Decades ago, computers were massive machines that had to be stored in big air-conditioned vaults and were run by balding guys with too-tight pants, short-sleeve dress shirts and pocket protectors. Computers had lots of blinking lights and featured cool reel-to-reel tapes that would start spinning for no reason, but they were really just huge adding machines. You could ask any question you wanted, but the answer always came out as a number because computers, while they beeped a lot, couldn't talk.
Then, when computers got sophisticated enough, the nerdy scientists who invented them (who, let's face it, were probably not very good at talking to others, either) decided to let computers call each other up to exchange information. This was the first step in a scientific revolution, an electronic arms race, where every year computers got faster and smarter and communicated more and more with their counterparts around the world. Billions of dollars went into creating a massive network that spans the globe, a quadtrillion bytes being transmitted every five seconds. The result of all this technology and innovation can be boiled down to one crowning achievement -- stupider people.
I'm betting you didn't read a novel this past week, did you? "Fifty Shades of Grey" doesn't count, ladies. (Also, if you're going to read that, do it at home. When you eagerly page through that book on a bench at lunch while you chew your bologna sandwich, it just makes everyone uncomfortable.)
An academic textbook? (Kids, don't even start. You just skimmed and we know it.) Anybody out there read a poem? (Please. You don't even own a book of poetry, do you?) But I'm betting you read this week all about the 70-year-old farmer in Oregon who was eaten by his own hogs. He went out to feed them and later that day, when family members looked for him, they found only a couple of little scraps and his dentures. This was not a useful piece of information for most of us. While I did not realize that hogs will eat farmers (but spit out the dentures) it's unlikely that reading that story will make me any smarter.
I bet you haven't been to the ballet. You don't know a single ballroom dance you could do with your spouse. But thanks to the Internet, it's pretty likely that you now know all about Gangnam-style dancing, popularized by South Korean rapper Psy. Psy can't dance, and can't sing or rap either, and the song is terrible. (Even folks in South Korea are kind of embarrassed.) Nevertheless, it seems that half of America has dropped everything to shoot homemade videos of themselves dancing to this song. The other half of our population have held back, but only because they're taking a break after producing videos of themselves lip-syncing to "Call Me Maybe."
The fact is with every step forward that computers make, people take one cognitive step back. I'm not blaming you for being stupid. You really can't help it. Your brain is being fed a diet of mental junk food. With every little byte of stupid information we cram into our heads, we have less space in our memory banks for anything that will help us advance as a civilization.
And just to make sure that we don't get any thinking in when we're away from our computers, they invented smart phones,so you can access pointless information while you walk down the street. All those folks you see at lunch walking down the street while staring intently at their smart phones? They're not reading "War and Peace." They're checking Facebook or tweeting some stupid remark. Many of them are playing "Angry Birds."
Some of them will be hit by a bus, something Darwin called "natural selection." (By the way, if Darwin had the Internet, evolution would just be something people wrote when the "r" key got stuck on their computers. Einstein would probably be too busy contacting relatives on Facebook to even think about relativity.)
But to be fair, you probably know all about the big face-off last week on stage between two powerful combatants. If you're nodding and thinking about the presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney, then please advance to the next level. If you immediately thought of the dust-up between Nicky Minaj and Mariah Carey, please get out your cell phone and take a walk Downtown while playing Angry Birds.
Homemaking is a column about the people, projects and pride that make a house a home. Peter McKay, a Ben Avon resident, is a nationally syndicated columnist with Creators Syndicate. To see past columns, go to www.post-gazette.com. Contact him at www.peter-mckay.com.