30 December 2010

Our Kids Have No Time to Ponder

WIRED published an article by Patton Oswalt this week about the death of geek culture. I ran across links to three reaction articles before I ever even got to read Oswalt's article for myself. Now that I have read it, I want to post my reaction to it before I am tainted by what others think.

In short, although the last half of the article takes things too far for me, I agree with a good bit of his premise. Here is the section that resonated with me the most:

The problem with the Internet, however, is that it lets anyone become otaku about anything instantly. In the ’80s, you couldn’t get up to speed on an entire genre in a weekend. You had to wait, month to month, for the issues of Watchmen to come out. We couldn’t BitTorrent the latest John Woo film or digitally download an entire decade’s worth of grunge or hip hop. Hell, there were a few weeks during the spring of 1991 when we couldn’t tell whether Nirvana or Tad would be the next band to break big. Imagine the terror!

But then reflect on the advantages. Waiting for the next issue, movie, or album gave you time to reread, rewatch, reabsorb whatever you loved, so you brought your own idiosyncratic love of that thing to your thought-palace. People who were obsessed with Star Trek or the Ender’s Game books were all obsessed with the same object, but its light shone differently on each person. Everyone had to create in their mind unanswered questions or what-ifs. What if Leia, not Luke, had become a Jedi? What happens after Rorschach’s journal is found at the end of Watchmen? What the hell was The Prisoner about?

These are thoughts that I have been trying to articulate to my kids and my friends for the past several months, but Oswalt did the heavy lifting for me. It may sound snobbish, but there is a part of me that resents the Johnny-come-latelys, especially when it comes to computers. I've been using computers for years and was the first among our friends to even find out what the internet was. I almost miss the days when getting your PC to do even a simple task was like deciphering a puzzle. I felt a sense of accomplishment every time I figured out a new function or command. Now the same people who laughed at me and thought I was wasting my time have computers in their homes, except they didn't have to do all the work I did to gain the knowledge I have. Today's programmers have made programs so much easier that practically anyone can use them, so knowing how to use a computer doesn't carry the same weight that it once did.

In the second paragraph Oswalt hit on another part of my childhood that my kids will never experience. With internet access, DVDs, and DVRs available, my kids always have new options for entertainment at their fingertips. They will never know what it is like to have to be in front of the TV promptly at 8p to catch their favorite show. They will never know the order of the songs on an album by heart because they only owned 10 and played them over and over and over. They will never learn odd facts about plumbing and electrical wiring because the only thing left in the house that they hadn't read was a handyman's manual and they couldn't get to the library. I've experienced all of these things and I believe it has added to my knowledge base.

Having fewer options makes you think and come up with other ways to amuse yourself. I try to foster this in my kids by not giving them every single item that they ask for. My kids fight over who gets to look in the library bag first because the only books we get are ones we've borrowed. If I bought them books all the time, I wonder if they would mean as much.

Oswalt says toward the end of the article that he wants his daughter to have her own 1987, a time where she is discovering movies, games, and music that other kids around her aren't hip to yet. I want that for my kids, too. That's why I make an effort to ferret out obscure-but-fascinating media for them in my internet travels. Even though much of geek culture has gone mainstream, there is still the chance to be the first kid on the block to know what a Tardis is.

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