“I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”
– Albert Einstein
“When I post a picture on Facebook, I gather about 240 likes and 53 comments in 24 hours. When I post an article on Facebook, I gather 16 likes and five comments in 24 hours. I feel very worried about a society where far too many young people ‘waste’ their time scrolling from one picture to another on Instagram and Facebook than reading newspapers.” This was the content of my Facebook post on Wednesday, December 30, 2015. Quite unexpectedly, the post received tens of incisive comments, over a hundred likes and was shared by a few people.
Over the years, astute observers of the social trend have complained about the dying culture of reading in our country. This situation is worrisome among young people who spend a lot of time on social media than reading books and newspapers. I believe that it was this concern that prompted the immediate past administration of President Goodluck Jonathan to launch the Bring Back the Book (BBB) literary initiative in December 2010.
Sadly, like many other well-meaning national projects, BBB has died. The simple reason is that we have a penchant for ineptitude when it comes to conceiving and executing long-term national projects. Think of all the lofty projects that past governments initiated at different times in the history of this country. Where are they today?
With regard to the book culture, something unpleasant happened a few years ago. In November 2011, barely a year and six months after it opened its Nigeria office, Kalahari, an online bookshop of international repute, announced that it was closing its Nigeria operations due to what it termed “a strategic review of its investment priorities.”
In the notice sent out to customers, Kalahari noted that patronage was very poor and prospects of profitability were slim. It could not survive selling books in Nigeria. Some argued that the problem was that Nigerians had not yet embraced the culture of online shopping in sufficient numbers, but the truth is that Nigerians have a poor reading culture.
The new electronic age has not helped much in this regard. The phenomenal explosion of modern communication gadgets has robbed us of the benefits of social interactions. Many people spend time watching TV, listening to music on iPods, and reading chats on their smart phones rather than spending quality time interacting with family and friends.
It is now common occurrence to see young people engrossed with their smartphones during family meals when they should ordinarily be interacting with those seated at table. This is the basis for the social disruption and alienation that we are now experiencing. Some months ago, Pope Francis, while visiting a parish in Italy told families to learn to have meals together, adding that when at table they should turn off the TV and put away their mobile phones so that they can interact with one another.
Another area where the new gadgets have impacted negatively on our social lives is the loss of our sense of human sensitivity. People no longer have any qualms of conscience today using their smartphones to take photo shots at accident scenes when they should rather rush to help the accident victims. I once saw a cartoon on Facebook some months ago of bystanders at a pool taking their phones out of their pockets and snapping a drowning man!
As Albert Einstein predicted a few decades ago we are already raising “a generation of idiots.” Just look around you? What do you see? People glued to their mobile phones everywhere, whether eating out with friends, sitting in a car, during religious services or even when crossing the road.
A deeper investigation today shows many young people are living with warped values. A lot of young people are driven by the celebrity-mania. They love to live life on the fast lane. They love everything from fast foods to fast cars. They no longer have the patience, self-discipline, persistence and the broad cultivation to train their minds and to open it up to the horizon of wisdom and knowledge. Instead of investing their time and resources in profitable pursuits, they rather spend them on frivolous activities.
This problem has a multifaceted social dimension. We have never really had leaders in Nigeria who can be said to be people of the book. The first time Nigeria got a president who had a university degree was in 2007. Many young Nigerians get the impression that they can become somebody without struggling to be intelligent, smart or brilliant. To them, what matters is the big man you know in the political pyramid of power, the famous “oga at the top.” That is why the Nigerian system thrives on mediocrity and nepotism.
At present, the education sector is comatose. Many years of bad policy, nepotism, and corruption have given rise to a system in reverse gear. We are producing “certificated illiterates” – to borrow the expression of Olusegun Adeniyi – who go on to produce “unemployable graduates.”
It is this vicious cycle that has made millions of university graduates jobless, without the cognitive, analytical and psychosocial tools to connect and collaborate in a globalised work environment. Many of our schools have become citadels of excellence and success without pain, without work, and without toil.
Teachers help students to cut corners and pass their exams. That is why we now have graduates with First Class degrees who cannot express themselves properly in the English language without serially breaking multiple rules of grammar. That is also why our society is a republic of mediocrity, a distorted space where excellence and hard work have no positive correlation with success.
Today, many young people who do not have the strength of character and toughness of spirit to withstand the rigours of serious education have ended up as celebrities in the entertainment industry. Musicians and actors who spend less time, energy, and creative ingenuity to produce songs and home videos now have more respect and public admiration than authors and writers who painstakingly bring sound ideas to birth in their books and writings.
Annual prizes for fiction and non-fiction writers are nothing compared to the millions spent on promoting musical albums and home videos, which often have little or no morals to teach. Yet, it is these same musicians and actors who go on to become brand ambassadors for the big telecommunication companies and business ventures. We can say the same of beauty pageantry, which is now in vogue among young girls as the fastest road to stardom.
On April 6, 1933 William Lyon Phelps (1865-1943), a renowned American educator, literary critic and author who served as Yale University Professor of English from 1901 to 1933, delivered a speech titled, “The Pleasure of Books” during a radio broadcast. “The habit of reading,” Phelps noted, “is one of the greatest resources of mankind; and we enjoy reading books that belong to us much more than if they are borrowed. A borrowed book is like a guest in the house…. But your own books belong to you; you treat them with that affectionate intimacy that annihilates formality.”
In commenting on the blessings of reading, Phelps said: “Literature is the immortal part of history; it is the best and most enduring part of personality. But book-friends have this advantage over living friends; you can enjoy the most truly aristocratic society in the world whenever you want it. The great dead are beyond our physical reach, and the great living are usually almost as inaccessible… But in a private library, you can at any moment converse with Socrates or Shakespeare or Carlyle or Dumas or Dickens or Shaw or Barrie or Galsworthy.”
Phelps’ aim is to stimulate people to take personal responsibility for the development of their mind. We are now living in a knowledge-driven economy where the most important resources are not the oil fields or the diamond mines but the talented people we educate and the creative geniuses we help to grow.
In other words, when we read, we introspect and enter into a relationship of dialogue and conversation with the greatest people that ever lived or are still living. In reading, we look into their innermost heart of hearts and we learn from their ideas and experiences. No matter how sophisticated technology becomes, we will always need books. When people have something serious to say, they put it in a book. In the past it was said that, “If you must hide something from an African, put it in a book.” The impression was that Africans don’t read. Up till today that impression still persists. I believe that we urgently need to ignite a book revolution in Nigeria.