News about Umberto Eco

18.04.2011 - A young & virtual generation of aliens

I think that Michel Serres’ is the finest philosophical mind that exists in France today. And like any good philosopher, Serres is capable of reflecting upon current affairs as well as historical events. Shamelessly, I am going to base this column on a splendid essay Serres wrote last month for Le Monde, in which he reminds us about the issues that concern today’s youth: the children of my younger readers and the grandchildren of us oldsters.

To begin with, most of these children or grandchildren have never seen a pig, a cow or a chicken — an observation that reminded me of a survey conducted roughly 30 years ago in the United States. It revealed that the majority of children in New York believed that milk, which they saw sold in packs at the supermarket, was a man-made product like Coca-Cola. Modern human beings are no longer accustomed to living in nature; they know only the city. I would also point out that when they go on vacation, most of them stay in what the French anthropologist Marc Auge has defined as “non-places”: homogenised “spaces of circulation, consumption and communication”.

The resort village is remarkably similar to, say, the Singapore airport, each presenting a perfectly groomed, Arcadian nature that is wholly artificial. We are in the midst of one of the greatest anthropological revolutions since the Neolithic Age. Today’s kids live in a super-populated world, with a life expectancy close to 80 years. And given the increasing longevity of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, they are less likely to come into their inheritances until they are on the verge of old age.

A person born in the past 60 years in Europe has not known war. And, having benefited from advances in medicine, he has not suffered as much as his forefathers did. His parents’ generation had children later in life than my parents’ generation did, and his parents may well have divorced. In school, he studied alongside kids of other colours, religions and customs; this prompts Serres to wonder how much longer schoolchildren in France will sing La Marseillaise, which contains a reference to the “impure blood” of foreigners. What literary works can he still enjoy and connect with, given that he has never known rustic life, grape harvesting, military invasions, monuments to the fallen, flags riddled with the holes of enemy bullets, or the vital urgency of morality?

His thinking has been informed by media that reduce the permanency of an event to sound bytes and flashing pictures — in keeping with the collective wisdom of seven-second attention spans and 15-second quiz-show answers. And those same media show him things he wouldn’t see in his everyday life: bloodied corpses, ruin, devastation. “By the age of 12, adults have already forced (kids) to witness 20,000 murders”, Serres writes.

Children today are raised on advertisements full of abbreviations and foreign words that make them lose touch with their mother tongue. School is no longer a place of learning and, accustomed to the computer, these kids live a good part of their lives in the virtual world. Typing into their electronic devices, they write with their index fingers or thumbs instead of using their whole hands. (And moreover, they are completely consumed with multitasking.) They sit, mesmerised by Facebook and Wikipedia, which, according to Serres, “doesn’t excite the same neurons or the same cortical zones” as reading an actual book. Human beings used to live in a perceivable, tangible space; this generation lives in a virtual space that requires no distinction between nearness and distance.

I won’t go into Serres’ reflections on how to manage the new requirements of education. But his overview of the subject encompasses a period of total upheaval no less pivotal than the eras that led to the invention of writing and, centuries later, the printing press. The problem is that modern technology changes at breakneck speed and, Serres writes, “at the same time the body is transfigured, birth and death change, as do suffering and healing, vocations, space, the environment, and being in the world”.

Why weren’t we ready for this transformation? Serres concludes that perhaps some of the blame lies with philosophers, who by the nature of their profession ought to foresee shifts in knowledge and practice. And they haven’t done this sufficiently because, as they are “involved in politics day in and day out, they didn’t sense contemporaneity coming”.

I don’t know if Serres got it entirely right, but he certainly didn’t get it all wrong.

* Umberto Eco’s most recent book is On Ugliness. He is also the author of international bestsellers
Baudolino, The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, among others.


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