I was speaking to my heating system the other day, when I realised that we are currently living in the future. It’s now 2017, after all, which is yet another year straight from the realms of science fiction.
Our house has become increasingly like an episode of Star Trek since Alexa arrived. Alexa is a toy I got for Christmas. She is a voice-activated speaker. At first, it all seems fairly unremarkable: You can ask her the weather, and she will tell you. You can ask her to play Van Morrison, or whatever you fancy, and she will.
It gets really interesting, however, when you start connecting Alexa to devices that control things like your lights or your heating system. Without getting up, or searching for “that blasted remote”, you can turn on light outside, adjust the thermostat, turn on the radio on or turn the volume up. I haven’t gone this far just yet, but you can even say “Alexa, vacuum the sitting room” and she will send your robot hoover to the task.
The kids are fascinated and their favourite new word is ‘technology’. They want to know more about robots, self-driving cars and automatic lawnmowers. These are the things that will define their lives as they witness what is already being called the next industrial revolution: automation.
They speak to Alexa and ask her the temperature outside, to help with sums or to read a story to them. They have strictly limited screen time, since too much can wreck sleep, development and imaginative play. But they have enough exposure to technology to become adept at using it. They can competently call their grandparents overseas on Skype, play learning games, do art or take photos.
Technology can enhance kids’ lives, but parents need to be wise. The key task for parents is to ensure children are competent with all these new gadgets, but that they remain peripheral in their daily lives. Their childhoods must remain focused on family, nature, peace, play, reading and imagination. All these things fall away when children are given too much access to screens, and other distracting technologies, as so many are.
The long-term effects of technology on our minds and indeed our souls are not yet known, since even now ubiquitous devices like smartphones are less than a decade old. Yet just as children’s skulls are thinner and more sensitive to electromagnetic radiation from phones, their minds must be also more sensitive to the barrage of images and sounds modern media generates. If we think back to even a generation or two and the cold houses of the past where clothes and dishwashing, were done manually, the benefits are clear. We can live, work, travel and communicate with greater ease than ever before.
Ireland is at the centre of this new revolution. In the 1950s when my father grew up in Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare, there was no mains electricity and most of the houses were thatched. Text messages, as it were, were delivered by boys on bikes. Nobody had yet been to space. The kids love to hear the stories of his childhood, and they listen rapt to tales from another world, which is what it was. Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Seán solemnly announced the other day: “Dad, at last! I know exactly what I want to do when I grow up. First I’m going to invent a spaceship with a warp drive and then I’m going to become a Cork hurler.”
I’m not sure which would make me more proud.