As someone who deals with language and its vagaries on a daily basis, I am sometimes amazed at the way certain widely-used terms creep into–or unexplainably flee from–the vernacular.
And it’s even more fascinating to see that some terms–in spite of morals, values and beliefs that have shifted radically over the years–seem to survive. One such term is the adjective “cool,” where it denotes that something is really good or excellent.
Surely it means more than that, however. There is a sense of excitement, a sense that the object of coolness is uniquely timely and hip, a sense that this person or thing is excellent on a very subtle level that nonetheless resonates strongly with us. Coolness is a state unto itself, a way of life, the Golden Calf of the modern age–which is to say that we worship it in spite of its being unknowable.
Why should this be? For one thing, coolness makes us feel good. It validates us among our peers and those who are not are peers. It is happy juice for the ego. All of this coolness engenders in us the knowing smile, the affirming head nod, the thumbs up, the high five, the fist bump, the tipped hat or some variation of the horns created by extended pinky and thumb. Why, the expressions of coolness are almost as numerous as its definitions!
Has there been a more enduring piece of slang on the planet in the last 60 years or so than the term “cool”? Big bands and jitterbugs were cool in the 1940s, Elvis and poodle skirts were cool in the 1950s, hippies and mind-altering drugs were cool in the 1960s, disco dancing and flared pants were cool in the 1970s, big hair and greed were cool in the 1980s, and the Internet was cool in the 1990s.
Here’s the point: When it comes to the popularity of anything, never underestimate the “cool” factor. Especially when it comes to young impressionable minds, there is perhaps no greater motivating force than the belief that a person, creation, idea or course of action is cool. Come to think of it, coolness is a pretty powerful motivator for many of us with less impressionable minds.
So why all this cool talk? A recent article in Computerworld noted that the college-level computer science graduating class of 2007 is the smallest of any year this decade. According to this piece, in the 2006-2007 academic year, only 8,021 students graduated with computer science degrees from the 170 institutions surveyed. Compare this to 2003-2004, when 14,185 students earned bachelor’s degrees in computer science, the article notes.
Clearly, computer technology is playing an increasingly critical part in nearly every aspect of modern life, so why do our young learners seem less and less interested? To me, the answer seems obvious: Technology just isn’t as cool as it used to be.
Think about the rise of computer technology over the last half century. When computers were the size of banquet halls, few even knew they existed, much less what they did. But as science and science fiction writers started paying attention to the potential benefits of “thinking” machines, the coolness level began to rise.
Then the technology grew smaller and far more powerful. The average person could actually have one of these devices at home, or use one to boost productivity in the office. No doubt about it, this was cool on both a personal and business level.
Still, only a select few could grasp the inner workings of computers and software, and that in itself made technology a cool thing. Going to school to learn about and master this powerful force was even cooler. Again, it put the learners in an appealing position of power and uniqueness.
This coolness factor has continued unabated since the 1980s, but in recent years, something else has happened. More and more people do understand the basics of computers, and to those who have grown up with this knowledge, this is a big ho-hum. Sure, young people love tech gadgets and the neat things they do, but the sad fact is that they are no longer fascinated with the arcane workings of a technology that they have taken for granted since they crawled.
For those of us who are a bit older, it’s like saying that we have ceased to be fascinated with the inner workings of the television set, because most of us grew up taking the boob tube for granted. It’s there and it works; that’s all we need to know. And when it comes to computer technology, that’s all many of our young people care to know.
What to do? The only way to avoid creeping technology boredom and malaise is for our country and our companies to stay on the bleeding edge of technology, to keep breaking new ground and to continue making new discoveries. Instead of looking to others to make the discoveries, we need to encourage our own students and researchers to make them and build on them–and then to move beyond them.
Ours has been a nation of new ideas and vital energy, and we must maintain this world view if we are to continue to thrive.
Now what could be cooler than that?