The Null Device

"The greatest generation gap since Rock And Roll"

An article in New York Magazine argues that a confluence of recent technological phenomena (the rise of the internet, social software, the decline of privacy) has produced the greatest generation gap since the dawn of Rock and Roll. Whereas subsequent "gaps" (punk rock kids rebelling against their Buddy Holly-listening parents, mall-goths and gangsta-rap kids rebelling against their new-waver parents, and such) were merely the new generation individuating itself by adopting a different dress code and slang, this one is a much more substantial rift, as kids who have grown up with the internet think differently, and their parents (much like the bemused parents of the young rockers of the early 1950s) don't quite know what to make of it all:
It's been a long time since there was a true generation gap, perhaps 50 years--you have to go back to the early years of rock and roll, when old people still talked about "jungle rhythms." Everything associated with that music and its greasy, shaggy culture felt baffling and divisive, from the crude slang to the dirty thoughts it was rumored to trigger in little girls. That musical divide has all but disappeared. But in the past ten years, a new set of values has sneaked in to take its place, erecting another barrier between young and old. And as it did in the fifties, the older generation has responded with a disgusted, dismissive squawk. It goes something like this:
"Kids today. They have no sense of shame. They have no sense of privacy. They are show-offs, fame whores, pornographic little loons who post their diaries, their phone numbers, their stupid poetry--for God's sake, their dirty photos!--online. They have virtual friends instead of real ones. They talk in illiterate instant messages. They are interested only in attention--and yet they have zero attention span, flitting like hummingbirds from one virtual stage to another.
Those on the younger side of the generation gap differ from their elders in several ways. They consider themselves to have an audience, and where older people have discarded the ephemera of their adolescence, the kids are archiving it, keeping a bridge to the past. Most tellingly, as the article puts it, their skin is thicker than yours. Where older people might consider concealing their private lives (in the name of privacy, security or just in case), the kids recognise that privacy is futile, and are more likely to reveal all.
And after all, there is another way to look at this shift. Younger people, one could point out, are the only ones for whom it seems to have sunk in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illusion. Every street in New York has a surveillance camera. Each time you swipe your debit card at Duane Reade or use your MetroCard, that transaction is tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. The NSA owns your phone calls. Your life is being lived in public whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, and if being seen is inevitable, one might as well embrace it and make the best of it:
This attitude manifests itself in various ways:
From their perspective, it's the extreme caution of the earlier generation that's the narcissistic thing. Or, as Kitty put it to me, "Why not? What's the worst that's going to happen? Twenty years down the road, someone's gonna find your picture? Just make sure it's a great picture."
Consider Casey Serin. On Iamfacingforeclosure.com, the 24-year-old émigré from Uzbekistan has blogged a truly disastrous financial saga: He purchased eight houses in eight months, looking to "fix 'n' flip," only to end up in massive debt. The details, which include scans of his financial documents, are raw enough that people have accused him of being a hoax, à la YouTube's Lonelygirl15. ("ForeclosureBoy24," he jokes.) He's real, he insists. Serin simply decided that airing his bad investments could win him helpful feedback--someone might even buy his properties. "A lot of people wonder, 'Aren't you embarrassed?' Maybe it's naïve, but I'm not going to run from responsibility."
"If that girl's video got published, if she did it in the first place, she should be thick-skinned enough to just brush it off," Xiyin muses. "I understand that it's really humiliating and everything. But if something like that happened to me, I hope I'd just say, well, that was a terrible thing for a guy to do, to put it online. But I did it and that's me. So I am a sexual person and I shouldn't have to hide my sexuality. I did this for my boyfriend just like you probably do this for your boyfriend, just that yours is not published. But to me, it's all the same. It's either documented online for other people to see or it's not, but either way you're still doing it. So my philosophy is, why hide it?"
Of course, as this phenomenon is in the early stages, nobody knows entirely what kind of society will emerge from this:
For anyone over 30, this may be pretty hard to take. Perhaps you smell brimstone in the air, the sense of a devil's bargain: Is this what happens when we are all, eternally, onstage? It's not as if those fifties squares griping about Elvis were wrong, after all. As Clay Shirky points out, "All that stuff the elders said about rock and roll? They pretty much nailed it. Miscegenation, teenagers running wild, the end of marriage!"
Because the truth is, we're living in frontier country right now. We can take guesses at the future, but it's hard to gauge the effects of a drug while you're still taking it. What happens when a person who has archived her teens grows up? Will she regret her earlier decisions, or will she love the sturdy bridge she's built to her younger self--not to mention the access to the past lives of friends, enemies, romantic partners? On a more pragmatic level, what does this do when you apply for a job or meet the person you're going to marry? Will employers simply accept that everyone has a few videos of themselves trying to read the Bible while stoned? Will your kids watch those stoner Bible videos when they're 16? Is there a point in the aging process when a person will want to pull back that curtain--or will the MySpace crowd maintain these flexible, cheerfully thick-skinned personae all the way into the nursing home?

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