Thursday, July 19, 2012

I Don't Know

I don't know.

Do you remember watching movies years back when a key factor of parenthood was supposed to be the endless Why? questions that a child asked? This was usually depicted like repetitive gunfire - with a child asking a seemingly endless series of banal questions about everything and anything of a parent. This was a painful thing because the parent simply didn't know and their intrinsic value and self esteem took a hit each time they revealed to a child (who assumed their parent knows all) asked them something. Finding out most of that information required effort and time as well.And in the depiction the parent would tell the child - who would then process that information and immediately return with a new question. Two people learning together with entirely different worldviews.

Then yesterday my sick daughter and I were sat on the couch watching Sid the Science Kid. The idea of which is that a curious boy has "just gotta know" the answer to certain questions he has about life. The weird thing about it though is that the time between him thinking of something and getting the answer is tiny. He is usually doing something that makes him come up with a question - and then he wanders into the kitchen to ask his parents about it. Who then instantly behave as if they have no clue, but check the internet. They then sort of get out of the way of the information that answers the question. In other words a 30 minute show is effectively over after 90 seconds. It then dawned on me that I haven't seen that portrayal of parenting above (the constant questions) for some time.

I started thinking about whether my own kids ask me stuff and how I answer it. And it's true - they never stop asking me questions. Everything from "what's that noise?" (pardon me, by the way.....), to the bizarre, "why does Owen think his own bum is so big Daddy?" to the inquisitive, "how does an airplane fly if it's so heavy?" to the icky and worrying, "Daddy, why is the rice in the garbage can moving?" So they do ask me questions all the time. Also my initial answers to questions tended to be honest. As in - if I didn't know then I would say so. And I was glad to realize too that I didn't just fob them off or just look it up online. I don't know why - but in most cases I didn't do that so it must not have seemed like the right thing to do. So in short - kids are obviously still asking and asking and asking - but the portrayal of this in popular culture has evolved from a parent not having the answers to now looking it all up on Wikipedia. Which has to mean something fundamental.

And then later on as I was farting about on Facebook and saw this.


Now the actual point or accuracy of that particular poster/flyer/meme isn't actually important here at all. Add that it's almost a guarantee that the one thing more irritating than an uninformed Christian blathering on about how gay-marriage is evil is an uninformed atheist blathering on about it with them. Believe whatever you want (and for the record - I'm very much pro gay-marriage). The thing that actually blew my mind about it were the comments after comment from people who (were technically adults) said, "who is that supposed to be?" That's a pretty iconic picture of a massively important historical figure. I would have guessed that most people in the UK would be able to recognize who that is. Outside of the UK numbers would go down yes. But still - I didn't expect to see the sheer number of people over the age of 18 who had no clue at all who he was.

All of which reminded me of an uncomfortable truth about my own children that I am going to have to wrestle with. I'm not unique - a lot of you already area and many many more people will. And that is that it is very possible that my kids are never going to experience what it is like to not know something. That might sound counter-intuitive after the above point about the meme, but it isn't. Because the hordes of people who didn't recognize Henry VIII didn't learn anything. They didn't experience a lack of information at all. Years ago when you didn't know something that was just how it was. You might wonder about something you didn't know - and to get that information required real work and time. You would feel the not-knowing inside you. It would be an empty space where a certain shaped piece of information needed to go to help put together a larger picture. You could ask untold numbers of other people if they know - and they wouldn't know either. Then you would all be filled with wonder. It didn't make anyone stupid because they didn't know that information. It just meant that they didn't know. And to find out something active had to be done to learn it. This is the very essence of learning.

That's not how it is anymore. The difference between not knowing and knowing doesn't require learning at all. It just requires retrieval. There's no wondering about something. There's no wrestling with the question of it or what it means. There's no feeling anything about not knowing whatever it is. There's no effort involved in getting the information. And you don't need to ask anyone else about it. There's no wonderment or curiosity at all. Instead there's just a brief moment between thinking about something and retrieving every piece of information available about that thing that has been typed into a computer ever. You now have all the information right there without learning or understanding any of it. A comparison would be effectively thinking a question about something in the early 1980s and instantly being placed in front of a university library section related to that question. It doesn't change the knowing by doing that. And worse - there's no need to look through the information - it's just there and someone else can pull out the very narrow, specific thing about it. That is a skill of some sort - but it isn't one which gets you to know something.

Weirder still is that the internet means that you can convince an awful lot of people quite quickly that you know something that you very much don't have a clue about. Which effectively has created an entirely new breed of people who have all the bravado and arrogance of someone who knows exactly what they're talking about, but that actually have no clue at all. And it's accentuated because the ability to get information is so easy that instead of being confident that they know their stuff, they now feel that they can know everything. So in essence not only is the curiosity gone (from the countless hours of not knowing something), and the actual learning itself gone (from the activity of getting the information in context) but also so is the need to retain any information - because it is technically always just one click away. Except things like that picture above. Most people don't know how to Google a picture. So what we've ended up with are smart-arse, loud-mouthed, arrogant wankers who behave like they know everything about a chosen subject (but don't), but who are also oddly public about how ignorant they are about EVERYTHING else. Because if they can't Google or Wiki it - it isn't valuable information on principle. So they don't care. Which is why it seems that so many people glory in the fact that they are completely ignorant of all the other stuff. Being intellectually incurious about specific things is a badge of honor for a lot of people these days. Which is why clearly stupid, incurious people who behave with an intellectual swagger they didn't earn are held up as geniuses by swathes of people. I need not mention modern political celebrities here....

What we have is the Powerpoint Principle. I may have mentioned this before. Everyone of us has been sat in a meeting when someone starts a Powerpoint presentation, and it becomes clear that they are going to read it word-for-word. Or that the presentation slides are all put together with different fonts, text sizes, paragraph alignments, colors and whatnot. It's visually jarring and painful - especially when they then read it word-for-word. Practically anyone can cobble together 20 slides on Powerpoint. It's so easy in fact that knowing how to do it properly, or learning how to give presentations is rendered completely unnecessary. This is what seems to have happened with how people know things. Because it's so easy to cobble together a group of loose facts, you don't really need to do it properly and understand it. So now we have a generation of aesthetically-obsessed, tech-savvy people that crave attention, but don't actually know anything.

This is horrible. Especially as it's been hitched to a very thick veneer of arrogant wankishness. All of us know very stupid people who think they know everything. Usually you work with them. They are easily the least impressive people you know as well. Absolutely nothing can be done to convince them that they don't. They live in a an entirely false world of no curiosity, no learning and no information retention. Instead it's just Googling, talking bollocks and then weirdly being arrogant about it. And more than anything they will never utter the words, "I don't know." There is all kinds of value in that statement. It doesn't convey stupidity at all. I just means that you don't know. And you can't learn anything until that is understood.

All of which is making me think I need to do something about my own kids and knowing/not knowing things. Ironically I don't know what that is. Which I'm taking as a good sign. Because my kids also don't know about that too. But I can foster a valuable tool in them that if they don't know then that's useful. Because that is an honest statement that ironically declares what it is you do know and what you need in order to learn more.

Right now though my daughter wants to know what it feels like to be encased in a duvet and beaten with a bean bag. Which I am able to answer for her.

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