My Grandpa has these! Sigh.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


20 Thoughts on "You Are Old: Kids React to a Walkman"

We who are old, oh so old, thousands of years if all be told. Is anything better, anything better? Tell us it then.

Yeats (from old memory so perhaps not perfect)

Thanks to the miracle of communication each of us is thousands of years old.

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

― Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

I think I missed a point along the way someplace. Anyone older than ~5, handed anything they haven’t seen before, regardless of the era of the invention, will do approx. This same thing. Cognitive psychologists (who seem to enjoy giving obvious behaviors obvious names) gave this obvious behavior the obvious name of “instuctionless learning”, and have described it quite thoroughly. I don’t see why this should make anyone feel old. Kids or adults would do the exact same thing with petty much anything they were handed that they hadn’t seen before.

It seems a perfectly normal phenomenon when it happens to someone else. When it’s a part of your own youth, it means the sky is falling.

As a cognitive scientist I feel somewhat insulted. Naming and explaining are two very different things. Everyone knew that apples fell off of trees but Newton did a bit more with that, as it were. By the same token, understanding human behavior is not trivial.

As a cognitive scientist I feel somewhat insulted that as a cognitive scientists you feel somewhat insulted. (But seriously, I didn’t say that we ONLY gave obvious names to obvious phenomena. Indeed, I did mention that we also have described, if not explained, it quite thoroughly. Truth in advertising I’m the cognitive scientist who named this particular phenomenon, and did the initial describing, and attempt at explaining, so I was just poking fun at myself. But I guess too in a joke isn’t a joke at all. 🙂

Actually, speaking of cognitive scientists and giving obvious names to things, it looks like you and I are nearly siblings. (I beg in advance the moderator’s, and everyone else’s forgiveness for what possibly should be a personal conversation taking place in blog comments. I promise to get to a publicly relevant point soon enough!) We both came from CMU, albeit in different eras, and are both in the roughly the same field, being what one might call the “cognitive science of science”. My jest re obvious names is that I did my work with David Klahr and with Herb Simon, who named (and, of course, studied in great detail, along with Al Newell and many others) “problem solving”.

Now, I promised a contextually-relevant point from all this, and here it is: When I was doing my work in the mid ’80s on Instructionless Learning, which is almost precisely what the kids in this video are doing, we were explicit about it as a model of scientific reasoning. Whether one buys that or not is a different issues, but I wanted to try put this to the test by having “real scientists” try the same thing, in particular, by testing the Nobel Laureate at hand himself, Simon. So I put him “in the lab” (as I recall, it was actually in his office), and lo and behold, he acted pretty much exactly like the kids in this video! Interestingly, the only major difference between non-scientists and scientists engaged in Instructionless learning appeared to be that the scientists eventually asked for a piece of paper, and started taking notes!

I am indeed standing on Simon’s shoulders (although I am not sure I can see over his head). My view is that the so-called scientific method is not a new mode of reasoning, just a very careful case of reasoning about what we see, which is something we all do. (Hence your results.)

Science really began with the discovery of simplicity, as it were. That is, we confirmed the rather preposterous notion that many diverse phenomena obey simple underlying laws. There was no reason why this should have been true and it took a long time to figure out. Plus we got some very helpful math, like analytic geometry (from Descartes) and calculus (from Newton and Leibniz).

Just as with the standard that every generation thinks that the music beloved by the next generation is terrible and that the music from their own generation is far superior, our “old” generation is actually the first one in history where this is actually true.

What? (Seriously, I can’t clearly figure out what you are saying, even though you are clearly saying something clearly.) Which one is our old generation, and which music is actually superior to which?

I believe it was meant as a humorous statement, that all generations think their music is the best and that they’re all wrong, except of course for one’s own generation.

Apparently there is something about this topic that makes it hard to take seriously, much less scientifically. More’s the pity, as it is actually both interesting and important. For example, popular music and social movements are often closely connected. And the times they are a’changing.

Oh, I don’t know. I think it’s okay to poke fun at one’s own self-centeredness and doing so doesn’t detract from serious study of popular culture or technology.

I gave my eight year old son a Walkman and he thought it was a new type of music technology and was really excited. But when i told him it was from the nineties he took it off and threw it to one side lol.

So, in 5 years’ time kids will be saying the same thinsg about CDs and desktop computers… For me, the insight here is that digital ubiquity is stunting part of our development. With mechanical and analogue technologies, you learned how things are designed, made and operate (you could even learned how to fix them yourself!). Can anyone fix their own iPhone? No, because it’s a sealed unit, and you probably break your warranties if you manage to take the back off. Digital is potentially making us dumber through our inability to understand how things work.

I completely disagree. It’s true that you need the right background and tools to understand and repair something, and the thing has to be “openable” in some sense, but I don’t think that there is much difference in these factors between mechanical and digital technologies. I know what’s going on in my iphone, and, yeah, it’s complicated, but if I jail break my phone, which isn’t conceptually different from breaking the warranty seal on a vacuum cleaner to fix it, which I just did yesterday, I can do more or less the same thing. Indeed, the principles aren’t that different, you just need somewhat different tools.

Valid point about warranties on other electrical and mechanical products, but I do think there is something about digital ubiquity that is making us overlook the engineering foundations of mechanical and analogue technologies. Look at how some of the kids in the Walkman video tried to simply touch the object to make it work. My uncle runs a manufacturing operation and is struggling to find new, young employees with mechanical skills. Yes, they have formal qualifications from school, and can probably jailbreak an iPhone, but they can’t perform some manual tasks on the production line because they lack certain fundamental knowledge on how things work.

Not that these aren’t interesting weeds, but they are pretty far from the lawn where we began, so I hesitate to uprise them.

Comments are closed.