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Steven Bavaria
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Steven Bavaria writes about finance, economics and politics, drawing on his forty-five years experience in international banking, credit, investment, human resources/training, journalism and public service. Now retired from his "day job" on Wall Street, Bavaria lives mostly off his investments.... More
My book:
TOO GREEDY FOR ADAM SMITH: CEO Pay and the Demise of Capitalism
  • The "Gerbilization" Of America 1 comment
    Sep 8, 2012 5:07 PM

    (Published in Lilipoh Magazine, Spring 2011)

    Social historians and anthropologists estimate that the average "hunter/gatherer" living 20,000 years ago, before the dawn of "civilization," worked about 20 hours a week. Of course "work" was not sitting in cubicles or conference rooms, but consisted of hunting, fishing, hiking and gathering berries, activities that today we might consider "recreation" and struggle to fit into our busy weekends and vacations.

    So how is it that after 20,000 years of so-called progress we have gone from 20 hours a week of low-stress hunting and fishing to 50-60 hours and more of high-stress computers, cubicles and commuting - the "three C's" of our post-Dilbert economy? Further adding urgency to this question is the sneaking suspicion that plagues many Americans - even so-called "successful ones" as measured by the size of their paychecks - that much of what they do on their computers, or at their staff meetings, or during their video-conferences and sales calls, has little tangible value or lasting meaning. So where is the big payoff, to individuals or society as a whole, for tripling our workweek and replacing low-stress activities with high stress ones?

    Farms to factories, via the classroom

    Although much of what brought us from 20,000 years ago to the present may have been the random flow of physical and social evolution, the shaping of modern "homo economicus" has been heavily influenced by our educational system. In fact, recent historians of public education in the United States have introduced a somewhat more cynical view of the motives of early American educational reformers than that traditionally understood. They point out the not-so-hidden agenda of some of those who established broad public education toward the end of the 19th century was to essentially "mass-produce" factory workers who could, in turn, mass-produce products on newly-conceived assembly lines.

    It wasn't that children, many of whom lived on farms, were previously uneducated by the standards of their day - let alone by our "modern" standards - given that their initial reading generally included the Bible, and novels by James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne and other writers we would today consider literary giants. But what was suspect - at least to the powers that be at the time - was the inconsistency of their education. They were all learning different things, in different ways, and, more importantly, they weren't being "socialized" in any predictable manner. They certainly weren't all getting up at the same time, arriving at the same location, or starting and ending their work when a bell rang. So the modern school, and school schedule, was born. Bells signaled the beginning and end of classes, as well as allotted lunch breaks and recess periods. Curricula were standardized so that students across cities, counties and states were more likely to learn the same subjects, at the same time, in the same order and in the same academic year, thus increasing the likelihood that graduates would have similar conditioning and would end up with similar knowledge bases and skill sets. This was the perfect workforce preparation for the factory jobs that sprouted up across the country as America industrialized throughout the early part of the 20th century. School bells were traded for factory whistles. As workplaces became more institutionalized, so did schools, with the result being large factory-like educational warehouses in cities across the nation, turning out standardized graduates ready to take their place on the assembly line, literally and figuratively.

    Sweatshops to cubicles

    Now fast-forward 100 years to the beginning of the 21st century. Traditional factory jobs have largely disappeared, the "factory" has become the workstation, and the computer, the Blackberry and the cell phone have largely replaced the lathe, the rivet and the drill bit. "Work" for many Americans, especially those sometimes described as "knowledge workers," consists of sitting at computers, communicating via email and other electronic means, and using the Internet as well as all sorts of program applications to do research and analysis, make presentations, trade financial instruments, and deliver services to clients. But work doesn't end when they leave the office. More and more jobs - not just those you would expect, like heart surgeons, midwives, plumbers and firefighters, but routine office and administrative positions - carry an expectation that employees will be "on call" virtually 24/7, as evidenced by the number of people who carry around Blackberry or electronic email/texting devices and check them constantly throughout the evening and on weekends.

    But even when people are not working - in their office cubicles or via email, lap-tops, cell phones and other gadgets at their homes or local Starbucks - their so-called fun and recreation increasingly resemble what they do at work. People use the same gadgets they work with - computers, cell phones and similar screen-based applications, like video games or even old-fashioned television (albeit now connected to 500-plus cable or dish-supplied channels) - as their sources of amusement and entertainment. I am sure we have all witnessed groups of people - adults and adolescents - at social occasions where everyone is sitting around staring at (or listening to) their cell phone, Blackberry or equivalent, texting, e-mailing, playing games and/or web-surfing. Then when they do look up and engage each other in conversation, the topic is usually something on one of their screens, or the hardware and software itself (i.e. comparing the relative attributes of their gadgets and applications and discussing what they plan to upgrade to the next time around.)

    From a macro perspective, we have created an economic system where (1) workers learn to use various electronic tools, programs and applications to do their jobs and make and deliver products and services; then (2) when they leave work they go out and play with the same or similar electronic tools, products and applications as their primary source of recreation and amusement; and (3) they become so hooked on the electronic tools and the programs and applications the tools deliver, that they spend a major portion of their incomes purchasing new tools, programs and applications (many of which they themselves, as part of their own jobs, participated in designing, developing, producing, marketing and/or selling.) So as consumers, they are creating the demand for the stuff that, as workers, they are producing. The perfect circular system; or as the early economists called it, the "Invisible Hand" at work.

    Note that the shift to electronic-based amusement and entertainment has replaced what previously involved person-to-person relationships (conversation, playing cards and other games, more active sports and recreation) with person-to-gadget relationships. This has both social and economic implications. Socially it simply means there is less human inter-action taking place, within families and communities of all types, with all that implies for the development of our culture and civilization. Economically it means we are replacing cheaper recreation (conversation and most games and sports don't cost money each time you do them) with more expensive forms of amusement (Cell phones, I-phones and I-pads don't come cheap, and there are often user and access fees involved in the various applications.) So the more that consumers are switched over from "natural" low-cost amusements (talking, playing games, inter-acting with each other), to inter-acting with and through electronic gadgets and program applications, the greater will be (1) the economic demand for such products, and (2) the incentive to work harder to earn money to buy them.

    So it is easy to see how corporate America, including its manufacturing arms - China and other low-cost producing countries - has a vested interest in replacing "natural" (and inexpensive) person-to-person interaction as our main source of entertainment, amusement and recreation, with more expensive and artificial electronic and/or screen-based media. Our government even subsidizes the process by giving computer manufacturers tax write-offs for "donating" computer equipment to schools to help feed and nurture our kids' electronic addictions.

    21st Century education: "Wiring" our kids

    Many of us may believe - from experience - that our kids have a natural affinity for figuring out how to make remote controls and other electronic gizmos work on the first try, without ever reading instructions, etc. While that may be, it does not mean they are automatically addicted to the use of such things. For that they must be trained, and our educational system has stepped right up to the task.

    If the goal of the early 20th century school system was to mass-produce standardized, pre-fabricated factory workers, let us review what the equivalent goal of our 21st century school system would be. Our economy, as currently configured, requires a workforce that will compliantly (1) sit in cubicles and work on computers all day, (2) continue to check in via cell phone, home computer and Blackberry during its "free" time, and (3) so highly value the experience that it will organize its recreation and purchasing around similar activities, hardware and software.

    Children, left to their own devices to develop in nature, will not - on their own - choose to sit in front of computers and play with Blackberry's and cell phones in lieu of chasing butterflies, making mud pies and playing hide-and-go-seek. To induce them to do so, computers should be introduced at an early age, made interactive, colorful, interesting. Since little children like to imitate their parents, letting the kids see parents and teachers use computers and then suggest they could have one to play with "just like Mommy's or Daddy's" would be helpful. Getting them used to screen-based entertainment, like television, cartoons and videos, at as early an age as possible, would also further the process. Then, once they are familiar with computers, televisions and other big-screen amusements, you would want to introduce them to cell phones and other hand-held gadgets, both as communication tools and for playing games. The more sounds, bells and whistles the better, since multi-images are more addictive than single images, and get children even more excited.

    Parents and teachers will know that schools are doing their job of socializing their kids onto the right path to fit our economic paradigm, if they see the following signs emerge by the early teenage years:

    · The kids automatically turn on their cell phones, computers or televisions upon waking up or returning home
    · They never go anywhere without a cell phone or handheld device
    · They never go more than a few minutes without checking it for text and voice messages, even at movies and other entertainment venues
    · During the time they are not checking it for messages they are using it as an entertainment device for music and/or games (often both at once)
    · When kids get together with other friends, they are more likely to sit around together and play with their handheld devices or play video games than to have conversations or play other, non-electronic games
    · When they do engage in conversation, it is often to discuss their electronic gadgets or applications

    Gerbils, mount your wheels!

    Top-notch prep schools and public schools in affluent areas all brag about how much individual computer time they expose their young students to and how quickly they will bring them up the technology curve. They obviously want their kids to be primed and ready to step from the playground directly into that cubicle in a Wall Street skyscraper. What better way to prepare adults who will aspire to lives focused on computer screens, quick decisions and high energy lives than to start them out that way in pre-school and build on it for the next 16 years.

    But I doubt that every parent necessarily wants his or her kids so obviously prepped for a life right out of Dilbert, especially one that starts at such a young age. Many experts believe that premature exposure to computers and screen-based learning seems more likely to lead to ADHD and "imagination burn-out" than to any longer-term cognitive or emotional advantages. Why take young kids who could be learning from real experiences - touching, feeling, painting, drawing, observing - in three dimensions and replace that with virtual experiences in one or two dimensions?

    Our leadership elite - as parents and policy makers - have been lulled into believing that wiring our kids at earlier and earlier ages is somehow good for the kids and for the country. We need to shock them into seeing this brainwashing for what it is. I look forward to the day when parents will be outraged rather than impressed when schools tell them they want to expose their children to computers and other tools that limit young imaginations rather than fostering them. Our kids will have more than enough time to become bored and jaded by the "real world" of corporate America. Why expose them to it any earlier than necessary?

    Disclosure: No positions

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  • anarchist
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    OMG, I wish I had written this, thanks Steven.
    It is hard to keep your kids away from 'the screen'. I have never had a television in my house nor did I buy my kids computers, cell phones or any of the other electronic gadgets. They instead went to any of their friends houses and found them, used them and I was a 'horrible father for not buying them at least cell phone 'to stay in touch'. In fact my son stole electronic games and hid them in his room.
    9 Sep 2012, 08:04 PM Reply Like
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