I take a certain pride in having kept up with the world. I may brag a little that much of my recent life has been built around the ability to be in contact with people electronically, to do various kinds of research via the Internet, and to play with PhotoShop. There are times, however, when I know how cutting edge I’m not. Part of it has to do with a realization of how much society has changed since I was a young girl. Here are two examples. There was a story that made the rounds a few decades ago that left people puzzled. A teenager was en route to a sporting event with his father when they were in a terrible accident. When the ambulance arrived at the hospital the boy, who’d been gravely injured, was in need of immediate surgery. The on-call surgeon looked at him and said, “I can’t operate. He’s my son.”
This story generally left people mystified. The idea that a woman might be a surgeon—the boy’s mother rather than father—was such a foreign notion that it simply didn’t occur to anyone. They reached for wild explanations or theories instead.
The other example is also a story. A young woman was about to be married. As she and her maid of honor were doing their final makeup and gown checks in the bride’s room, the bride told her friend she’d had a miserable night full of terrible dreams in which, when she got to the altar and the priest asked if her fiancé would take her as his wife, he’d said no.
“What an awful dream,” her friend said. “What did you do?”
The bride’s answer–it was the early 80’s–caused surprised hoots of laughter from people who heard the story: “I woke him up and told him he’d better marry me,” she said.
If you don’t recognize why people laughed at that response, you’re probably a good deal younger than I am. Cultural norms have changed radically in my lifetime. Just having lived at a time when I understood what was behind the reactions to both of those stories means I’ve had to think about things in new ways. That means I don’t start from a point where many currently accepted ideas have always been a given, which also means that, just as a matter of maximum lifetime mental flexibility, I probably have less remaining ability to change my attitudes than someone who’s always assumed surgeons can be female and engaged couples co-habit.
Another wedding—a recent one—made me understand how different the general social outlook is for people in their twenties today. It was both an elegant and informal occasion. The music was rock tunes played by a string quartet; the bride’s three brothers, dressed in suits, were listed as bridesmaids; the groom surprised the bride with a family serenade that was a reprise of a television show’s finale. I was charmed. I also felt I’d gained an insight into what feels comfortable for today’s couples embarking on marriage—an easiness with mixed gender roles, a willingness to embrace fresh approaches to music, a ready integration of media into life.
I recognize all of that as a way the world has moved on yet again, but I want to pick up on the media piece. While I started this entry talking about my embrace of much in the digital age, I have realized that the world is leaving me behind in many ways. The Facebook and Twitter spheres are essentially foreign to me, partly because I don’t have enough time to add them to my life, but also because they don’t feel like me. The sensibility is different. I’m more about selective sharing. I’m also a person who is more focused on content than what might be called delivery. For instance, as much as I love the opportunities this website has given me for connecting with people and as much fun as I’ve had incorporating photographs and other visual elements, I’m at sea when it comes to the sorts of things the Atlantic Tech Channel’s Alexis Madrigal talked about in a recent interview. What is “smart empathy”? What is “augmented reality”? If I learn what they are, should I expect to include them in my life? And how concerned should I be that, as Madrigal says, “We live in a time when many technologies are developed by very powerful corporate and government entities that may limit people’s freedom to live their lives the way they want to”?
Another recent article raised an analagous question for me. It was a discussion by Siva Vaidhyanathan, a University of Virginia faculty member, on the surprise firing of university president Teresa Sullivan (now reinstated) for something to do with her not adopting a business theory of “strategic dynamism” favored by board members from the corporate world. (There were also underlying issues of the financing of education and what the values of educational institutions should be in an era when that has become a matter of some controversy.) I found myself wishfully agreeing with Vaidhyanathan’s conclusions in his last paragraph: “Universities do not have ‘business models’ … [but are a] tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital.”
No matter how the world changes, I hope it will always retain a recognition of this important complexity. But then, as I’ve said, I’m a content person—accent on the first syllable.