My son asked me the other day to help him come up with a real catastrophe --- something terrifying on a global scale, like a giant asteroid impact or a virulent new plague.
"What if," I said, "the next generation comes along and is half as productive as this one?"
That wasn't the dramatic visual scenario that he wanted (no fireballs, for one thing) but it's pretty scary nonetheless, and maybe a genuine societal crisis-in-the-making is currently taking shape along those lines. Look, for instance, at all the time spent in front of the TV set (or computer monitor) by scions of well-to-do parents --- in lieu of reading and thinking. Look at the kids from poor families who never get a chance to learn. Look at all the "boomerang children" in their twenties (and thirties, and ...) who keep coming back home to live with their parents. And look at the crass foolishness that dominates entertainment, and politics, and "The News".
The New York Times business section not long ago (27 July 2001) carried excerpts from an interview with some semi-famous dot-com CEO types. Most of the talk was on ephemeral subjects (e.g., techno-hype, marketing, and money-making) and doubtless will seem quaint enough in a few years. But at one or two points somebody tried to talk about a significant issue. Judith Estrin noted, for instance:
"Some of it is cultural, and I think that the last couple of years made it worse because you had a whole generation of people thinking that you don't need to go to college to succeed.
"And so the notion of a computer scientist and a programmer blurred, and there is a difference. And so we have a whole generation of people who think putting up a Web site is being a computer scientist. I have nothing against people who program well, but there are different talents."
Well said. Some things are learned easily and quickly; others take thought and hard work. Not everybody has to attack the toughest problems. But if half as many people in a generation choose to take the challenging road, progress will slow, maybe even stop ... and a culture dependent on exponential knowledge growth will have to face a hard landing.