Posted in Rants on December 7th, 2010 by Ed

There is an activity I like to do in class from time to time in which I force students to turn off their spacephones and laptops and, as a group, accomplish some basic tasks and answer a few questions without the benefit of mobile electronics. I call it "A Trip Back in Time to 1993" (I'm sure the odd laptop could be spotted on campus back then, albeit without wifi). Since we can't leave the classroom and start running around campus, I ask them to formulate a plan to accomplish these tasks. I present them with some very simple if somewhat random questions. What are the last 5 bills that came up for a floor vote in the House? Which president signed the Posse Comitatus Act? Give me directions from campus to Washington DC. What is the weather in Moscow today? Is the Supreme Court hearing oral arguments today, and if so, what case? Stuff like that. Nothing complicated.

The answer in 2010 is simple and identical for every question – whip out the wireless internet device of choice and ask Mr. Google (although as an aside, many of them seem unable to get that far. If I get one more email along the lines of "How do I find sources for…" I am going to adopt a needy child and throw pies at it. But I digress.) Problem solved. Without those devices they are quite helpless. I am a bad person for enjoying it, but I legitimately get a kick out of seeing them try to figure out how we Neanderthals managed to uncover these kinds of secrets just 10 or 15 years ago. We didn't have instantaneous access to everything yet somehow we survived. Roll Call or Congressional Quarterly would bring us lists of bills in the House (lagging a few days, of course, to accommodate publishing things on dead tree). Encyclopedia Britannica revealed who signed which bills into law. Rand McNally gave us directions. All three of those required a trip to the library. The weather and Supreme Court questions required picking up the phone and calling someone to get the information quickly or waiting a few days to get it from secondary sources.

I am 32. My generation is the last one to learn the mystical skills I described above. Of course we do not practice them regularly. When I want information, I get it instantaneously on the interwebs just like the Kids These Days. But people my age or older remember how to do it the old way. It would be inconvenient to lose the crutch that is modern information technology, but we'd live. I remember how to locate the appropriate reference book and look up pieces of information. I can and regularly do find my way around with a paper map.

Last weekend I had some family in town – folks in their 50s – and they located my house at the tail end of a 12-hour drive with a GPS unit. I made some crotchety old man small talk about how The Kids These Days probably can't read a map to save their souls now that new cars practically come standard with GPS and older cars are fitted with portable units by nervous parents who don't want little Billy to get lost on his way to his weed dealer's house. My guests agreed, but noted that the technology made it unnecessary to do so. Which is true. Assuming its availability.

The Global Positioning System is a network of 24 satellites launched and maintained by the US Department of Defense. For 20+ years the entire planet relied on Pentagon satellites for location-finding systems after Ronald Reagan declared the system a public good in 1986 (after the KAL 007 shootdown, if you must know). Other nations, notably China and Russia, are currently scrambling to launch their own GPS systems. They are motivated, of course, by the realization that it is not in their strategic interests to rely on the U.S. military to provide access to an increasingly important resource. Uncle Sam can, and in a conflict certainly would, flip the switch and preclude access to the satellite network.

What happens is there's a global conflict and the Pentagon decides to limit GPS access only to the military and government as was the case before 1986? What if the fragile and indescribably complex network of satellites simply malfunctions or breaks down? What percentage of the American public would be able to find their way around with maps? Certainly we older folks could do it, because we used to do it. We have the muscle memory, so to speak, even if we stopped using the skills when our new car came with a TomTom or Magellan. But what about today's crop of undergraduates, the ones who have literally grown up with "Just google it" or "Take the GPS with you" as the universal solution to the need for information? It's difficult, after all, to fall back on reading maps or using the Reference Room at the library if one never learned how to do so in the first place.

I am not a survivalist and I don't think we should be preparing our young adults for Mad Max scenarios or the collapse of modern industrial society. It does give me pause however to think about the generational gap developing between atrophying skills – the older folks – and skills that were never learned at all. We are so terribly, terribly dependent on complex technology that I don't relish the thought of the world without access to it even briefly as we start ushering into adulthood generations that have never known or even considered a world without it.