A Whole New World: The Digital Generation and the Road Ahead

If you are under the age of 30 and reading this blog, you've probably read, heard, or experienced the stereotype of the young North American adult.  We are apathetic, we are lazy, we need constant attention.  We might be more “civic minded” but we do not act on our principles, only on our desires. Welcome to the Millenial Generation, or Generation Y, or whatever label that groups us together. If you believe everything you hear, we are failures-in-progress.  We can't find jobs, we live with our parents far longer than we should, and we are entitled.  We are the generation that just barely remembers a world without computers and the internet and we don't remember the Cold War at all. Even our major shared experience, the attacks of 9/11, does not strictly define who we are. We did not decide the path of consequent American or Canadian interventions, instead most of our generation passively watched it unfold or, as members of the armed forces, followed orders to act. We are a product of our times and we are on an uncertain road. Like Bob Dylan once said, the times they are a-changin'.

We are the first generation of digital society and it's getting tiresome to read about how terrible we are. We are often scolded for the disastrous consequences from our unsatisfactory lives. Having a computer, or tablet, or smart phone, that connects to the internet is as much a part of our lives as having to go to school or having a roof over our heads.  We are told this means we don't interact with the real world enough. If we don't post on Facebook or Twitter ourselves, most of us read about other lives through them.  Some accuse of us not caring about privacy anymore. We don't vote and we don't participate in local communities, thus we are apathetic and selfish.  Everything is about us and our navel-gazing knows no end. 

These imposed ideas tell us far more about the generational schism than about ourselves though. The new society is just a different place than the old one and the previous inhabitants seem to have a hard time understanding those changes.

Today, a young person can reach out over the internet and communicate with dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands of different people from places around the world, with different ethnicities, religions, and beliefs.  Online forums, blogs and sites like Reddit  or Pinterest expose us to news ways of thinking about the world and connects us to new groups of people who share our interests.  Never before has it been so easy to talk to people about your fascination with cats in hats, Dungeons and Dragons, libertarianism, pictures of abandoned buildings, or whatever niche you latched onto.  Back in 1980, your Birds with Arms Club in Cochrane, Alberta had only one member.  Today, you can join a group of more than 60,000 people on Reddit who look at pictures of birds with arms. 

Don't mistake these trivial examples as useless, or as some sign of social degradation.  “Back in my day,” someone just said in their mind, “we didn't care about stupid pictures.”  Well yes, that's true, because you didn't have many options. The communities you could be a part of were limited by geography and communication.  You went bowling because everyone went bowling.  Maybe you liked Euchre instead, but the next closest Euchre player was 50 kilometres away.  And since phone-Euchre never really caught on, you were stuck becoming a bowler.  Worse, in this mythical bowling-loving town, if you weren't a bowler, you were probably someone no one else liked.

Our generation has far fewer restrictions on communities.  We can choose what communities we join, and consequently, which ones we reject. Few have had such freedom - perhaps only HAM Radio operators could connect to strangers the same way,  but nowhere near the same scale. If we don't want to go bowling, we stay at home and play Euchre online.  Not only can we be a fan of the Seattle Seahawks on the Atlantic coast, but we can find other fans online and discuss the minutiae of the latest news or performance.  Like our parents always told us, we can be anything we want to be… online.  The digital generation can not only afford to be more accepting of others, because we can be who we want to be, but we can ignore old limitations.  What some call apathy is really new relationships with the communities that form our society. It's not that we don't care; it's that we care about a wide variety of new things, and we now have the freedom to care about euchre instead of bowling. As a result, there are far fewer common communities at a local level. When we reach out, we are just as likely to reach out to someone through a computer screen, not necessarily in person to our neighbour or colleague. Of course we feel entitled to a degree of freedom and individualism almost incomprehensible to older generations. We have never known anything else.

As our generation grows and has more and more access to disposable income, we can see how our behaviours and attitudes are transforming society.  New ways of consuming media are becoming more prevalent.  We use Netflix or Hulu to watch TV and movies.  We read articles online or browse sites that aggregate content for us by popularity or by subject.  We talk to (or sometimes, talk at) strangers online through forums and Twitter.  We make Vines and Instagrams and talk via BBM or Gmail chat or Skype. There are now professional “e-sport” players making hundreds of thousands a year.  Ten years ago, few governments would have to pass policy about internet speeds, or laws on cyber bullying, and then tweet about it to its citizens.

By no means is our description here absolute. Some young people do not fit into digital society and some of the older generation are involved with it wholeheartedly.  Neither fact takes away from the break between the old society and the new one.  Generational divides are hardly a revolutionary story, but this one might be more serious than others.  It helps to explain the malaise of our generation, the sense of no direction, the apathy towards previously cherished values.  Whether you realise it or not (and most probably do not), you are immersed in a transformative space. And one which is transforming in ways that are completely unknown to us.  Never before have humans been able to fashion social connections at the speed and quantity that we can today!  Not only is our future destination unknowable, we barely even understand the road map or the vehicle we are using to get there.  So as our journey careens to parts unknown, we are all along for the ride. Of course we have disconnected from what once-was, and no wonder we are uneasy about it.

Two decades ago, Francis Fukuyama argued that the end of communism and the triumph of democracy signaled the “end of history.” Humankind's great debates had been resolved and we had reached the end of our sociocultural evolution.  Critics quickly rejected this echo of Marxist thought and the last twenty years suggest it may have been a slight exaggeration.  Besides, the phrase has always been more fascinating than the argument.  Can there ever be an end to history? Taken literally, it might mean the day we stop recording and discussing our past, perhaps after some extinction event. Imaginatively, it might mean the day we can no longer look at the past to find common threads to the present.  A day which may be fast approaching – perhaps it is when an entire generation can't remember a single moment where a network-connected device has not been within 10 metres of them.  They will have to look back and try to understand the boring world of geographic limitations, of physical boundaries, and social isolation.  Let's hope that day never comes (since we will be out of a job!), but the surest way to avoid it is to recognize these changes and begin building those connections now. Not, as so many have done, bemoan and lament the new generation that is so out of place.  Let's celebrate the new world, not undermine it.