The Last Word: Technology Dumbing Us Down

August 29, 2008
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A short time ago, my wife and I bought a Dodge Xplorer 228. We decided that we wanted to spend vacation time travelling by road and the Class B motorhome was the way to do it. Class B motorhomes are, essentially, modified vans. While not as spacious as Class A or C motorhomes, they offer many advantages.

In our case the Xplorer, manufactured by Xplorer Motor Homes (www.xplorermotorhome.com), is based on a Dodge B350 van frame, where the floor has been lowered and the roof raised a bit. Mechanically, our Xplorer 228 is a 1987 Dodge van, which is somehow fitting since that’s the last time I remember being able to lift the hood of a car and recognize what I was looking at. An early test run proved how valuable such recognition was when one of the transmission fluid hoses sprung a leak and we had to patch it up. I spent 15 minutes trying to remember how to fill the automatic transmission fluid. It was not a confidence-boosting situation for me or my wife.

Our other car is a 2002 import. The only two things I recognize under the hood are the place to fill the washer fluid and the oil dipstick. I can’t actually change the oil myself-I think that may void some kind of warranty. However, as a newer car, it has antilock brakes, side curtain airbags, better fuel efficiency and less breakdowns than the 1987 Dodge, which makes it less of a problem to own.

Since 1987, cars have taken quantum leaps ahead in technology, safety, and of course, quality. In all these technological strides forward, I think something has been lost. I used to be able to take apart and put together my first cars-a ’74 Chevy and a ’76 Olds. I rewired electrical systems, bled brake lines, replaced rotors, drums, brake shoes and the lot. I was able to find and change my own oil. Checking and adding transmission fluid was child’s play.

I had a connection to those cars that has since been lost in subsequent vehicles. Those vehicles, while lacking in so many of the technology advantages of today, offered a couple of benefits that today’s vehicles don’t-self-reliance and a chance to learn. If the car broke down, you knew how to fix it and felt confident in your ability to do so. With today’s cars, most of us are only confident enough to call AAA on our cell phones.

I certainly am not a Luddite and appreciate that technology has made life easier. However, do advances in technology come with an unforeseen price tag? Are we missing opportunities to be self-reliant and learn important real-world skills? Worse yet, are we depriving future generations of such opportunities?

The July 26 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald reported on a correlation between children’s ability to text-message with an inability to write. In order for these Australian children to fulfill entrance exam requirements, they had to be taught how to use a pen and paper.

In the August 1 edition of The Independent, BBC Wildlife Magazine reported that 9- to 11-year-old children are unable to identify common animals and plants. Only 45% could identify an oak tree. Lack of outdoor play, and a preoccupation with technology were two of the reasons cited for this trend.

And children in the United States are no exception. An October 2007 article in the San Francisco Gate set off a more than yearlong debate on whether technology is making the next generation of children “dumber than dirt.”

While there is no harm in children lacking first-hand knowledge of a vinyl phonograph record, there is a danger in their lack of knowledge about how things work and their inability to build and repair everyday objects. Anyone who has been in manufacturing for any length of time can attest to this phenomenon as new hires often must be taught the basic skills “old timers” came in already knowing.

While we can hope that schools get better at teaching not only how to use technology, but build it and repair it, there are some individual steps we can take with the children in our lives.

For boys, I suggest purchasing the book, The Dangerous Book for Boys, by Conn and Hal Iggulden. For girls, I suggest purchasing the book, The Daring Book for Girls, by Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz. Both books will get children away from their Xboxes and cell phones, and help them discover the real-world skills that will make them more self-reliant. They’ll learn not only to write, but create codes. Not only will they learn to differentiate an oak tree from a maple tree, they’ll learn how to create, build and fix things they use.

If you still are looking for ways to teach children how to be self-reliant and learn-or exercise these slumbering skills of your own-purchase a 20-year-old vehicle. Everyone can learn from such an investment. It’s a step toward ensuring we own technology instead of technology owning us.

Share your thoughts with me at williamst@qualitymag.com.

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