"I am struck by the fact that the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think that the same is true of human beings." These wise words were written by American author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, born 200 years ago on Wednesday. A quiet journal entry from another age cuts through the noise of our current world, moving faster and louder than ever.
Among the casualties of our hyper-connected world is youth itself. Children are exposed to an adult world at an ever young age — and that world is itself still absorbing all the new ways to communicate. And to be human.
One recent story that grabbed attention in Germany was a police investigation in Bavaria, involving a 13-year-old boy who had given away some 10,500 euros to soccer teammates and strangers in the street in an attempt to be liked and make friends. Beyond what this says about the feeling of sheer loneliness modern society is capable of producing, it should also make us reflect on the meaning of relationships in an era when the gap between real and virtual appears to be vanishing.
After all, with the right user interface and business model, paying for "friends' might just make a successful app for adults. Call it the "uberization" of popularity? Paying a small fee to a fellow human being for just a little bit of convenient attention certainly wouldn't be more shocking than paying for that person to drive you around, have dinner with you, or indeed have "your" baby, would it?
Every generation laughs at the old fashions.
Modern technology has brought us great advances, but you could argue that instead of liberating us, it is ultimately bound to isolate us in a society with a price tag on just about everything, including ourselves. And children, as always, are quick to learn.
There was also a report yesterday from the BBC, revealing that thousands of British children have been investigated for sexting in recent years, with one particularly chilling case involving a 5-year-old boy sending intimate pictures of himself with an iPad. It is a shocking news flash at first, until you stop to consider that the access to an increasingly sexualized environment makes it almost inevitable that even the youngest children would end up copying such behaviors.
In his masterpiece Walden, about his solitary life on Walden Pond in Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau observed how "every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new." We know nowadays about psychologists warning that both children and adults can form bonafide dependencies on technology — while parents are urged to be "good digital role models' for their offspring.
It's not always easy, and figuring out what and how to keep from our kids is a daily question. Sure, you probably will want to block violence and sex from their browsers and teach them that friendship has no price. But maybe we should also avoid this raging paradox we found online: Walden, A Game, a "first person simulation" of self-reliant living at Walden Pond.