The Youth are Wasted on The Old
Aging intelligentsia's scorn for the internet generation is just a sign of their ignorance
by Charlotte Wu
Thursday 30th September 2010, 21:08 BST
Did you notice the flurry of newspapers over the summer proclaiming that modern technology is rewiring our brains? I think it’s the word ‘rewiring’ that creates the panic, evoking an image of a future generation uttering monotonous grunts (in a robotic rather than regular teenage way). What it really means, however, is ‘evolving’.
The philosopher William Powers’ new book, Hamlet’s Blackberry, reveals that the human desire to connect and all attendant problems are hardly new phenomena. Apparently, the ancient Romans were dealing with their own version of information overload, as were Shakespeare and his contemporaries. And yet despite this evidence that our technological age is a development rather than degeneration, he concludes the reverse, on the basis that “I look around and see so many people crouched over their screens grimly punching out texts and emails. They look miserable.”
William Powers is about fifty years-old. In fact, the majority of these opinion articles are written by the generation for whom the internet blossomed late in life, and who tend to think Facebook is either for grooming potential hook-ups via Pokes or grooming livestock on Farmville. They may be subscribers, but they aren’t believers.
One middle-aged writer in a weekend supplement lyrically waxed about how if he urgently needed to find someone when he was at university, he would traipse through the cold for forty minutes in the unsubstantiated hope that he might bump into them at the faculty. He assured his readers that he “cherished” these times. I’m sure many of these readers joined him in reminiscing of the days when life was so stupendously rewarding (and when, on all these long marches, their hairlines still protected their scalps). Once you arrived at the faculty to find that the person you were searching for had just left with your desperately needed VHS, you really knew you’d earned that information! These kids with their mobile telephones, saving themselves utterly fruitless trudges with a few thumbed words – they don’t know what real life is!
Except, obviously, for anyone born after, say, 1985, modern technology is real life. To keep on moaning about it in print newspapers just seems a bit bitter. I expect the people who grew up watching black and white TV lamented that the next generations were missing out on the opportunity to stretch their imaginations by envisioning their own colours.
Camille Paglia’s supposed tearing down of Lady Gaga in the Sunday Times Magazine (12.09.2010) exemplifies the trepidation which seems to pervade this old guard of journalism, who helplessly watch how democratisation of information is eroding their privileged position of herald and arbiter. “Fans of Gaga have grown up with cell phones and iPods as sticky extensions of their bodies... The fine arts have been replaced by video games”, she wrote – as if high and low art have never brushed shoulders and left their smudges upon one another. In fact, she barely pretends to criticise the art at all: her article was an all-and-out attack on a world she doesn’t understand; a reality made up of a “cluttered, de-centred environment of floating bits”.
But of course, reality has always been chaotic and overwhelming and de-centred – by which, by the way, Paglia means “distinctions of value have been lost or jettisoned by politically correct educators”. Essentially, in her good old days, the centre was the self. Reality was what you were brought up with, uncluttered by the realities of other societies or nations or religions – or generations. You thought what you thought and had no need to question its worth.
Which brings us back to the aforementioned writer, who went on to claim that the reason he loved those long, lonely walks was that he had time to himself, to indulge all those adolescent, self-indulgent, oh-my-god-Hamlet-is-me inner monologues. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with thinking your own thoughts, per se. I’d definitely come down on the pro rather than the anti side. But I’m not sure every bright young thing is, as they saunter about, thinking anything particularly illuminated. The kind of ‘me-time’ which older generations espouse so very fervently is, about 60% of the time, another word for navel-gazing moping.
I’m trying to say two things. The first is that the internet gives us more to think about. For instance, people I follow on Twitter include The Guardian News and the Huffington Post, the thrillingly ardent and eloquent journalist Johann Hari, and the comedian Peter Serafoniwicz, whose droll one-liners (“Having sex with your clothes on is the funnest thing you can do with your clothes on”) have got to be a better way to spend a minute queuing at the post office than joining the older generations in tutting my blood pressure ever-higher. From the American teenagers who post on Tumblr, meanwhile, I learnt more about Prop 8, the Cordoba House controversy, gender issues and being a Muslim or black teenager in the States than I could ever have from newspapers. I probably wouldn’t even have known I didn’t know it. It’s so easy to transpose your own concerns onto your world that it’s almost discomforting to enlighten yourself to how much you’re missing.
The second is that the internet gives us more people’s thoughts. The classic dismissal of this is “I don’t really care what Britney Spears had for lunch, to be honest”. To which the obvious answer is: don’t follow Britney Spears on Twitter! Follow someone who makes you think, or laugh, or who’ll make you discover something. As with conversations in real life, some are going to be interesting, funny, edifying, memorable, and others will be insipid, repetitive and on occasion, offensive. Even more than with conversations in real life, you have the capability to choose which to engage in.
Recently, I stumbled across a would-be sleuth blogger attempting to create a conspiracy about the yellow curtains in the White House press room: “Since BHO moved in [‘H’ included to maximise Muslimosity] it has Arabic symbols on it. Also, as you look at the pictures of other presidents speaking from the same spot, look at the traditional ‘American’ background and decor as opposed to the new decor. [He posts pictures of Bush and Clinton in an entirely different room]. Trust me when I say that this is intentional. It should alarm every American. Don’t ya just love having a muslim president?”
Interesting that he thinks we’ll “trust him” on a madly factually-unsupported claim about the United States government, considering that he hasn’t as yet proved his ownership of a legitimate grasp of grammar or indeed language. But that’s beside the point. You’d think that this was exactly the kind of unnecessary Britney-Spears’-sandwich information that we do our utmost to not allow into our brains. This guy is an idiot, and he’s a long way away.
However, precisely because of the internet, his ignorant, conspiracy-peddling propaganda is not far away at all. And thanks to the internet, someone he would never have met in real life had the wherewithal to puncture his claims with photographs of the curtains from the 1970s and flanking every US President since: “How you feeling about that little theory about the ‘Muslim symbols’ now you first rate jackass. You’re fucking stupid. Your blog is fucking stupid. You’re free to embarrass yourself like this again and again and I’m happy to call you out on it, but trust me, sir, people have quit Tumblr after I’ve exposed this kind of bullshit before. I suggest you back the fuck off this pathetic ‘Obama is a Muslim secretly sent to take over the country’ crap before I and my 530+ brilliant followers humiliate the shit out of you time and time again.”
The intrinsic danger of being allowed to walk alone in familiar territory, thinking your own thoughts day after day is that very little is likely to arise to challenge those thoughts. The people you meet will tend to have roughly similar experiences and roughly similar perspectives. Cities are almost always home to a higher ratio of progressive thinkers than rural areas, exactly because people inevitably rub up against others who hold views that challenge their own. Travelling the world was once considered the best education, precisely because it made people realise that their customs, traditions, beliefs and social standards were not the only way of living. The internet can be the Grand Tour, the Moving to the Big City of our time.
And for those who refuse to move out of their regressive, bigotry-cushioned comfort zones, the Big City can come to you.
In the pre-internet age, if none of the family or friends of a burgeoning influential fashion critic cared about clothes and her local shops didn’t stock Vogue or other magazines, she might have been simply unable to discover her potential. However, Tavi, a fourteen-year-old blogger from a small town near Chicago, has been able to look at editorials online, search archives and contact others who shared and inspired her passion. Thanks to the internet, in just two years she has built up a formidable bank of both knowledge and copy to her name.
Meanwhile, if a young gay man grows up in a state or country where same-sex marriage is legally prohibited and all his immediate acquaintances profess it to be morally abhorrent, he doesn’t have to let that determine his feelings about himself. He can find the solidarity, history, art and reassurance that might prevent him leading a miserable life of self-loathing and confusion in favour of one which recognises his human rights – and his humanity.
William Powers warns that the internet is turning us into “digital drones and drudges”. Camille Paglia tells us we’re “marooned in a global technocracy of fancy gadgets but emotional poverty”. I think they’re wrong. The kind of connection which such technology allows, which crosses all the usual borders which divide us, is more powerful in challenging cultural bigotry and assumptions than any programmes which the UN could impose. It allows anyone who can access it to own and reclaim their own narrative – something Gaga, the person with the most Twitter followers on the planet, must cherish. There’s a reason why governments like China ban blogging services: ideas are harder to silence than individuals.
I’ll leave you with one last piece of evidence of the positive, life-changing possibilities of the internet, and what our generation can do with it. A recent submission to the anonymous site Postsecret.com simply reads:
“I go on online forums as a forty-year old band teacher to offer advice to young girls suffering from eating disorders and self-harm. No-one would listen to me otherwise, but many have since told me that I saved their lives.
I’m a sixteen year old girl.”