WILL THERE BE WORDS TO DESCRIBE THE FUTURE?

This is a print version of a talk I gave at a recent literacy event at the Norman F. Feldheym Central Library in San Bernardino. It was published as a three-part series in The Sun. It appears here in its entirety.

Will zombies decide the future?

I spoke earlier this summer at a “Career Day” event at a local elementary school. I talked with the kids about the awesome responsibility that lies upon their shoulders.

They will be the deciding generation, the generation that chooses the future of communication, the future of sharing knowledge and information, the future of reading and writing, the future of literacy in our world.

And how well-equipped will they be to make those choices, those decisions?

They are the first generation to grow up with no tangible memory or contact or involvement with the world before the Internet, the world before Wikipedia, the world before Facebook, the world before blogging and text messaging and twittering and tweets.

You and I, we know there was a time when public knowledge and information was handled with care, when it was reviewed, fact-checked, authenticated, and for the most part reliable and trustworthy. We also know there was a time when people took the time to enjoy the process of gaining and sharing information and knowledge. They curled up with big books, they spent an hour reading the day’s newspaper, they spent whole afternoons at the library, they wrote long letters.

The kids in that classroom where I spoke earlier this summer, and all the many other kids who are just like them, don’t know anything about that world. They don’t know that the world now, their world, is a weirdly and woefully different place.

They don’t know that they are being bombarded in a whole new way by junk information of a whole new kind. They don’t know that they are being diverted and distracted by myriad new forms of entertainment and recreation and social interaction that provide a buzz, a short fix, a quick shot of stimulation without leaving any lasting impression, or provoking any worthwhile thought.

They don’t know that their attention spans are being stunted, that their memory retention is being compromised, that their diminishing chances of growing up to be intelligent, well-informed, articulate individuals are being challenged in every way, every day.

As I spoke with those kids, at that elementary school, their teacher interjected at one point, to agree with me, and he said that the kids of today are unlike any he has seen before. They are zombies, he said.

I was tempted to shoot him a loud whisper behind my hand. “Dude, they’re right here. They can hear you!” I was tempted to say.

But I didn’t. I let him go on. And I soon realized he knew his students a lot better than I did.

He talked at length about how tuned out, and turned off, the kids of today really are. He talked about how detached and removed they are. He talked about how unresponsive and uncommunicative they are. He talked about how stubbornly resistant they are to learning basic reading and writing skills. And he used the word “zombies” several more times.

Finally, I interrupted him. I turned to the class and said, “How many of you are zombies? Let’s see a show of hands.”

I’m sorry to say that more than half of the kids in that classroom raised their hands.
And they were beaming, and laughing happily as they raised their hands.

They not only were zombies.

They were proud that they were zombies.

Inspiration is a gift; pass it on

I was a lot of terrible things when I was a kid. I was a troublemaker. I was a hellion. Oh, yes, I was a handful.

But I was no zombie.

I did not lurch about with nothing happening in my brain.

Sure, now and then I would do something mindless, like watch “The Howdy Doody Show” on TV. But most of the time my mind was engaged. It was busy. It was in full pursuit of myriad interests and occupations.

And it loved nothing more than tapping into the power of the written word.

I loved fantasy stories, which stretched my imagination and made me believe that anything was possible. I fought dragons here on Earth, and I traveled to distant planets and learned something new on each one.

I also loved to read biographies of famous men and women — Babe Ruth, Madame Curie, Jim Bowie, Amelia Earhart — because they inspired me to aspire, to be ambitious, to accomplish much, to live a life that might be worthy of its own story one day.

My parents encouraged me. They bought me books. They took me to the library. They asked me questions about the books I was reading, which led to conversations about the books I was reading.

We were a newspaper family, too. My dad always subscribed to two or three newspapers, and he would pick up single copies of others along the way. Reading newspapers was a family event. We would stretch out, and pass sections back and forth, and talk about what we were reading.

Believe me when I tell you that we easily could spend most of a Sunday reading the Sunday newspapers.

I not only liked to read, but I also liked to draw pictures and write stories of my own. When I was 10 years old, I sold a short story to a national church publication. It ran with a note from the editors that said they never before had accepted a story from a 10-year-old author.

In high school, I had an English teacher named Judith Gray (ah, yes, the shimmering goddess Judith Gray!) who took a shine to the little stories and essays I would write in her class. She would call me to the front to read them to everyone. I was thrilled beyond words, I promise you.

I became editor of my high school newspaper. I also landed a part-time job at the local community weekly where the editor, O’Farrell Pauley, encouraged me and prodded me and motivated me with increasingly more challenging story assignments.

Under my picture in the high school yearbook for my senior year it says, “John Weeks/Class President/Ambition: Journalist.”

As you can see, I was gloriously doomed to my fate at an early age.

And, sure enough, shortly after graduation I landed a full-time job as a news clerk at the big city newspaper — in San Bernardino! There was a city editor, Arnold Ismach, who coached me on my writing. There was a night city editor, Howard Ellis, who encouraged me to write in new creative ways. There was a Sunday editor, Bill Thomas, who taught me how to think like an editor as well as a writer.

I worked at The Sun during the entire time that I attended and graduated from UC Riverside, and except for a year away, during which I earned a master’s degree in Europe, I have worked at The Sun ever since.

That’s a lot of years of earning full-time wages for doing what I love — reading and writing.

Truly, it’s the dream job I always wanted. And I hope I have given some hint as to the forces that helped me achieve that dream. Indeed, the credit goes to all those influential people who pushed me, who helped me, who guided me forward. First there were my parents, and then there was a noble succession of teachers, counselors, bosses, editors and mentors.

I believe it’s a pattern that can be reproduced today. We can pay it forward to the next generation. We can goad, we can prod, we can bully — I’m sorry, I mean motivate — the young people of today, the people who are destined to become, ready or not, the leaders and decision makers and communicators of tomorrow.

In fact, we have no choice. We must make the effort. We must motivate and inspire today’s youth to take the future seriously, or there will be no future that is worth taking seriously.

Beware the Tower of Babble

You remember the old story, in the Bible, about the Tower of Babel, don’t you? The story tells of a community of people who determined to build a tower that would reach all the way to Heaven. In the story, God punished those people for their overreaching pride and vainglory by confounding their tongues. As a result, they all spoke in different languages and no longer could communicate with each other in a meaningful way.

Whether it’s a true story or an allegory, the Tower of Babel became a lasting symbol of a society in which everyone talks at once, and nobody makes any sense.

We have that today.

It’s called the Internet.

But our modern version of the Tower of Babel is even more frightening, for its presence dominates the landscape not only of a single place on Earth, but the entire Earth.

The Internet is beguiling. It offers new opportunities and temptations. It’s so convenient to have so much data so available so immediately.

But there is no quality control. At least not yet.

We used to get our information from books and newspapers and periodicals and public records that we were able to accept as authoritative, because we knew that those documents had been checked, double-checked, edited and reviewed.

We still get information from those sources. But we also find ourselves inundated by huge amounts of information of a different kind, the kind that is found on the Internet. It’s wild information. It’s unrefined, unsubstantiated, unchecked information. It’s junk information.

It used to be that your crazy aunt couldn’t get her giant crazy novel published, or her rambling crazy essays published. Your crazy aunt wasn’t consulted in the compiling and publishing of public records.

Today, though, your crazy aunt can blog and twitter all day and night, and her words instantly are carried around the world. Your crazy aunt can post her giant crazy novel online, and all her rambling crazy essays. Your crazy aunt can add delirious entries to Wikipedia. Your crazy aunt can say anything she likes, whenever she likes, and it all goes public.

Not just your crazy aunt. Everyone’s crazy aunt.

As a result, information has been cheapened. It has become devalued. And many people, especially young people, have lost interest in it.

The good news is that the world survived the Tower of Babel. Maybe it was a real tower, or maybe it was a situation that inspired an allegorical story. Either way, the world worked through it. It sorted things out. It persevered.

Now, though, we have a new Tower of Babel. Or maybe we should give it an updated name, and call it the Tower of Babble.

And while the Internet does offer infinite new possibilities, it also poses infinite new challenges.

I believe we are at a turning point, a tipping point, of our civilization on this planet. I also believe that we can survive the Tower of Babble, just as we survived the Tower of Babel.

But it will take effort. It will take work.

There will be a gigantic sorting process, a reconfiguring, in evolving stages, of the way information is handled, and the way communication is accomplished, in our world. It will be a long and difficult task. The young people of today, who will be the decision makers of tomorrow, will do most of that work. They will make most of the important choices.

But while we still are here, we can work to bend and shape and influence their future choices.

Perhaps.

Let’s be the right kind of parents and teachers and mentors and bosses that are so desperately needed at this time.

Sure, let’s do whatever we can to save our bookstores, our libraries, our newspapers. But let us also be nimble on our feet and work to adapt. If the future of reading and writing is on the Internet, let us work together to figure out ways to make the Internet better. Let’s be involved in guiding it, shaping it, investing it with the quality controls that it needs.

And let us be involved in motivating our young people to use it wisely, to use it productively, to use it to their advantage instead of their disadvantage.

Let’s help the kids make smart choices. If we do, and if they do, there might be a future for literacy after all. The world may be in the good hands of bright, mindful, studious, expressive men and women.

And not zombies.