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Thursday, 24 May 2012

Life in the Twenty-First Century

I’ve been thinking a lot about life in the 21st century and what it entails. If, as I do, you live in places like Manhattan and Singapore, you have a particularly unique insight into what the 21st century requires because these places have leapt into the 21st century without glancing backwards. In contrast, when I visit Chennai, the city of my birth and childhood, I feel as though I’m travelling back in time to the more laid-back 20th century.  (Every time I return to Singapore from Chennai, my husband cheerfully welcomes me back to the 21st century.) But here, in Singapore, where the 21st century is in full swing, the rapid pace of global change and the accompanying excitement and anxiety are palpable.

So, to begin with, what’s life like in the 21st century? Here's a quick glimpse into our 21st century lives:

My husband, my kids and I are vacationing in idyllic Bali. We’re driving up from Ubud to Taro, to visit the elephant park and take an elephant safari. As we drive, we pass beautiful paddy fields and old (but live) temples. We’re driving through a landscape that is still entrenched in the peaceful and slow-paced 20th century and hasn’t caught up with the frenetic 21st century.
However, in our car, we’re firmly implanted in the 21st century. My husband, an investment banker, is on a conference call with his team. The associates, analysts, and other bankers he is talking to are based in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Jakarta, and together they’re working on a deal with an Indonesian client.  He’s fully engrossed in this call, oblivious of the beautiful scenery outside our window. In order to keep our two kids quiet so that he can concentrate on his work, he gave them an i-pad, and they are busy watching you-tube videos of American shows (Arthur and Dora).  They, too, are oblivious of the lush green paddy fields and the beautiful Balinese-Hindu temples along the way. I look out the window and envy the families I see on the way; their lives seem so peaceful and natural, unencumbered by all this technology. 

I teach at a school that has embraced the 21st century without a backward glance. While I admire all that this school is doing, it often fills me with a deep anxiety and a sense of physical dread. In many ways, I feel as though my profession (English teaching) is becoming redundant and obsolete. Do kids really need to read books and write essays in the 21st century? I sometimes wonder if everything I’m teaching my students is really a waste of time. 

A little explanatory anecdote: I was talking to my sister yesterday. She’s starting a web-based company and is busy getting it set up. She has hired a number of photographers and copywriters for her company. The catch, however, is that the photographers, who are mostly self-taught, are getting paid $200(US) an hour, but the copy-writers, who have degrees from top universities and write really well, get paid only $12 to $15 (US) per hour.  The photographers are in big demand; they’re harder to find. The copywriters, on the other hand, are a dime-a-dozen. She got 10 responses to her ad for copywriters on Craiglist within the first hour.  It’s the images that count in today’s world. The words are peripheral, and no-one really values them anymore. 

Does written language count at all in a world dominated by visual imagery and technology? Am I wasting my time trying to teach students to write well and to analyze the effects of words and literary devices? Wouldn’t they be better off in a photography course? I think English teachers are going to be like Latin or Sanskrit teachers soon – an interesting bunch of people, who teach a largely useless subject. Of course, to counter this, the school I work at is trying very hard to introduce more media-related elements to our English courses. We’ve got to incorporate technology into all our lessons and have our kids analyze movies and images instead of just books. What happens then, to teachers like me, who just absolutely love books?

So, I’ve been thinking about what cuts it in the 21st century, both as a parent and a teacher. Kids have got to be trained to be visual and spatial. Forget books and words; think images and electronics.

What should you encourage if you really want your child to be employable and successful in the 21st century? Technology, technology, and more technology.
Fields that have always been science and technology driven (STEM) will continue to be lucrative and important. But the big news now is that even fields like the arts are all tech driven. Every field is going digital – there’s digital art, digital music, digital storytelling (movies, you-tube videos etc). Just learning an old-fashioned art form isn’t going to get you very far. A friend of mine who runs a gallery in Chennai (where they are still painting on canvases in good old 20th century ways) said that globally, all the cutting-edge artists, are incorporating technology into their work. The art world is changing too.  And, of course, writing has to be technological as well – online newspapers and magazines, e-books, movies, videos, advertising – all our writing will have a technological component. Most of my friends have moved from paper-based books to electronic books. It’s just where the world is going.

So parents, if the goal is survival and success in the heartless and frenetic 21st century, don’t bother with books. Don’t spend hours reading to your kids. Sign them up for photography classes and enroll them in i-camps where they can design video games and make movies. Let them spend more time in front of those screens so that they train their visual skills and begin to notice what happens in a picture or image. Buy them more video games and let them loose in this visual age.

What’s going to happen to people in the 21st century? As their minds are deluged by an onslaught of information and visual images, and they’re never given breaks from work and socializing (you’ve got to respond immediately to texts, emails, facebook messages etc. no matter where you are or what you’re doing), people are going to become increasingly stressed, anxious, and hyper.  So, for those low-tech people who can’t keep up with the rapid pace of technological change, there is a field that will grow: nurturing and healing the technology-afflicted.  They’ll need more massages, more yoga, and more counseling than any previous generation. They are human, after all, and they do have physical bodies and emotions to consider. A virtual massage probably won’t do the job (who knows though? Maybe in the next 20 years?). They will probably still want to feel someone’s physical hands on their backs and necks. On-line counseling? Could happen, but I suspect that human healing will work best when it’s face-to-face.  High tech people will need some low-tech/high-touch healing.

So those are my thoughts on the 21st century. I’m clearly not cut out for it, and as a result, I’m seriously contemplating leaving Singapore and moving to Chennai, where I was born. Then I can continue to live in the good old 20th century.

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