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Smarter Phones, Dumber People

The news was slow and the weather stormy over most of the weekend, which gave us a chance to ponder some of the big-picture think pieces in the high-brow media. For the past 160 years Atlantic Magazine has been among the most high-brow of them, as well as one of the most reliable sources of ponderable big-picture think pieces, and they offered up an excellent essay about the modern age of the “smart phone” and its dire effects on its youngest generation.
It’s a lengthy and complicated article, but even if you’re not rained in and there’s another bombshell Russian story on the front page we highly recommend it. The author has been spent the past 25 years studying how Americans differ from generation to generation, with his research stretching from the 1930s to the present, and he reports on an anomalous change in the usual ebb-and-flow of cultural shifts that have occurred since 2012. That was the first year that a majority of Americans owned “smart phones,” the author notes, and when “I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states.”
The author also posits there’s a causal connection between these two things, and based on our more anecdotal evidence we think he’s on to something. He briefly and glumly summarizes all the widely-observed ways that “smart phones” have altered the daily lives of all generations — a more complete assessment would require shelves of upcoming social science dissertations and satirical novels — but finds his most alarming data among the youngest generation that never knew what life was like before the damned things. What the author calls the “Gen-I” generation reports markedly higher levels of lack of social interaction, loneliness, depression, and suicide, and links these to hours spent on texting, social media, and other time “on screen.” We’re short at the moment on very young friends, as all of our friends’ kids are all grown up but haven’t yet had kids that are even old enough for “smart phones,” and we’re proudly among the dwindling minority of Americans who still don’t own one of the damned things, but we’re not surprised by the author’s findings.
At this point we’re tempted to take some time off and write a satirical novel of our own about “smart phones,” so outraged are we with the way the damned things have made people so damned dumb. When we’re out arguing politics with our friends at the local hipster dives we always notice the attractive young couples sitting across a booth from one another and staring into their “smart phones” rather than into the other’s eyes. A conspicuous number of our similarly-aged friends lately seem frustratingly forgetful, and instead of an unexercised and flabby memory rely on their “smart phones” to tell them the name of the guy that they’re talking about. By now all of the great adventures tales would have to be re-written if they were up-dated to an age when the hero could ask the palm-sized device in his pocket for an answer, we have friends who can’t get from one place in Wichita, Kansas, to another without help from a “smart phone” global positioning system, and we don’t count it all as progress.
Shudder to think, then, what it’s like for those poor kids who can’t remember the good old analog age of actual rather than virtual reality. The Atlantic’s highbrow correspondent also provides the unsurprising and commonsensical data that children who spend less time “on screen” and more time social interactions with other children in extra-curricular activities and religious services and sports and local playgrounds, and spent their other hours with either family or books, were less likely to be lonely, depressed, or suicidal. The real world is a daunting place, but people there seem happier than the ones in the virtual world.
All the data shows the younger folks tend not to date, in the traditional sense of the term, and although that’s had a salutary effect on the teen pregnancy rates we think it’s a mixed blessing. The Atlantic reports that teens are also postponing getting a driver’s license, which would have been unimaginable to our teenaged selves, or any previous generation of red-blooded Americans, and spending way too much time in their bedrooms and worrying that the picture they posted on Instragam won’t get a self-affirming number of “likes.” The youngest of them are now tethered by a global positioning system every hour of the day and every day of the week to their parents, too, and we shudder again to think of what that must be like. We were blessed with diligently watchful parents, but we’re sure they won’t mind us saying that we’re also grateful that the technology of the time didn’t preclude those occasional moments when we were blissfully free to act according to our own better judgement. Every previous generation, after all, had those moments.
This might seem yet another old folks’ rant against modernity, but we’ve got some state-of-the-art social science data from such a highbrow publication as Atlantic to back it up, and we think there’s something afoot that’s even more significant than the next presidential “tweet.” We finally got an old-fashioned “flip phone” a while back to be constant communication with our still-watchful folks, who are now old enough to require our watchfulness, and we have to admit we’re taking up some of your own “on-screen” time, so we can’t deny that some progress has been made. Every generation has also lost something dear to every technological revolution, though, and we hope that the next one will still know something of a real-life and primal childhood.

— Bud Norman

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The Classics and the Current Scene

There’s a certain unmistakable craziness afloat these days everywhere along the political spectrum throughout western civilization, and in times like these our temperamentally conservative soul seeks solace in classical history and its constant assurance that our remarkably resilient culture has been through all this sort of thing before. Western history is not altogether reassuring, though, as it also frankly reveals that such times are awful to live through, whatever happy chapters might await some day long past our passing.
We were last reminded of this when Europe’s vexing problems with the recent wave of Middle Eastern and North African refugees started washing ashore, and trainloads of unaccompanied minors were crossing into the United States from only slightly more assimilable cultures, and some scholarly fellow reminded us of Edward Gibbons and his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” which described how the Goth invaders welcomed by the Romans “still wore an angry and hostile aspect; but the experience of past times might encourage the hope they would acquire the habits of industry and obedience; that their manners would be polished by time, education, and the influence of Christianity, and their posterity would insensibly blend with the great body of the Roman people.” It seemed an eerily apt description of the western elite’s optimistic multi-cultularism, except that they no longer put in any stock in that Christian influence and no one who’s paying any attention any longer takes western education seriously, and the rest of it also seemed eerily familiar. “Notwithstanding these specious arguments, and these sanguine expectations, it was apparent to every discerning eye, that the Goths would long remain the enemies, and might soon become the conquerers of the Roman Empire. Their rude and insolent behavior expressed their contempt of the citizens and provincials, whom they insulted with impunity.”
After that desultory blast from our historical past, a recent round-up of headlines from across Europe will sound discomfortingly familiar. Although the European press was slow to give up its specious arguments and sanguine expectations it now begrudgingly concedes that at a welcoming party for newly arrived “refugees” in Germany the honorees seized the opportunity to grope and sexually assault their hosts, that similar behavior by recent immigrants was epidemic in public squares around the continent during New Year’s Eve celebrations, that rape and other violent crimes by the new arrivals are now common, and that the welfare-dependent new arrivals are expressing their contempt of the citizens and insulting them with impunity, and that they may yet prove the conquerers who usher in the Dark Ages. This is by now apparent to every discerning eye, even in a Europe that doesn’t have a First Amendment and a resulting right-wing press, so the main concern is now with hoping that it doesn’t benefit those awful right-wing parties.
So far as we can tell, being here on the prairie and thus so far away from the action and reliant on the heavily-censored press, many of these awful right-wing parties are merely proposing a sensible alternative to cultural suicide. The Fleet Street press is pretty puckish even without a First Amendment, and reading of even their most critical suggests that the dreaded United Kingdom Independence Party merely wants independence from the suicidal European Union and its immigration policies, which seems reasonable enough, and we’re not at all scared even by that Geert Wilders in Holland, who is banned almost in every respectable jurisdiction, and certainly not by Holland’s agnostic Somalian refugee Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who now lives in for fear of her life in America because of those offended by her steadfast defense of of western rather than Islamic values, and who has also been banned from American campuses, and neither do we fear the continuing influence of Pim Fortuyn, the homosexual and secularist and libertarian who was assassinated by a radical environmentalist for launching the “right-wing” crusade against mass immigration. Even in the worst case scenarios, we wonder if any of those “right wing” parties are any crazier than those more respectable parties with their specious arguments and sanguine expectations about the new arrivals neatly fitting in with the churches and gay bars next door and diversity-tained companies next door, and we note that the European press has admittedly been surpassing the facts lest those right-wing parties seem reasonable.
Still, we cannot dismiss the more respectable left’s worries. Classical history also warns us against that strain of patriotism that mutates into nationalism, and all the troubles that has caused in just the past century, and a lot of those European right-wing parties do seem to veer off in a troublesome direction. No matter how comely its leadership, the National Front in France hasn’t yet disavowed its Vichy roots, whatever purposes they might serve American interests many of those anti-Putin forces in Ukraine have roots in the worst of Europe’s history, some of the other vigilante groups around the continent are also a bit rowdy for our tastes, and at this point there are more anti-immigrant parties popping up around the west than we can vouch for. By now our only hope is that Europe allows enough room for frank discussion to come to a reasonable conclusion, and that hope seems faint.
“Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot still shrewder; but to provide against having to do either was to break up your party.”
The impeccably conservative Kimball dredged up this ancient comment by the Greek historian Thucydides, commenting on long ago events, to convey his current distaste with the Republican and therefore right-wing presidential candidacy of real estate mogul and reality show star and recent Democrat Donald Trump, currently the front-runner in his party’s race, and we have to agree this desultory blast from the past is redolent of a round-up of recent headlines from the campaign. We don’t mean to equate Trump with the worst of Europe’s current right, and we certainly don’t mean to equate him with the best of it that wishes to merely forgo civilizational suicide, but we do think he’s a recklessly audacious and imprudent sort who confuses frantic “tweeting” and shock jock taunts with manliness and who has pulled off countless improbable plots and divined far more implausible ones, and we do share Kimball’s discomfort. He’s settled on Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose right-wing views and reckless audacity have arguably infuriated the supposedly right-wing Republican elites even more than Trumps, and we’ve tentatively reached the same conclusion, although after reading so much history we’re reluctant to place much faith in any mere man. The craziness on the left seems all the more frightening, though, where a self-described socialist and the epitome of a western elite vying to see who can offer the most specious arguments and sanguine expectations, and even the most ancient histories can’t provide any comparable craziness as a guide.

— Bud Norman