Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Price of Complexity

A young friend and I often get into an argument about 1960-1980 rock & roll bands. He's a Led Zep fanatic. I liked the Who and was bored with most of the Zep's output. Partially, it's a matter of taste. Partially, it's a matter of perspective. Mostly, it's something for us to talk about when we're bored. However, yesterday's argument about "kids' music" produced something new for me.

He really objected to the idea that R&R is kids' music because, according to him, a lot older people are getting into the music and sticking with it longer. Cute, don't you think? I don't know how any 20-something can claim his generation is sticking with R&R longer than his parents' generation who are, apparently, going to go to their graves listening to the same crap they listened to when they were 19. Even worse, we're going to go down the tubes making our kids listen to that crap. Try to find a radio station that isn't playing 30-year-old R&R. Good luck.

That's not the point of this rant, though. The point is that, about half-way into our usual routine, I realized that 25 (or 30) is the new 15-19. This morning, I realized why.

A significant portion of our culture is dedicated to convincing its children to stay children long past puberty, long past the normal age of separation, mating, and starting a family, and well beyond when any traditional human would be a good way into adulthood. No, it's not because we live so much longer.

Steve Wozniak was 26 and an accomplished, employed (by HP) engineer when he started Apple, Inc. with his 21-year-old friend (at the time) Steve Jobs (who was still living in his parent's home). Jobs was (and may still be) the posterboy for the youth culture, but Wozniak was a more traditional young adult. [As a side-note, Jobs engineering-background claim-to-fame came when he conned Wozniak into doing a design job he'd been hired to do for Atari, split the bonus with Wozniak, and claimed he was a "real engineer" for doing the job. Sales as design, I guess.] Bill Gates (15) and Paul Allen (17) started their first commercial computer programming venture writing code for traffic control systems and moved to New Mexico five years later to start Microsoft. Eric Buell was a full-time engineering student and motorcycle mechanic in his early 20's. Greg Mackie was 17 when he began his career as an engineer and started his first audio products company. Sure, this short list if overstuffed with non-typical successes, but the list of young adults making their way before they are middle-aged goes on for millions of Boomers. Go back another generation and you're looking at a majority of young men who were out their parent's door and on their own in their teens. Today, it appears to be rare to find a young person who can live independently before 30 (or 40).

I work for a school that jammed with 20-something kids who are no closer to being self-supporting than they were when they were 10. They are "pursuing their dream" of collecting student loans and parental rent payments without a clue as to how they are going to begin life as an adult. Daniel Quinn, in his book Ishmael, described our child-adult extended education system as a glorified babysitting service that exists to keep the young out of the workplace as long as possible, because they are unnecessary. There are more than enough unemployed and underemployed adults in the que, without adding to that waiting list by releasing young adults into the workplace competition at the time in their lives when they are more than capable of competing for jobs. So, we convince kids they need a college education so they will be able to manage a coffee shop or a big box store department of 10 menial-labor employees, sell cars or stocks, or even do entry-level work as an engineer. Hell, Wozniak got his EECU degree from UC Berkeley in 1986, more than 10 years after he founded Apple, Inc. His biggest academic difficulty was refraining himself from correcting his professors when what they taught was either wrong or obsolete.

Finally, to the point of this rant, one reason that kids stay kids well beyond reasonable expectations is that our culture has become over-complicated. No 20-year-old is likely to start a computer company today, even if 20-year-olds are able to understand the hardware or software as thoroughly as did Wozniak or Jobs. Computer systems are so much more complex than they were in 1976 that building them from a garage is a ridiculous proposition. John Britten and Eric Buell's early success as motorcycle builders suggests that driven and radically talented young men can do some astounding things in this area. Buell's recent situation may pour a little water on that fire, though. Areas where a young person can feel like there is new ground to be broken and where the necessary tools and technology are not overwhelming are few and, for me, unimaginably far between. Maybe that's always been true, but I doubt it.

Maybe the real problem is that our education system is pointing itself too high on the cultural totem pole. Since the purpose in education is to prepare kids to become adults, our system is working hard to produce employees for jobs that probably won't exist by the time a kid is ready to find work. To quote Daniel Quinn's proposed evaluation of one portion of our 3 R's education system, "Two classes of 30 kids, taught identically and given the identical text materials throughout their school experience, but one class is given no instruction in reading at all and the other is given the usual instruction. Call it the Quinn Conjecture: both classes will test the same on reading skills at the end of twelve years. I feel safe in making this conjecture because ultimately kids learn to read the same way they learn to speak, by hanging around people who read and by wanting to be able to do what these people do."

That is a self-defeating purpose for a system that pretends to be useful. If kids are going to learn to read and write and use mathematics on their own, or not, because it is a useful and necessary tool, teaching these things is bound to be frustrating and disappointing. And it is.

Not being satisfied to criticise, but stuck with an irritating tendency to look for a solution, Quinn continued his speculation with, "It occurred to me at this time to ask this question: Instead of spending two or three years teaching children things they will inevitably learn anyway, why not teach them some things they will not inevitably learn and that they would actually enjoy learning at this age? How to navigate by the stars, for example. How to tan a hide. How to distinguish edible foods from inedible foods. How to build a shelter from scratch. How to make tools from scratch. How to make a canoe. How to track animals--all the forgotten but still valuable skills that our civilization is actually built on."

Even more to the point, K-12 school classes that include tool building and use would be equally valuable. Those shop or auto mechanics classes that we Boomers often ridiculed as being "trade school" education values are exactly the kinds of skills that modern kids lack. They are also the source of inspiration and competence for anyone who is inclined to want to build something. Those of us who suffered the tradesman's discipline in shop class also learned to respect tools and the things they can accomplish, even if we sucked at using the tools as apprentice/students. One or two generations earlier than my own, an apprentice might be whipped for breaking a valuable tool, we got off easy with a few swats from a well-designed paddle. The paddle my shop instructor threatened to use was made from local maple and was drilled to reduce wind resistance. I don't remember seeing it used, but it is still in my mind's eye hanging from the instructor's office wall. If I ever need one, I know how to build it.

My first technical jobs were nothing more than apprentice positions that only paid a living wage if I was willing to work 70-80 hours a week. My later engineering classes were a poor substitute for the education I received in my first 4 years as a working technician. Disconnected theory is way less useful than practically applied reason and experience. My first technical employer was a god of reason and experience and self-education. He expected the same from me.

Music and audio products are a terrific opportunity for the kind of cultural education that Quinn is talking about. Audio design incorporates a lot that is found in modern technology and that interests kids--electronics, computer science, mechanics, transducers, physics, & music--and they are small, reasonably cost effective, and accessible. Maybe we ought to be encouraging our schools to dump their science programs and take up recording and live audio engineering programs? Kids who know how things work, how to build things, and how to use them are economic weapons against cultural obsolescence.

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Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.