in school prior to my growing into adulthood. So while I had become an adult, I had never really grown up. Ultimately, this led to a decades long breakdown in my relationship with my wife, finally ending in divorce.

This completely exploded my view of myself and my place in the world and forced me back to deal with my incomplete adolescence in a way that I never had in my teen years and early twenties. I am convinced that if I had used my teen years to wrestle with the questions of adolescence, then much of the pain I experienced and caused others over the past three decades could have largely been avoided. And I fear that my country is in the midst of avoiding its own adolescence brought on by the drastic changes in technology that are affecting every aspect of our daily lives and that this is expressing itself in the division and separateness we feel from others. We are so afraid that our way of seeing and interacting in the world is going away that we are clinging to it and trying to beat the other side into accepting it. This will never work, because our way (whichever way that is) will no longer work due to these profound technological changes affecting our politics and economics. We are in the “teen” years of our global technological adolescence. We need to figure out what this great change means for our coming adult lives in this new world of technology, globalization, and relative abundance. Our current solutions aren’t designed with the new realities we are dealing with, so none of them is likely to work. We need new models and views of our world based on these new realities. But where will these new models come from. I suggest that the answers lies in returning first to the universal lessons of our childhood.

From 1968 to 2001, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood taught children about their world and how it works. The host, Fred Rogers, also spoke directly to his young viewers about difficult subjects like death and anger. And he ended each show by telling each viewer that he or she was special “just by being you…. And people can like you just for being you.”

In 1986, Robert Fulghum published All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Here is an excerpt that succinctly describes the lesson expanded on throughout the book:

All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school.

These are the things I learned:

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.

Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.

Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if we all – the whole world – had cookies and milk at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.

And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.

These are not partisan ideals; they are human ideals and principles. All our politics and economies have grown out of these. And since the changes we are in the midst of experiencing seem to have blown up the models we have built since the industrial revolution, now is the time to think up new models and identities that will work in this new environment, together. Is it scary? It sure is. But we cannot avoid this “growing up”; we can only put it off. And putting it off will only make the transition more scary and difficult. We have to “embrace the suck” in the short term to get to the freedom and joy of adulthood on the other side. If we don’t, we will only extend the discomfort and pain of this transition period. What exactly lies on that other side? None of us really knows, but let’s explore it together with the same sense of wonder and joy that accompany the fear of growing up into the unknown.

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