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Going the way of the communications dinosaur
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Forsyth County News
In one sense I am a dinosaur! At least I know what it must have been like to be one, seeing the world change around you in ways that are leaving you behind. In this case the threat comes not from a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. Instead, it’s the way we receive and deal with information.

For me, the thing all started a number of years ago when I noticed that it was getting harder and harder to read the telephone book. After a trip to my ophthalmologist, I discovered that it wasn’t my eyes. To cut costs, the telephone companies had reduced the size of the print.

Today, use of a telephone directory requires the purchase of an electron microscope. I fully expect the next one delivered to reflect the ultimate in economic conservation -- it will be inscribed on a grain of rice. Perhaps that’s one reason why cell phones have become so popular with their number capture and speed dialing capabilities.

What about “utility.” It seems to be an exercise in form. As long as the data is provided, it doesn’t matter if it is really accessible. Even the most sacred of American institutions has succumbed. For “economic reasons” newspapers have reduced the size of comic strips by half, making it almost impossible to decipher the humor intended.

Several years ago, I subscribed to a computer magazine that was the rage, particularly with young people. I thought I’d “get with it.” After a year, I faced a choice -- continue my subscription or face a mental breakdown. I’d open each magazine with fear and trepidation, being barraged by a hodgepodge of articles, placed in various orientations on the pages and printed in such a way that the background and foreground colors made it almost impossible to decipher one from the other. What was wrong with me? After another trip to the oculist assured me that it was not disintegration of either the optic nerve or the related brain cells, I realized that my problem was better defined in terms of the generation gap.

The magazine couldn’t survive. But not only did it survive -- it set the standard. To see the concept in visual form, just look at today’s movie trailers. Try to find one that tells you what the movie is all about. Today’s ideal consists of a series of 1.3-second snippets (just barely enough time for your eyes to start to focus) that are designed to depict action, regardless of whether or not the movie contains any action sequences.

Dinosauric DNA carried a logical communicative gene that is easily illustrated when applied to writing skills. When writing a newspaper article, the title tells you what it is about, the first paragraph gives you the key elements, and the rest is elaboration. That gene seems to be lost. Today, the trick is to make everything read like a who-done-it. You don’t find out what the story is all about until you reach the last paragraph -- and maybe not even then.

Newspapers and magazines (yes, even staid old BusinessWeek has gone the way) now seem to say as little as possible about as much as possible -- it’s the new way. (Is it any wonder why many young people have given up on reading?)

A jig-saw puzzle presents a good analogy. The dinosaur is content when the pieces have been arranged into a coherent pattern. The young modernist is content if the box contains all the pieces, and perhaps more. Put enough links into a computer article, and the flow is not important. And jumping from one topic to another is for some both “fun” and challenging.

There seems to be a disconnect between those who write and those who read. Logic leads me to suspect that those who do the former do not (or cannot) do the latter.

Today’s mantra seems to be “more is better.” Yesterday, watching Wimbledon, I saw an ad for a new TV service that will allow you to watch six separate TV broadcasts simultaneously. Wow! You can see what is going on on six courts at one time. Great if you are a six-eyed hexo-eyepotomus, but for us two-eyed dinosaurs, no way. And unless you have a 500-inch screen, I defy anyone to watch the flight of one ball, let alone six. But who cares. With six what you are watching really isn’t important. It’s the process and the “bragging rights,” not the substance.

Study after study shows that multi-tasking is the most inefficient way to get things done. In most cases, doing things sequentially leads to better results in less time. Yet multi-tasking is the rage. Again, more is better. But perhaps that’s why dinosaurs become extinct. We can’t keep up. What’s worse, in my case, I don’t think I want to.

We are enamored with technology. Almost as soon as a new technology is introduced, and before it can be de-bugged and perfected, a new technology is ready to replace it. We keep jumping from one half-baked technology to another, often with total lack of understanding of the second and third order effects. Young minds are enormously flexible and capable not only of making the shifts, but also investing the time to become proficient in the latest. We dinosaurs are locked into the past, lumbering “forward,” usually unwittingly, only when manufacturers wipe out the last vestiges of the old technology and force us to move on.

The cell phone is one of these wonders that has transformed modern life. The latest models now do almost everything, short of washing the dishes and walking the dog. They have become magnets to attract money as add-on services (again, particularly for youngsters) greatly enhance fees. U.S. News and World Report indicates a major impact on “improving” educational “results,”  as one out of three teenagers has used them to obtain test-score answers.

And reverting to multi-tasking, the National Safety Council cautions about the distraction of talking on cell phones while driving -- and it’s not just the use of hands. It’s the lack of concentration on what is taking place on the road. And as for texting while driving, your chances of being in an accident are six times higher than if you are while driving intoxicated. But we live in a “connected world.” Think what would happen if we were not reachable every waking hour, or we could not find out what breakfast cereal our favorite friend or movie star ate this morning?

Again, many studies confirm the fact that, beyond a modest time period (two hours or less), the more time children spend in front of a screen (computer, computer-game, TV, smartphone), the less likely social skills will fully develop. A recent book, “What the Internet is Doing to our Brains,” concludes that it is negatively affecting memory, reducing attention spans and lowering reader comprehension. Even more dire are the implications for human interaction, as distractions reduce the ability for people to feel “empathy, compassion and emotion.” The Ball State University study upon which this book was based estimates that Americans currently spend 8.5 hours a day in front of a screen.

Yes, I am a modern communications dinosaur. My credentials are impeccable. I don’t text and I don’t have accounts with Facebook or Myspace. I do have a cell phone, but normally when I carry it, my wife, Beverly, has to remind me to turn it on. (And if it is on, I am always startled when it rings). And finally, I like to spend time leisurely reading a good book or article without the pressure to get through as many “items” as I can.

What does this all mean? I wish I knew. Obviously, much of this is written “tongue in cheek,” but I can’t help wondering what challenges my grandchildren will face when they reach my stage in life and find that they too are becoming dinosaurs.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at melcopen@hotmail.com.