It has been a boring pattern for all of Mankind’s history that was ever recorded. Or, for that matter, not recorded. And you’d surely have noticed it yourself if you are from a big family and/or have a large circle of friends from different age-groups.
For as far back as I can remember, proud new parents have made it their core mission to make me believe how particularly smart their kid, that little joy-bundle was and how he displayed remarkable and unusual signs of unearthly intelligence, and, especially – and please take special note of this – at such a tender age.
My earliest memories of such episodes go as far back as when I was a kid myself. Proud parents telling me how their charming cherubs started making coordinated limb and head movements (dance?) to certain music (typically works of A.R.Rahman). There were other feats I’d rather not go into. Memories that have gotten etched in my mind and – I shudder as I type this – memories that will stay with me till my consciousness holds out in this cosmos.
In the 80s it was about how and what he talks, how she walked, how early she started calling out for dada (parents, take it easy, I know it is a special moment for you and ‘dada’ may strikingly resemble the Periodic Table of Elements recited from memory in reverse. But for me, it’s just ‘dada’). Then in the late 80s and 90s it was about how the little cute dynamo took to the TV remote at the jaw-dropping young age of 13 months.
My dad was no non-conformist. But he had his way of going about it. Let me recount an episode from one evening right after I had just uttered what is best characterised in one word as ‘impertinent’. During this performance, I stood in the middle of the drawing hall surrounded by his friends from work. I was 8.
Dad to friends: My son started talking when he was just 9 months.
Kind Friends (mostly his subordinates, I think) : “Oh wow. That is incredible. Very unusual. It could even be a record, Sir. Superb.
Kind Friend’s wives : So Cute. (looking at me with loving eyes that could’ve by themselves grabbed me in a bear hug. All of them thinking: damn Husband. You better get that promotion this year. The Sh** I have to do for your stinking career. Ugh that Dora is smiling really wide.)
Dad (looking at me with killer eyes): Yes. He started talking at 9 months and hasn’t stopped yet.
Kind friends and their wives: (Coughing in unison. Dora reduces smile to a slight stretch of the lips. Other wives follow)
(Note: After that, I learned to shut up. Which apparently, is a skill higher on the value chain)
One parent made me sit through a 2 hour PowerPoint presentation rich with multimedia content involving slides and slickly edited audio-visuals to drive home the fact that their 11 month old with all that extraordinarily startling capability, deserved to be a relevant reference point on the map of human evolution. I agreed without any reservation, stood up, downed a glass of water and fled into my safer and less threatening bachelor apartment in Santa Cruz, Bombay where I hid my head under two large pillows for the rest of the afternoon till the buzz faded out of my ears and three thousand toothless smiling pictures eventually dimmed out from my eyes.
I am sure you too have sat for hours nodding patiently and very earnestly to grandmothers and grandfathers of various 8 to 24 month old grandkids listening to how their little Choochoochoo could do complex tasks ranging from emptying water from the flower vase over important mortgage documents with aplomb (accompanied by that Omen III like smile, I’d imagine), to slightly more constructive tasks such as fixing problems of the VCR remote by banging it on the floor at cunning velocity.
OK. By now, you are probably thinking I am cynical. Rather astute, that observation. And I suspect you will understand why from what I am about to say.
The funny thing is, for generations that one special kid or grandchild has always seemed to have gifts of cosmic proportions promising in 20 years time, a fully grown adult that could potentially solve the mystery behind what makes protons hold on to neutrons. Or a brilliant mind, that, during a power point presentation, distractedly doodles the molecular structure that would cure cancer.
Look around. Those promising adults are conspicuously absent.
Something seems to be wrong in all this. There is a flaw of some kind. Somehow it doesn’t add up for me. If you reflect on all those devoted appraisals we’ve all heard from every parent or grandparent in all these years, you would think the world would be teeming with hundreds of thousands of geniuses right now. Clearly that is just not the situation. Some appraisals were fair and objective, granted. But still.
You hear me, don’t you?
But I think I know why. And I think I know how all that is going to change. And here is why. The striking pattern to me is that as these gifted children over the past few generations got their hands on more and more devices, the stark variety in the richness and qualitative relevance of these anecdotes has gone up dramatically.
I recently had two more of these episodes I talked about that made me stop dead on my cynical track. Something that made me realize that all of a sudden, we are moving into a different era where kids are really – and I mean REALLY – getting smarter. So much smarter that I suspect we could well be witnessing a significant blip along the course of human evolution.
The first episode happened at the Bangalore residence of a college friend of mine. We met. I met his wife, smiled. His two boys. 11 and 9. The 11 year old was fiddling with a netbook and the 9 year old was busy with an iPad. Playing some ‘Cricket’ game, I was told. I smiled at the back of their heads earnestly. It was around the time I was trying to figure if I should get myself an iPad or a HP Netbook, so I asked my friend – seeing that he had both – what he thought was the right pick.
Friend: Ask him (pointing to the 11 year old) he’s addicted to both devices. And has some views on what’s better.
Me: So, which one is better, Friend’s Son?
11 Y.O. Kid: What are your requirements?
Me: (Silence. Jaw drops. Trying to fathom the significance of that question).
With all these devices, and the internet and the possibilities that are served up, we adults think we are smarter – because of all the new possibilities, and how we can now engage more effectively with peers, other experts and a colourful set of PoVs in real time. It certainly has helped us connect, network, plan, learn, adapt, influence, contribute and become part of a rather silent knowledge movement of sorts. Few of us in this wonderful community have even written and debated that some theories around the ‘Millenial’ phenomena are crap and that it is really not about the ‘Millenials’ but about the inclination/tendency to respond to a certain change with eagerness and curiosity that could apply to any active mind, no matter what century she/he was born in.
If you really think about it, the last few years haven’t been easy for the section of the generation you and I belong to. Interesting, for sure. Easy? Not quite. We really have been trying to figure out so many things at once – new devices, social media, cloud, and all those apps and the millions of possibilities popping up at startling rapidity in our faces – a crescendo of sorts from at least a decade old promise of ‘convergence’ finally coming together(ha!), As a species it is actually too much to handle. What exacerbates this is not merely the sheer volume of things and the pace at which it is all happening, or even the learning it calls for, but really the unlearning that seems to be the common perquisite to figure out and get on top of these developments.
Think about it.
And in the meanwhile, in near eerie silence, while we were figuring out massive little pockets of disruption all around us, the storks have been going about their business and curious minds, eyes and hands have been inspecting and learning the new toys their parents have come to own – a learning that came not from teaching and method, but from observing, doing and adapting – and guess what, there is no unlearning involved here at all. That means, as they go through this they are getting wired differently right at the outset. Sort of a custom-made gen for tackling this new world.
For all the commentary that has ever been written about the significance of disruption in our work lives, we have not paid enough attention to this, which could be by far the biggest ever disruption that ever hit us as a species. That of the emergence of a differently wired new generation that has mastered the essentials of the iPhone and the iPad in less than 18 months into the world.
An ex-colleage’s son cant read. Of course not, he is 17 months old. But he is able to unlock the phone, navigate to ‘contacts’ scroll to the picture of his grandmother and call her all by himself with no assistance whatsoever.
It is happening right at our homes. And it involves every one of our kids. As we take their hands, lead them to see and understand the real world, we discover we have to catch up with them ourselves, for they have already drawn up the world close to themselves.