Have you ever seen the future? I once did. Not just in a vision, dream or in my imagination, but in a real, actual experience.
We love visions of the future. After reviewing the past year we begin predicting what we can expect to see in the coming year, predictions which no one ever bothers to verify once the next year passes.
My vision, however, came true.
It was in January 1979. I was a primary school teacher in New Jersey. Christmas holiday break was over and classes resumed. It was the dead of winter, and bitterly cold. Snow and ice covered the playground which meant that our students had to remain indoors for their play times and lunch breaks. We teachers were free to leave our rooms for lunch, while monitors – usually volunteers from the local community- did their best to watch over the kids and keep them in line. These indoor play times always ended up very rowdy. Being cooped up in a stuffy classroom with the same boring indoor games to play, or just books to read, sometimes for days on end, was hard on everyone. The kids really needed to get outside to kick a ball, run around and breathe fresh air.
I dreaded returning to the classroom after the lunch break because the noise level was that of a mild riot. The monitors were relieved to have survived another indoor playtime while it was up to the teachers to settle the kids down and get back to work. But that first day back after the Christmas break was different.
I returned to the room and found it deathly quiet. Not a peep from a single kid, just an unfamiliar beep¹ every now and then. All the kids were huddled around one student, sitting at his desk. His head was bent over and his eyes were fixed on whatever he was holding. I could see his thumbs move every now and then, almost like an old telegraph operator sending a message in Morse code. I didn¹t have to settle the kids down. They barely noticed me.
I edged closer to the students and looked over their shoulders to see what was in the boy¹s hands. It was a rectangular plastic box, with a very small display screen and simple buttons which controlled a little red blip on the screen. The boy could move the blip up and down, left and right and score points by advancing it from one side of the screen to the other using only his thumbs to push the buttons. It was Mattel’s ³Football², one of the very first hand held electronic games. There were no graphics, no other sounds- just the red blip, the occasional beep of success, and 25 mesmerized students. It is a vision which I recall with absolute clarity today.
This was before home computers, before laptops, before the Internet, all of which I couldn¹t conceive of. It was just one child playing an electronic game by himself, utterly engrossed, as were the kids watching. I was certain that in the not too distant future they wouldn¹t have to watch- they would each have their own similar games.
It would quickly evolve- there would soon be Nintendo; Pac Man; then games with improved graphics on computers and laptops; smartphone games and interactive games played over the Internet with total strangers. These various improvements¹ wouldn¹t quite spell the end of traditional games like Monopoly, draughts or chess, but they¹d certainly revolutionize the entire concept of games- and more.
The future I had seen inevitably became reality, but I am not sure that it is an improvement on the past.
Fast forward to today and look at what those students¹ own children now have in their hands: Barbie dolls connected to the Internet, robotic pets; Play stations. We have children who, it is claimed, cannot concentrate on a single task for long. There are increasing rates of childhood obesity. Kids can score goals using only their thumbs on a tablet, but struggle to run up and down the footy field. They, like us, are locked in a continual and futile race to have the most up to date gadget, their eyes locked on a screen. And we don¹t even know how so much screen time is affecting kids¹ brains and development.
I am not a technophobe. I embrace and use technology like most of us do. I don¹t believe those were the good old days¹, but there is something discomforting about the future I saw back in 1979, now our present, a vision of solitary, silent, sedentary kids- and adults- fixated on screens.
I wonder: what do the next 37 years have in store?
What do you think?
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