Human beings have always been creatures of the present, as exemplified by the old saying, “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.” Admittedly, that was originally a soldiers’ mantra, but it is beginning to appear that it’s become almost a way of life now, especially in the United States.
The most obvious aspect of this is texting and tweeting, where people literally risk death to get largely meaningless messages right “now.” Emails have replaced letters, and a plethora of text abbreviations have proliferated because so few want to spell out phrases – or can – and the result, regardless of protests to the contrary [which have also proliferated], is that language has been not only truncated but cheapened as more and more electronic communicators adopt simplistic abbreviations, rather than attempting to take the time to express their own feelings in their own words. But then, it may be that they’re simply incapable of doing so.
But there’s another physical problem created by the “now” nature of the internet. More and more, those who use it are turning from text to visual images, not to mention the various real-time streaming features, all of which consume enormous amounts of bandwidth. In less than a decade, even with all the planned expansions, the entire internet/world-wide-web is likely to come to a screeching overload/traffic jam halt… unless tens of billions of dollars are invested in new and expanded infrastructure or some new compression or routing routines are adopted. Even so, the speeds of today may soon be a thing of the past.
As I’ve noted a number of times, the business/corporate sector has been totally co-opted by the “now.” Long-term planning is 18 months. The value of a corporation is strictly based on current stock prices, revenues, and sales, and at the slightest whiff of news – good or bad – that value instantly changes. Corporations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, to gain an advantage of little more than nanoseconds in securities trading. Yet, over the past few years, we’ve had several “flash crashes” in the stock market, the last one resulting from hacked phony information fed from an AP account. And yet, for all these warnings, the need and desire for “profit now,” has resulted in even greater reliance on high-speed, algorithm-based computerized program trading… putting the global banking and financial system at even greater risk.
We have an national infrastructure crisis, with millions of bridges needing repair, a national power grid that has become increasingly overloaded and fragile, scores of cities with inadequate highway and public transportation systems, an air traffic control system that is already antiquated and susceptible to disruptions, a hundred nuclear power plants with nowhere to dispose of their spent nuclear fuel, civic water systems losing billions of gallons annually to leaky pipes and conduits – and a political system that won’t deal with any of it because the politicians are too fearful of a public that opposes any tax increases now, regardless of the long-term costs and implications.
As more than a few readers have noted, we also have a parenting problem – because far too many parents don’t want to deal with the present “unpleasantness” of disciplining their children, and because we have too many those same parents not wanting anyone else to impose restrictions on those children, we have marginal, if that, discipline in far too many schools, and far too many young people growing up with little or no idea of the conduct requirements necessary to obtain and hold a job – such as showing up for work every day and on time.
Although everyone pays great attention and lip service to education, the emphasis in practice is almost totally on the present. How do we raise test scores? How do we get graduation and retention rates up now? Or at the collegiate level, how can we change education so graduates get jobs now? Everywhere is the complaint that the cost of higher education falls too heavily on the students, but what is the reaction from state legislatures, who used to fund a significant share of the costs of state universities? No one wants to raise taxes now; so we’ll hire more part-time adjuncts at near starvation wages and continue to raise tuition.
And what are the other proposed popular solutions to problems in education? Let’s reward teachers for improvements in testing, graduation, and retention. Just where is the emphasis on critical thinking? Or the discussion of what kind of education is relevant for what types of learners? Or what type of education will foster the ability to allow students to keep learning once they’re out of the education system, something that’s particularly relevant given that, according to an NCES study, 40% of Americans are either functionally illiterate or are only able to read on the most basic level. Other studies show that from 33% to 42% of all college graduates will never read another complete book after graduation.
Another aspect of the “now” culture is the inability or unwillingness to look at the implications of current “now” trends. The other day my wife walked into one of the largest department stores in Salt Lake City, a store that is one of hundreds of a national chain, and walked out, unable to buy anything because “the computers are down.” What happens when sales and inventory, and even climate control [the air conditioning was “down,” too] are tied into systems that, because of their increasing complexity, are more prone to fail? Last month, I had to re-schedule a doctor’s appointment because, when I got to the office, I was informed that the doctor couldn’t see me – or anyone else – because the computers were down and no one could access my medical records. That’s not a big problem for a routine check-up; it’s a huge problem if the emergency room’s access to records goes down. Banks are trying to become more efficient by greater reliance on electronic banking and ATMs. What happens when there’s a power failure or a computer failure? Or a terrorist hacking of the financial system – especially when so many Americans, especially those under 30 or so, don’t even carry any cash and instead rely on their debit or credit card – or their IPhone – to pay for goods and services?
A recent article in the New Yorker featured an interview with the head of the FBI’s cyber-crime unit. The upshot was that, with a literal handful of exceptions, essentially every single computerized system in the United States is vulnerable to current “spear-phishing” information piracy. This includes power plants and power distribution systems, air traffic control, public utilities, and all corporate headquarters, including high tech and defense contractors. Even classified plans, such as those for the F-35, the advanced strike fighter, have been pirated, most likely by the Chinese government. And yet, computer systems security is woefully underfunded at a time when everyone is using more and more computers for more and more information transfer.
Unless matters change, and quickly, I worry that the “now” generation may well end up having neither a “now” nor much of a future. But then, the future’s not now… so almost no one seems to worry as much as I do.