The “young people suck” school of social criticism Steven Pinker on technology use


“High school is a time of discovery. Figuring out a bit more about the world, yourself, and what you think the future might hold.”

Says the blurb from a video by the technology giant Google, commemorating this year’s high school graduation and highlighting everything that high school graduates, their teachers and their families have achieved this academic year.

In recent articles, I have been exploring how we appear to be culturally biased against the use of technology. The discourse surrounding our use of technology in popular media is littered with threats, warning, fears and concerns, many of which – though not all – are unwarranted and depict an unnecessarily dystopian vision of how technology is and will be affecting our lives.

One of the most worrying aspects of this cultural bias is adults’ propensity to vilify young people and view them as different from us. We disapprove of the way they behave, speak and write and, above all, we dislike intensely the tools they use to do so. Indeed, their use of technology often is the target of our condemnation and the source, more often than not, of our misunderstanding.

And this is the reason why I really like this video, because it portrays young high school graduates as full of the same aspiration, hope and insecurities that my generation left high school with well over twenty years ago now. School leavers today are not different, they are the same in all the ways that matter.

And, despite our often unfounded concerns, they have managed to integrate technology in their lives with overwhelmingly positive results. Just like we did before them. Sure, there are challenges as well as opportunities now as there were then. They are kids and will need our guidance, which is why it is so insanely crazy to pretend that modern technology and means of communication do not have a place in education, as many schools and scholars still do to this day.

But don’t take it from me. Below is an extract from an interview in the Harvard Gazette, in which Steven Pinker makes this point much more persuasively and authoritatively than I could ever hope to:

Having once been a young person myself, I remember the vilification that was hurled at us baby boomers by the older generation. This reminds me that 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. I have no patience for the idea that because texting and tweeting force one to be brief, we’re going to lose the ability to express ourselves in full sentences and paragraphs. This simply misunderstands the way that human language works. All of us command a variety of registers and speech styles, which we narrowcast to different forums. We speak differently to our loved ones than we do when we are lecturing, and still differently when we are approaching a stranger. And so, too, we have a style that is appropriate for texting and instant messaging that does not necessarily infect the way we communicate in other forums. In the heyday of telegraphy, when people paid by the word, they left out the prepositions and articles. It didn’t mean that the English language lost its prepositions and articles; it just meant that people used them in some media and not in others. And likewise, the prevalence of texting and tweeting does not mean that people magically lose the ability to communicate in every other conceivable way.

So, there you go, young people these days, eh?…

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