The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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The value of older people

Phillip Greenspun argues that technology is reducing the value of older people’s wisdom.

Let’s start by considering factual knowledge. An old person will know more than a young person, but can any person, young or old, know as much as Google and Wikipedia? Why would a young person ask an elder the answer to a fact question that can be solved authoritatively in 10 seconds with a Web search?

How about skills? Want help orienting a rooftop television aerial? Changing the vacuum tubes in your TV? Dialing up AOL? Using MS-DOS? Changing the ribbon on an IBM Selectric (height of 1961 technology)? Tuning up a car that lacks electronic engine controls? Doing your taxes without considering the Alternative Minimum Tax and the tens of thousands of pages of rules that have been added since our senior citizen was starting his career? Didn’t think so.

The same technological progress that enables our society to keep an ever-larger percentage of old folks’ bodies going has simultaneously reduced the value of the minds within those bodies.

Well, fine; if you previously treated your grandparents like the contents of the vintage encyclopedias on their shelves, then you’ve got some new options. But get this: you always could have just read those encyclopedias, too.

Probably no invention diminished the knowledge-retention-value of older people so much as writing. At the same time, writing provided a way for that knowledge to survive death, to reach not only children and grandchildren but great-great-grandchildren and strangers and people in far away places. Likewise, if older folks’ wisdom can be transferred to the internet, then it will actually add value to both their wisdom and the internet. Oh, wait — it already has!

More to the point, Greenspun’s human-hard-drive concept of valuable knowledge is pretty ossified. When I see my grandmother, I don’t ask her about the names of plants or when the best time is to plant certain flowers, even though I know that she (and not I) know this stuff cold. I don’t even (at least always) ask her to sew my split pants seat or loose jacket button, even though she’s the one in the family who’s got the sewing machine and knows how to use it.

Instead, I talk to her about the time when she picked me up from school, and took me to Taco Bell, and the hot meat melted the cheese on the tacos, something I had never seen before, and that we both marveled at. Or I ask her about the book she’s reading, what she thinks of it, her opinions about the characters and the writing. Or I ask her about things that happened before my lifetime, about the Depression, or how she felt when she and my grandfather moved into their house in Detroit — I have the picture of her, nineteen years old with the nineteen-inch waist, doing a cartwheel on the front lawn, but it’s not enough. I listen to her describe how the city was then, and sometimes wince at the sharpness she expresses in her distaste for the city now. She tells me about how difficult it is for her to read now, how she wishes she’d kept taking the shots in her eyes for her glaucoma and macular degeneration. She tells me about my grandfather, who has been gone for fifteen years, whom I knew not nearly as well.

Not all kinds of knowledge are generated at random, of equal factual value to everybody. Sometimes they’re embodied in experience, and specifically relevant only to the people who share them. As Zora Neale Hurston has Janie say in Their Eyes Were Watching God, “you’ve got to go there to know there.”

(Greenspun’s post via Lone Gunman.)


Betty Ann says…

In the language of the ancients … Right On Tim!

This excerpt is precisely why I stopped reading Greenspun’s blog. There was something coldly rational about it (which usually took the form of quantifying what guys were better at than girls) that left out things that had emotional, cultural, and historical value.

All my grandma wants to talk about is the squirrels in her yard and her plans to buy an electric lawnmower. That’s OK. I talk to her because she’s my grandma.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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