So many discussions about technology focus on what it will all mean for today’s children, so it’s a little shocking that nobody has had the idea of turning the conversation over to … today’s children.
But that’s what Mike Mills (the director, not the R.E.M. bassist) did in his new 36-minute documentary, A Mind Forever Voyaging Through Strange Seas of Thought Alone.
And the result is fantastic: A series of charming, insightful and consistently surprising comments and insights from 9- to-12-year-olds who address the camera directly and answer Mills’ questions about the future with minimal mediation.
Intriguingly, Mills interviewed Silicon Valley-area children of workers at Apple, Cisco, Logitech, Oracle, Yahoo and other companies who work as engineers, product managers, lawyers, customer service managers and entrepreneurs. (“My dad, he, like, started his own company,” one says, “but I think he doesn’t want to do it anymore.”)
Mills asks straightforward but open-ended questions related to technology and its implications, now and in the future: Will computers get advanced enough to have personalities, feelings, even something like a soul? Will there be more or fewer poor people in the future? If you had to choose just one object to keep, what would it be?
Since most of the subjects are the offspring of white-collar types — one is the son of a cook at Google — you might expect naive, wild-eyed optimism. But that’s not the case. Given plenty of room to answer, the kids’ responses are way more thoughtful and nuanced than any techno-future pundit you’re likely to hear on the news.
“In the time of Socrates,” one offers, people were smarter, “because they used their brains more.” Another muses that computers may never cry or smile, but “they’ll know” how people around them feel and will be “kind of sympathetic.”
Many are surprisingly pessimistic on environmental issues. And some are quite wise about how hard-wired human behavior shapes technology’s real effects: “If you think about it,” says one, “people want to be the same — except just a little bit better than everybody else.”
But my favorite line may be this one: “I have to say — no offense — that grown-ups are actually a bit more immature than children,” one kid observes, citing mindless disputes over “who should be fired” or “arguing over cars.” Point taken.
And sure, Mills’ strategy here does risk descending into the merely precious. But I think he’s played it pretty well. I don’t mean to suggest that these young people are delivering unvarnished wisdom that should rewire the way we think about tech. But I do suggest that bringing them into the conversation about their own future is an overdue idea.
The video is available by way of The Believer magazine and its spinoff Organist podcast through July 1. Type in the password BELIEVER (all caps).