Kids These Days (08.08.11)

I’ve been talking to people who supervise young people, and many of them complain about a lack of initiative and a sense of entitlement in their charges.  Some of them go so far as to suggest that there has been a sea-change in humanity, and you really can’t trust anyone under thirty because they don’t think like we do. They’re not even of the same species. They’re going to take over the world and then everything’s really going to go to hell.

I hesitate to bring this idea up, because it’s a marginalization of an entire class of human beings, and we all know that’s a time-tested recipe for a wide-ranging misery.  Also, someone is bound to quote Socrates: “The youth of today love luxury; they have bad manners and contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Youth are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up food at the table, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Ameliorists love to pull quotes from ancient Greece to prove that things aren’t getting worse because they haven’t changed in 2500 years.  They note that there’s a clinical condition—ephebiphobia, “fear of teen-agers”—that has been present throughout history.  

Amelioration aside, ephebiphobia is probably reasonable.  Young people are scary, if I remember my adolescent years correctly.  They’re dangerous and self-destructive, and they don’t take direction well, and they’re touchy about their independence, and they think they know more than they do.  It’s probably a mistake to give them weapons or let them have access to internal combustion engines. When they combine a lack of initiative and a sense of entitlement, it’s time to start wondering if our civilization might be going the way of ancient Greece.

But that’s not what I worry about when somebody complains about kids these days.  I worry instead that we’re seeing the first generation that has been surrounded by the screens of TVs, computers, and mobile phones since birth. Their brains have been rewired by reducing their active participation in the world to taps on a keyboard or a touchscreen.

Robert Bly, in The Sibling Society (1996), explores the developmental implications of such a screen-fed existence. He suggests that growing up in a socially-networked virtual world instead of in the natural world prevents people from growing all the way up. They get stuck in a permanent adolescence, seeing everyone else in their lives as siblings rather than seeing them as separate adults.  Personal encounters are marked by rivalry rather than cooperation, and the biggest complaint becomes, “It isn’t fair.”

Bly’s book should be in every writer’s library.  The biggest job a writer has to face is to see things as an adult, and The Sibling Society is an instruction book for adulthood, drawing on myth, story, sociological observation, and brain research to make its case.

Bly builds on the insights of an earlier and more obscure book, Michael Ventura’s 1985 essay collection, Shadow Dancing in the USA, which explores the effect that TV, 24-hour convenience stores, and videogames have had on American culture.  Even before there were Predator-equipped drones, Ventura pointed out that videogamers were training for their deployment.  In retrospect, it’s possible to wonder if videogames didn’t create drones, instead of drones creating new videogames—and of course, that makes you wonder what videogames will create next.

Shadow Dancing in the USA is a dated book now. In a world that contains Moore’s Law, a couple of decades is a long time.  But Ventura’s style remains as fresh and inspiring as ever, and I can recommend his book for every writer’s library as well. It shows how a tough, blunt writer dares to think the forbidden thought and to write the forbidden sentence, and arrive at the forbidden conclusion, Moore’s Law be damned.  He seldom talks about young people, but he describes the implications of the world they would and will inherit, and he points out that it’s not just the children who have had their world transformed by technology.

One more book for your library:  Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, a 1953 science-fiction novel about an alien invasion.  The aliens are peaceful but authoritarian.  They establish a world government and stop war, but they take human children away from their parents and train them to join the Overmind, a cosmic entity that rules the universe.  The last real humans witness the exodus of these transformed children from Earth.

I’ve been thinking of Childhood’s End since the technology gap has appeared between generations in this country.  The term cybernative applies to most people under 30 these days, and it’s possible to imagine them closer to machines—and to the Internet Overmind—than they are to their parents.

I doubt that such relationships create an attitude of entitlement and a lack of initiative in anyone, but they are probably hard on observable social skills or measurable activity, at least as an older generation defines them.  Cybernatives live in an entirely different world, one that treats virtual reality as equal or better to the reality you walk through when you go outside without your iPod.

Techno-futurists like Ray Kurzweil talk about post-humans.  Who knew that they would show up as waitpersons that forget to refill your coffee, interns that expect managerial positions, or new employees that demand detailed lists of instructions—algorithms—to get through the day?

You can only hope that when they take over the world, and they will, that they treat their elders as human beings, ones that need kindness, touch, and understanding in their marginalized obsolescence. Even if it isn’t fair.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Diane Ronayne August 15, 2011 at 2:00 pm

You are SO right about “Childhood’s End!” I re-read it a couple of years ago. It was amazing how Clarke predicted the effect of the Internet and social networking, decades before Bill Gates and Steve Jobs took us there.

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