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  • Robert Farago

Life Was Worse When I Was a Kid!

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be

As I approach my 64th birthday, I’ve noticed my Substack’s been a bit negative lately. Say… the last 79 posts. To mark my forthcoming applicability to Sgt. Pepper’s ode to my age, I figured I’d write something nice about then vs. now. But first, a warning from from Tina Turner’s intro to Proud Mary….

OK. So. Gather ‘round children. I want to tell you a story…

Once upon a time, there was no Internet. If you wanted to know something you didn’t know, like what grows in the Amazon jungle or how a jet engine works, you had to ask someone who knew.

Usually, you’d ask your parents. If they didn’t know or, let’s face it, you didn’t believe them, you had to find another adult. Biologists and aerospace engineers being thin on the ground, you had one recourse: look it up in a book.

You could go down to the library for a book on jungles or jets, but there’s only so much time in the day, cowboys and indians to play, Get Smart to watch and you didn’t want to read a whole book on the subject in question.

The answer: look it up in the appropriate leather-bound book nestling on the shelf with more than two dozens of its cousins. A group of tomes we called an encyclopedia.

Sold door-to-door, arriving alphabetically at the blistering pace of one volume per month, they came in two basic flavors: the Encyclopedia Britannica (32 volumes) and the World Book (22 volumes).

An encyclopedia subscription was a blue pill prescription. Entries summarized the received wisdom on any given subject, as determined by a committee of mostly white Angle-Saxon Protestant academic eggheads.

To their credit, these gatekeepers made sure facts were factual. That entries were written in a non-confrontational way, in pursuit of what used to be called “objectivity.” You know: fairness.

It sounds strange, but Encyclopedias were radical AF. Instant access to information created by respected subject matter experts in history, art, science, literature and economics for one low monthly fee? Yes please!

While many buyers never cracked a binding, purchasing the books to give their decor an air of sophistication, encyclopedias were the ultimate realization of the democratization set into motion by Gutenberg’s printing press.

As the chart above indicates, video killed the radio star. And rightly so. The Internet is to encyclopedias what Hondas are to the horse and buggy. What Harrods Food Halls are to a hot dog cart. What YouTube is to VHS videotapes.

To delve deeper into a subject in the 70’s, you either chased down a book (don’t get me started on the Dewey Decimal System) or applied to university (and chose a major). Gaining knowledge was an inefficient, expensive, laborious and exclusive process.

The Internet offers a curious mind a virtually unlimited ability to learn… anything! You can find numerous viewpoints on any given subject, source the source material informing those opinions and interact with neophytes, enthusiasts and experts.

Equally important, a simple mouse click can send you down the proverbial rabbit hole, exposing your mind to unexpected influences, revealing connections between… everything!

Younger readers have no idea what it’s like to be intellectually malnourished. Actually, according the encyclopedia reading level chart above and the stats in my previous post (Reading is Dead), they do. Let me try that again…

Assuming there are still some young minds subject to the same insatiable hunger for knowledge plaguing me back when bells had bottoms, today’s budding intellects have it SO much better than I did.

And it’s getting better. Large language model-based chatbots (e.g., Bard and ChatGPT) make acquiring knowledge even faster. What’s that you say? I view AI “hallucinations” as a welcome reminder not to trust a single information source.

AI “tutors” are there to answer your every question 24/7. As I wrote previously (It's Official: The Public School System is Dead), the public school system is dead. Thanks to the AI-enabled internet, the mind-numbing boredom and conformity of traditional education is doomed.

You lucky bastards. The time I wasted in school, staring out the window, exercising my underutilized imagination… To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, with the Internet, oh, the things you will learn!

Don’t let Yellow Submarine fool you. The world was a lot less colorful, exciting, interesting and accessible for curious kids when I was growing up. There were compensations, of course. But if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t. I’d rather stick around a bit longer, surf the web and see what happens.

If I was a young man raising small children now? I’d be handing my kids a tablet computer before they could walk. Expecting them to fly like I never could. If you know what I mean.

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