School wake up call: John Henry and the iPod

Posted: Sunday, October 18, 2009

Remember John Henry, that American folk hero who stood up to the steam drill with nothing but his hammer? The old song tells us how he drove steel until his heart gave out and he "laid down his hammer and died, Lord, Lord."

Some days I feel for John Henry. I know exactly what he was thinking. The new technology came along, in the form of the steam drill, and old John couldn't handle it. Bewildered, he flailed around with his hammer, trying to prove that the old ways could still hold their own in the face of progress. Rather like a mom clinging to the stereo in the face of the iPod invasion.

Now I'm not a complete technophobe. I can write on the computer, send e-mail, watch YouTube videos, read the news and even listen to iTunes. And that's pretty much all. I see no need for an iPod. My kids disagree.

With an iPod Touch, my kids tell me, you have the world at your fingertips. You can listen to your music, headphones on to block out all external noise (such as parental conversation, also known as nagging). You can access the Internet. You can watch movies, go on Google Earth, check your e-mail and text your friends. You can even play the game Maze, where you roll the little ball around until it falls into the holes. You know, that game you used to get free from the dentist after a good checkup. For a bit less than $300, it's yours. And the iPod will transport you into a world all your own - a digitized world of music and entertainment uninterrupted by parents, siblings or even friends. Call it the New Isolationism.

Technological proliferation has certainly changed how we relate to one another. I recall one Christmas Eve when the power went out. My brothers and sister and I were all in our separate rooms, listening to our stereos and wrapping presents. Suddenly the lights went out, the music went off, and there was nothing to do but gather together to play flashlight tag and tell ghost stories. It was great fun. Then the lights came back on, we drifted off to our separate activities, and that was that.

Picture such a scene today - it's not hard. An eagle lands on a wire, and the power goes out. You can't watch TV or go on the computer. But iPods run on batteries, so everyone can continue their solitary pursuits. There's no need to gather together for entertainment. Heck, you might not even notice that the lights went out at all.

Speaking of darkness, when was the last time you experienced true darkness? As a kid in the 1970's, I visited Mammoth Cave. During the tour, the guide turned off the lights. It was so dark that you really couldn't see the hand in front of your face. It was as dark as a cave.

This past summer, we took the kids to Mammoth Cave. The guide turned off the lights, but it didn't get totally dark. Half the group had cell phones or iPods or even watches that illuminated much of the cavern. Spoilsports!

And when was the last time you wrote a letter to a friend and sent it through the mail? Eons ago? E-mail has taken over, and the art of letter-writing is dead. The sad part is, nobody wants to read a long e-mail. Write a paragraph longer than three sentences in an e-mail, and you can guarantee that no one will read it - not even me.

So what's to be done? Do we swing our hammers like John Henry until we break our hearts trying to beat back the relentless advance of technology? Or do we embrace the steam drill and the iPod and try not to mourn life's little pleasures that technology has swept away? Or maybe we just turn into cantankerous old farts carrying on about how "Back in my day, if you wanted to listen to music you put a record on the turntable and just hoped your mom didn't make you turn it down."

We'd better watch out, though - the kids might think we grew up with John Henry.

• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother and aspiring children's author who lives in Juneau. She likes to look at the bright side of life.

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