You’ve probably heard the expression before, and likely from someone who’s past the prime Pokémon Go demographic.
“There’s no school like the old school.”
But is it true?
As the 20th century recedes, with its paper receipts and wall-mounted telephones and styrofoam-lined milk boxes on front porches (ask your parents), it’s impossible not to wonder if the realities of that world were better or worse. There are clues, though: it wasn’t long ago that a good cup of take-out coffee was itself an oxymoron.
Here’s what I think people mean when they evoke the past. They’re recalling lifetimes spent developing skill—their own lifetimes— and because lifetimes are always personal, the people doing the recalling are reluctant to let those years go. “Old school” in this context suggests person-to-person attention to detail. Old school evokes a time of more handiwork and less automation. It speaks of craftsmanship for all sorts of things based on intangible feel rather than quantifiable metrics. It values hard earned experience over rapidly assimilated techniques.
Of course, believing those intangibilities can compete with today’s world suffers from the fallacy of hubris. Modern automation, metrics, and standardization can profoundly out-compete the goods and services of a more analogue age. Consider this example. Musicians had no drum machines a few decades ago. If you wanted a back-beat in your garage band, someone had to master rhythmic rudiments and whack real drums accordingly— physically—and that’s hard to do well. Now? It’s easy! Just set your tempo, click and drag. The beat to ponder here, is what aspect of music is lost when a person no longer directly creates the sonic vibrations. Philosophers can argue about the fact that people ultimately created the software and hardware that made the sounds, but what happens when drumming doesn't come directly from a drummer?
One has to wonder if the 22nd century will have some equivalent nostalgia for the beginning of the 21st century. Every age looks back to the ones recently departed, but I think we may have reached maximum nostalgia for our time. Here’s why: today’s modern transformative aspect is a surprising lack of humanity in collective productivity. (BTW, my choice of words—“productivity” versus “creativity”—is fully intentional.) Our software is profoundly more sophisticated nowadays, our machines far better engineered, our optimization paradigms more tightly parameterized. Yet even with all that we’ve created in our gleaming world, the churning masses are still atomized and fragmented. We’re a species divided, and our modernity has not set us free.
“Old school”, then, suggests a time when we knew there were other people fundamentally involved in our day to day life. There were real people, with real, human names and faces, balancing the opposite sides of our transaction. We might not have been friends with the milkman, and we certainly had fewer dairy options back then as compared to our modern supermarket, but milk made it to houses in a truck that another person drove and then carried to your front door.
I realize that living, breathing humans load milk onto shelves in contemporary stores, but the process is all but disembodied for most harried shoppers. The milk simply appears there. Same goes for online shopping. Same goes for airline ticket purchases. Same goes for automated highway toll booths. Even medicine, long the most intimate of human services, is beginning to move into the age of automation. The undeniable boon (theoretically) will be inevitably better screenings, better overall health, better access to basics, and that’s a great, good thing. Yet in that transition to qualitative improvement, we lose the experience of entrusting ourselves to someone else. Think about that for a moment, and then ponder what that does to your own internal creativity engine. When there’s no direct reliance on trust, powers of creative perception change. Obligation provokes sensitivity, and sensitivity inspires creative insight.
Old school isn’t actually better. Not long ago vast swaths of the population faced discrimination, suppression, even deprivation. In fact, vast swaths of the population still face these challenges. Old school implies a false, nostalgic sense of a better world. But it also implies a time when subtle human touches differentiated experiences and objects. We might be able to order more precise, more carefully crafted goods and services today in our database driven world, but it’s harder than ever to replicate the intangible value that came from looking someone in the eye, appreciating his or her expertise, and thanking them directly, one person to another.