Technology and the death of civilisation — The truth never goes viral

It is a failing of human nature to detest anything that young people do just because older people are not used to it or have trouble learning it. So I am wary of the “young people suck” school of social criticism.

— Steven Pinker

Earlier this week I walked into a classroom during morning break and saw a group of three girls sitting on the floor concentrating silently on their iPads. I wondered what they were doing. When I walked over to them, I saw that two of the girls were reading a book for pleasure and the third one was finishing her English homework. I chatted to them briefly and we joked about the fact I couldn’t quite pronounce correctly the title of one of the books. ‘W’ has always been my phonetic nemesis in English.

To someone who is not familiar with our context, the sight of three students ‘staring into’ a screen at break might have evoked more negative reactions — distractions, social media, games… The sort of negative reactions that seeing three children ‘staring into’ a paper book would probably never evoke, because to many of us paper is rigorous, scholarly and academic, whereas screens are distractions from which nothing good could possible emerge.

Late last year this photograph of children looking at their smartphones by Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’ in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam started doing the rounds on the web. It quickly became viral. It was often accompanied by outraged, dispirited comments such as “a perfect metaphor for our age”, “the end of civilisation” or “a sad picture of our society”.

Clearly, to lots of folk, the photograph epitomised everything that is wrong with young people these days and their ‘addiction’ to technology. These children were being distracted by their technology to such an extent that they weren’t paying any attention to the beauty surrounding them in the real world.

Only they weren’t. It turns out that the Rijksmuseum has an app that, among other things, contains guided tours and further information about the works on display. As part of their visit to the museum, the children, who minutes earlier had admired the art and listened attentively to explanations by expert adults, had been instructed to complete an assignment by their school teachers, using, among other things, the museum’s excellent smartphone app.

I wonder whether the photo would have caused so much indignation and disapproval if it had depicted students ‘ignoring’ the masterpiece while reading a paper leaflet or museum brochure instead. Though I suspect not. It would appear that, once again, reports heralding the death of civilisation at the execrable hands of technology might have been greatly exaggerated.

I would like to think that all those who liked, posted, shared and tweeted the picture of children on smartphones by Rembrandt’s masterpiece in the erroneous belief that it illustrated everything that is wrong with society feel a tiny bit silly and a little more humble as a consequence. But it won’t happen.

The tragic thing is that this — the truth — will never go viral. So, I wonder, what is more likely to bring about the death of civilisation, children using smartphones to learn about art or the wilful ignorance of adults who are too quick to make assumptions?

This blog was originally published in Medium.

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