Take Two #78: Building Forward

By Kyra-lin Hom

By definition, mainstream culture is never going to be the avant-garde. It's never going to be cutting edge, and it is never going to lead the pack. Mainstream culture is all about what is popular, meaning what has already been witnessed, judged and found acceptable and, more importantly, cool. It follows then that we can infer something about all of us (our society as a whole) from what is mainstream.

Let's take movies for example. After all, these are multi-million dollar investments made by wealthy people who became wealthy by knowing what is popular enough to sell. What do these say? Well ignoring all the frustrating, sad and intriguing messages about gender roles, money, narcissism and the true American motto of getting your cake and eating it too, big-money movies right now are saying science fiction is back in a big way. Oblivion, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, After Earth, and so on. These are the big movies of the now.

Gone are the dystopias and disaster films such as The Matrix Trilogy and Cloverfield (which is really just a throwback to Jurassic Park and Godzilla). In their place are super heroes and survivor stories. Disney's Wall-E was ahead of its time (did this little animated wonder come to anyone else's mind after seeing the Oblivion trailer or is that just me?). This indicates the return of hope. Nice, isn't it? Given it's the hope that if we truly screw up Earth we can just runaway in a space ship and keep on surviving elsewhere or the hope that something truly world-changing will jump in and save us all from ourselves. But it is hope all the same. Even the apocalyptic film World War Z (based on an amazing book, by the way) is about surviving and overcoming a world-altering disaster not just about the disaster itself.

Modern mainstream science fiction is saying, 'All right, we've screwed up pretty bad here. Now it's time to fix things.' Science fiction always has been a wonderful medium for social commentary. If you don't believe me, look it up yourself.

But here's something else I've noticed about these science fiction narratives. Somehow everyone in these stories knows how to do everything. These future people can build and repair anything. I don't know about you, but I can't repair a toaster let alone either the hard or software of my computer. I don't see that changing any time soon, especially not with technology only getting more complicated. Even within a single field (using the phrase loosely) such as programming, there are a ton of sub-categories and specialties. Calling someone a programmer is kind of like calling someone an athlete. It's not exactly specific. And while someone can be athletic, it's hard to really excel in more than one sport at a time.

I'm just saying that this whole tinker-happy future isn't likely. We're too complacent with our technology. No where has this been more apparent to me than in my current mathematics class. It it unbelievably frustrating. I'm not talking about lazy arithmetic. Even when we use our calculators to add, subtract, multiply and divide we probably still know how the mathematics work. We know what is happening with those numbers.

When I took calculus in high school, we had to learn everything by hand first. Once we understood what the numbers were doing and why, sure let's use our calculators because they are handy-dandy efficiency tools. Now I'm being taught to just push buttons. Literally. Instead of even calculating numbers, I'm running programs with names like “1-PropZInt.” That's it.

My teacher takes it as a matter of pride that she/he (let's remain anonymous here) is so pro-technology. The problem is that, without learning the equations and why they work first, it's impossible to relate one numerical manipulation to another. In fact, research is showing these different methods actually activate different areas of our brains (not surprising).

For me mathematics has always been like putting together a puzzle. Balancing equations and calculating all the dimensions of a geometric shape, for instance, feels so slick in my brain like slotting in the last of a 500 piece puzzle. Now I just have this hazy cloud of calculator commands. Much less satisfying. And not exactly inspiring.

If we want that science fiction, hope-filled future, we are going to have to build it. That starts with us not our technology. From our machines to our food and clothes, we're so used to consuming and following that we keep forgetting things have to first be made. It's time to remember the why's and the how's because history has been clear. To build up we first have to know what we're standing on.

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