I recently read the book Longitude by Dava Sobel. It is a great, short read set in the 1700’s about the solving of the longitude dilemma, before which ships all too easily became lost at sea. The story centers on John Harrison, a carpenter by trade, who taught himself to build clocks far more advanced than anything else in existence at the time and who finally invented the first chronometer, accurate enough to produce longitude readings on long ocean voyages.
The challenge for John Harrison and therein his life, was not easy. The aristocrats and scholars tasked with judging the decades-long competition refused to believe that a man with no formal schooling or training could create such a device or that a clock could ever be accurate enough to produce dependable readings. It’s worth a read.
But as I read it, I marveled at the genius of the man, who solved a problem that scientific greats such as Isaac Newton and Galileo had given up on.
Much of my history reading has had me repeatedly wonder if people were smarter – in a general sense – in years past than they are now. There is, of course, the oft-mentioned invention of the wheel, but who figured out that meat could/should be cooked; that yeast could leaven bread; invented iron and then steel? I think of the Archimedes screw and the plough, both of which changed the face of the planet. Great things are done in science and elsewhere now, but we get a lot of help. From computers. From the internet, from easy collaboration tools. John Harrison had none of those. And I finally realized one critical tool he and others like Benjamin Franklin did have: fewer distractions.
No internet. No computers. No TV. No radio. Which equates to more time to ponder. We have a giant brain that science has still not figured out the working of and most of us very rarely truly set it free.
Before 15 years ago, we did not have smartphones.
Before 20 years ago we did not have social media.
Before 40 years ago we did not have portable media players.
Before 70 years ago, radios were too big to carry around.
Before 80 years ago, almost no-one owned a TV.
Before 100 years ago, there were no radio shows.
Imagine how much distraction (or the lack thereof) this represents. Prior to 100 years ago, people only had reading, talking and thinking. (And work.)
Of course, there are many positive aspects to all on the list above; they can all be great conduits of knowledge and, in a free and fairly regulated society, they can be the foundations of public education. But they can all also be sink-holes of focus-dispersing time wasting. – And are exactly that for most people.
My son was lucky enough to attend the Oaks Parent & Child Workshop, a play-based preschool run under the auspices of City College in Santa Barbara. It is an amazing school where, from the age of 2 ½, kids are encouraged to figure out what they want to do while they are there. There is carpentry (sort of), bikes, games, pets, reading; many activities. And they can move from one to the other to their hearts content. Something the then long-time director, Marilyn Statucki said has always stuck with me, “Kids need to figure out how to relieve their own boredom; it’s not the parent’s job.” And I’ve noticed when left to do so, kids develop important skills and independence.
Too often, kids today are handed a phone or an iPad or sat down in front of Baby Einstein. I think we can feel fairly confident that the actual “baby Einstein” was given a front door and told to spend his day on the other side of it.
And when you have to invent your own world, then you put your mind to work. You create instead of consume.
This is not to suggest another luddite uprising is in order. (Mostly.) But I am reminded of an old Seinfeld standup skit: “If aliens are watching us through telescopes, they’re going to think the dogs are the leaders. If one lifeform is making a poop and the other one is carrying it, who would you assume is in charge?”
If we hand over our education and experiences to machines and increasingly our content is created by AI and relentlessly rehashed and regurgitated via algorithm, then who is in charge of whose development?
Your mind is literally who you are. Who is in charge of it? If you look carefully at the evidence, you should probably be concerned. No matter your beliefs, the collection of atoms that forms your sentience will all-too-soon be gone forever. We should at least get to know it.
I saw a delightful poster called 50 ways to take a break. I suggest picking a few of those things and then doing them with zero outside interference. No phone, no tunes, no agenda.
Just you and your thoughts.
Enjoy. Your. Self.
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