’84 babies, plus or minus a couple years, were the first to grow up with internet but the last to remember life without it. It’s scary to think that this perspective will be unavailable to future generations. Every generation believes they’re nothing like the previous one, but now it’s true. Technology is like an avalanche covering everything. As such, the consequences will be widespread and unpredictable, and not all good. There’s a mindset we’ve had forever that’s slipping, and there’s no turning back.
It’s hard to summarize it concretely, but it has to do with the “boys will be boys” climate that pervaded basically until I was a boy. Not just “boys,” but life will be life. Let it go. You can’t control everything. My guess is 50 years ago, on average, people matured earlier, had longer attention spans, were more articulate, more inclined towards saving money than spending, and reflexively took responsibility for themselves and their actions. Generations used to span decades. Grandfather–father–son. Now, perhaps there’s a new generation every 10 years.
The school outlawing “hard” balls during recess after a mother got hit in the head illustrates what I mean. It’s not just the NHL taking head shots and concussions seriously. I hope Soccer Mom survives her ordeal, but in the name of safety they’ve also eliminated any threat of exercise and fun. Before the 80s I don’t think it ever would have occurred to a mother to outlaw playing with balls during recess. Something has changed. Technology.
Technology, especially the internet, makes society feel entitled: we feel empowered because in real time we talk to and see people across the world, book trips, order food to our door, access unprecedented amounts of literature, watch TV and movies from all eras, receive news complete with video from anywhere in the world. And all immediately. We are gods, albeit immensely distracted ones. Those who remember a life before internet can hardly believe our new power, but it’s just a mundane fact of life for those born into a world of fibre optic cable and iPads.
If technology leads to narcissism gone-wild, it’s compounded by marketing campaigns and devices which relentlessly cater to self-importance: they’re called “I” pods; playlists rearrange albums to suit our preferences; everyone has a platform to broadcast their “status” to a waiting audience; the “you” in YouTube is us. We are constantly told to exalt ourselves. If something harms us, it’s wrong and we should outlaw it.
This constant inundation erodes not only critical thinking, but the effectiveness of what used to be reliable institutions–school and news. Education today makes things worse by over emphasizing the internet and neglecting the pillars of Western education. Yes, little Johnny’s mind is modern and rapid, as evinced by his innate mastery of social media (writing incoherently and posting vulgar pictures for friends and strangers), but maybe he’d learn more about the human condition after seeing Odysseus master himself through Athena’s grace and Zeus’s justice. Is there an app for that? Modern times and serious books have parted company for good, but the head first slide into philistinism isn’t just the teacher’s fault. We were just following curriculums! It’s at a deeper level. That technology provides more access to literature is irrelevant here: if nobody’s reading, it may as well be unavailable.
Our news institutions that ought to guard knowledge are just as prone to change, with mixed results. The Maclean’s special issue from November 14 featured stories in “augmented reality.” Scan your smartphone over stories with an AR logo to get bonus features. Fair enough.
But Toronto Standard ran a worrying article recently about online news sources who, in a hurry to get the scoop, publish first and fact check later. An article with the same web address can present different facts from one day to the next, with only a vague note indicating a revision, not what’s been changed. This happens “everywhere,” from the CBC to the New York Times. This never happened in ink; online news is not merely a newspaper that happens to be online.
John Macfarlane, editor of the Walrus, writes in January/February’s issue (currently unavailable online) that “the quality of workmanship in North American newsrooms…is declining. The reasons…include a generation of journalists who know how to tell a story and little else.” He also says media credibility everywhere has been undermined since the Murdoch scandal. “If the press is to continue its independence, it must be seen to be monitoring its own behaviour, vigorously and fairly.” He doesn’t explicitly state technology is responsible for both, as it’s defined the generation doing the declining work and enabled the cell phone/e-mail hacking, but it’s true. That technology can be wonderful isn’t the point. Not only is technology adversely affecting our mentality,but these new advances present new dangers.
How the internet has changed growing up is the subject of December’s Toronto Life cover story, “the Secret Life of 13-year-old girls” by Alexandra Molotkow. Sadly (and ironically) it’s unavailable online. Molotkow’s voice is conversational but not colloquial, intelligent but unpretentious–ruthlessly honest, and funny too. The piece is largely about her experience with internet sex, but she notes the bigger point: “the internet unshackled us from our milieus.” It was liberating for her, but incomprehensible to every previous generation. There’s never been such a chasm between people, even those close in age. As TL editor Sarah Fulford points out, “I’m only a dozen years older than Molotkow, but her relationship to chat rooms and web journals and texting is so foreign to me we might as well be from different generations.” Indeed.
Those born in the late 90s and early 2000s will look at 80s babies the way we view those from the 40s and 50s. “I was alive before the internet.” Translation: “In my day, we walked 10 miles to school in snow this high, and we didn’t have no boots neither.”
The underlying things we take for granted have been permanently altered. Teenagers with cell phones will never again feel the liberation of being out of reach from their parents. Depraved behaviour at parties, or by police, isn’t only captured on camera, but potentially circulated online. We can get around in any city with Google maps. There’s too many to name.
Imagine when the last pre-internet person dies. If the sensibilities, habits, and traditions from our collective past only exist on screen for concerned historians, but inhabited by nobody, it’s hard to predict what things will look like. Perhaps some perspective will allow us to see and react against the decline in time. Maybe, but the decline seems to be happening, and it’s worrying. Like democracy, the internet is wonderful, powerful and permanent, but it’s only what we make of it. We should be scared of running headlong into this digital age without any connection to our old-world sensibility.
A slightly different version of this article was originally published on Halperin’s blog on 12/05/2011.