Yes, I will gladly teach you again

I’m sorry for my selfish impatience

Mom: “[insert technological challenge]”
Me: “I just taught you how to do this yesterday!”
Mom: “I forgot. Can you just teach me one more time?”
Me: “Gah! What am I, free tech support?”

Over the past two weeks I have come to see this exchange with new eyes.

The idea that you can’t teach an old new tricks isn’t new. The human brain can be programmed more easily and the body is more adaptable to training at a young age. But that doesn’t explain the phenomenon of ten year olds teaching their parents how to operate highly sophisticated machines. My mom wasn’t teaching her dad how to use a TV remote, or a source of intuitive knowledge when he was learning SQL.

Remember that scene in Steve Jobs where Michael Fassbender sits Lisa (his daughter) down in front of the Lisa (the computer) and she immediately gets it? Maybe not, cause apparently barely anybody saw the movie. But the point is she gets it. This powerful amalgamation of circuits and code instantly makes sense to a seven year old. That moment is remarkable because it marks the beginning of a very new era with no precedent in the old dogs’ lifetime, or even the history of all the dead dogs. The explanatory power of the “old dog, new tricks” adage was no longer satisfactory.

Jump forward a few decades and the US is reeling from a crazy election. Everyone is trying to explain what just happened. Of course, there are a ton of distinct factors involved. But Jed Kolko of FiveThirtyEight draws out one critical factor:

“Trump beat Clinton in counties where more jobs are risk because of technology or globalization. Specifically, counties with the most ‘routine’ jobs — those in manufacturing, sales, clerical work and related occupations that are easier to automate or send offshore — were far more likely to vote for Trump. […] Trump’s appeal was strongest in places where people are most concerned about what the future will mean for their jobs, even if those aren’t the places where economic conditions are worst today.”

This fact strengthens the argument made by Ben Thompson of Stratechery the day after the election in his stinging critique of the tech industry:

“the entire idea [of the tech industry] is to build scalable processes that massively increase efficiency and disrupt old-world businesses by making it up in volume. Where we have failed miserably as an industry is coming up with solutions for — or, to be more precise, giving the slightest hint of a damn about — the individuals lost along the way.”

I would extend this critique to another group: millennials. The results of this election paint a picture of not just a cultural divide, but a split between those who have benefited from rapid technological advancement and those whose livelihoods are threatened by it.

This is where I go back to that exchange with my mom, and those countless times my dad joked in frustration about “nuking it all and going back to a time when phones and computers didn’t exist.” All those times I refused to help, or did so resentfully, I wasn’t just failing to show appreciation to them for creating and raising me. I was declaring resolutely “if you can’t keep up, you have no place in this new world we’re building.”

Suddenly, I feel overwhelmed with responsibility and a recognition of the extraordinary times we’re living in. The internet is more disruptive than anything the Industrial Revolution produced, and remember what happened in Europe during that period? There’s a lot we need to do to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself. For me, that starts with being a bit more loving — more appreciative of how unprecedented this time is, of the uneven distribution of the benefits that have accompanied it, and of how unprepared we all are for the challenges we face.

I’m sorry mom. I’m here to help.