We don’t learn from the past. I don’t mean “we don’t learn from history”. I mean we often don’t even learn from our own past. Individual people might be smart, introspective, and level-headed, but if you zoom all the way out the aggregate behavior of the culture at large is that of a panicked reactionary simpleton.
When I was a kid we had this fad. Miniature 4×4 trucks. I don’t know why. They were maybe the size of your average computer mouseNot that anyone knew what a computer mouse was. This was 1984, and I wouldn’t see one for another five years.. The trucks were stupid. You put batteries in them and turned them on. In the commercials it portrayed them as being able to overcome any obstacle and just! keep! going! In practice they tended to flip over or spin their wheels if they were tasked with climbing over anything that wasn’t specifically shown in the commercial.
One day a kid showed up in class with one of these things, and a month later half the kids had themBut not me. It wasn’t a computer or a videogame, so I was never the slightest bit interested in them.. Two months later they vanished and I don’t think I’ve seen one since.
The year before that it had been Scratch-n-Sniff stickers. Everyone had to have tons of Scratch-n-Sniff stickers stuck all over their elementary school accoutrements. The year before that it was puffy stickers and Rubik’s Cubes. At some point friendship bracelets were momentarily a big deal. A bit later the Garbage Pail Kids collectible cards came out and every class began and ended with kids wheeling and dealing with each other to try and complete their set.
The reaction from the adults was invariant: Annoyance, outrage, and heavy-handed prohibition. Sooner or later they would get fed up with this New Thing and start banning it from classrooms or confiscating it if the items were found during class time. This often applied even if you had your work done. After all, you might distract other kids. If you’re done early then just stare at the front of the room and try to avoid doing anything mentally stimulating, because think of the (other) children!.
The kids were always mystified by this crackdown. It obviously didn’t have much of an impact on anyone’s performance. Class clowns continued to clown whether or not a toy fad was going on. The A students continued to be A students and the poor students continued to do poorly. This cycle of petty hand-wringing and over-reaction always mystified us.
Now that generation – my generation – is all grown up. And then some. We run shit now. And here we are, acting like the screwball Baby Boomers that tormented us in the 80s.
The fad this month is apparently Fidget Spinners, and my generation is dutifully getting all worked up and banning it from schools because (of course) it’s a distraction. So now all the news sites have to say something stupid about it. Last Friday’s Penny Arcade strip isn’t literally true, but it feels true to the spirit of the moment: A bunch of grownups acting like this month’s toy is an alien invasion.
I kind of assumed that Baby Boomers behaved this way because they were the first to grow up in a world of fads driven by televised toy commercials. I’m sure the generations before them had fads too, but they probably weren’t as widespread and they probably didn’t focus so much on gadgets. But I’d hoped my own generation would see the pattern and develop some sense of perspective about this sort of thing. At the very least I thought maybe we wouldn’t see it as newsworthy.
When I was young I always assumed the cycle of annoyance and moral panic on the part of adults was just a local problem. “Man, my teachers are jerks.” But now I see it’s some inescapable human behavior. The desire of administrators to impose order and routine is just as strong as the desire of children to seek novelty and stimulus.
Fidget Spinners look fascinating. I thought I’d get one as a gesture of solidarity with the beleaguered schoolchildren of the world.
But then I saw they were $15 on Amazon and I was like, “Nah”.
 Not that anyone knew what a computer mouse was. This was 1984, and I wouldn’t see one for another five years.
 But not me. It wasn’t a computer or a videogame, so I was never the slightest bit interested in them.
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The true story of three strange days in 1989, when the last months of my adolescence ran out and the first few sparks of adulthood appeared.