Respect the elders – the difference between a broad bean and a computer.

I’ve been quiet for a while whilst decorating, allotmenting and making a new website for Transition Bristol. Which leads me to a philosophical question – what is the difference between a broad bean and a computer?

One of the principals of the Transition movement is ‘respect the elders’. It is an important issue, but more interesting to me is why we lost respect for old people in the first place? Age is usually associated with wisdom, experience and knowledge (and forgetfulness, but we won’t concern ourselves with that). So why has experience come to count for so little?

The answer, I believe, can be found in the sociological idea of modernity, that of a constant state of change. Modern life changes so quickly and constantly that there is little value in experience, because it is quickly outdated. There is, in modern life, more necessity for the quick learning of youth as previous knowledge can hinder progress through incorrect assumptions.

No where is this better shown than in the case of the broad bean and the computer. A broad bean is a classic vegetable that has been grown by the old men on allotments 15 and 16 next to ours for more years than I’ve been alive. Consequently, their broad beans were stupendous and ours were adaquate. We went over to chat to them to see if we could find out why their beans were so good with all due humility. (Incidently, ours were too far apart, we hadn’t pinched out the tops so they were infested with black fly and we hadn’t planted a second lot in spring.) My other recent activity is making a website. In stark contrast, in computing the people to ask when you have a problem are certainly not of retirement age. Computers, programs, software, it all changes so quickly that asking my Dad (who had a green acorn computer back in the day) is useless. You can see why children find it difficult to honour their elders – because their elders are more likely to ask them how to use their computer.

The essential difference therefore, between broad beans and computers is in the longevity of the required skills. Computer skills change constantly. Broad beans can be grown the same way, as they have been, for hundreds of years.

Implicitly, respecting elders means respecting knowledge and experience. But modern life is such that the older generation are often left asking the questions. This poses a difficult issue. How do we honour elders when they know little of what we now do? Perhaps the answer lies in the honouring of knowlege, where ever we find it, whether in youth or age. If peak oil happens, it is possible that a knowledge of how to grow food may become more important and begin to readdress the balance of knowlege and respect.