Some people say age is just a number. Of course in many ways that’s totally true. As far as I’ve seen, anyway, length of time on this planet has no bearing on intelligence, maturity, creativity, sensitivity or perspicacity. My whole life I have kept company with people across a broad age range and I’ve known a good many older people who were clueless, puerile and undiscerning and a good many younger ones who were sharp, capable and clear. (I’ve met nearly no one who could be described as “wise,” but then I haven’t gotten out of the US much.)
Nonetheless, I have remained intrigued about age as it relates to history. So, I value the experiences of people ten to twenty years older than me who have clear memories of the Sixties and early Seventies, and I am interested in the views of those twenty to thirty years younger who never knew the world without the internet.
My grandmother was born in the Nineteen-aughts and died at the end of the Eighties. She grew up with the telephone, phonograph, radio and moving pictures (though silent ones at first) but was already a mother of three when television was popularized and commercial air travel became common. Her last decade saw the rise of video games, cable television, consumer computing and a nascent internet, though I doubt she paid much attention to any of them.
The last twenty years have given us another heaping helping of culture-shifting with mobile computing. Most previous forms of media—books, photography, radio, movies, television, etc.—can now be served from a hand held device. Those experiences that once required being in a particular location are now easily portable. I have an older, hand-me-down smartphone that I use as a music player. I rarely connect it to the internet, but its 32 gig SD card contains an amount of music that, when I was a record-collecting teenager, would have filled dozens of milk crates. I can literally listen to music 24/7 for over two weeks without hearing the same thing twice. This amazes me. Of course, other people have much more impressive devices.
All this comes under the general rubric of “Progress.” These days, a more popular word is “innovation,” but it refers to the same narrative: that invention leads to positive metamorphosis. The concept is far from neutral. It’s also not scientific.
Honest scholarship tells another story, illuminating how changes in lifestyle instigated by new technologies can be deleterious. Such an analysis is not new. Lewis Mumford wrote about how novel forms of media and spectacle were stimulating drastic transformation in US culture in his book, Technics and Civilization, which was published in 1934. The culprits at that time? Radio, movies and large sporting events. Mumford also spends some time exploring the origins of the “Progress” myth, and showing how it was introduced at the very same time that quality of life was in decline from horrific effects of the Industrial Revolution: think widespread coal-burning, brutal work conditions (including child labor), over-crowded cities, and cheap mass-manufactured goods. Mumford points out that, when textile manufacturing was taken over by factories and abandoned by handicrafters, people knew that the new product was inferior. Cheaper, monetarily? Yes, but also less durable and less attractive. The “progress” occurring was from better to worse. Was life healthier and happier in squalid urban tenements than it had been in the country village? Of course not. Was the agrarian lifestyle being replaced itself a step down from the days of gathering and hunting? Yes, undoubtedly.
So here is what fascinates me: When societies are transformed by technological change, and worldviews disappear, what is lost?
For example, very few people alive in the US today have clear memories of what life was like before television. From all accounts, it was quite different. I could try to describe it here, but I would only be repeating things I’ve read or heard. I, personally, have no idea at all, and I never will. So it’s not really my place.
But when it comes to, for example, cable television, the internet, or mobile devices I could say something. I remember growing up in the Seventies, where there were five channels on TV: ABC, CBS, NBC and two PBS (one based in Nebraska, the other in Iowa). They went off the air late at night, too. At 3am, there was just static. (“Static”: is that a foreign concept to people under a certain age? Screens don’t make static anymore, certainly not the blizzards that old cathode ray tubes did.)
The spectrum of viewpoints available to me was mind-numbingly narrow, and just being in Nebraska was a constricting experience. I felt trapped, for sure, but didn’t know what I was missing. I vividly recall two cultural phenomena that opened my eyes to exciting new possibilities: The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Prince. For a young person struggling with queer urges and identity, that libertine movie and that liberatory artist inspired experimentation and exploration. Those activities resulted in fun and shame, affection and betrayal, excitement and confusion; but it all helped me grow.
These days, the bisexual escapades of Dr. Frank-N-Furter and the androgynous presentation of Prince are pretty tame compared to what else you can find on the internet. And that’s a good thing. Puritanism is deadening. Everything between consenting people is okay. I am happy for the young people today that they have awareness of a fuller menu than I did.
But the world has also shrunk. It is more human-centric, less nature-aware. Every moment we spend in front of a screen is a moment stolen from fully experiencing the living reality around us. (Doesn’t reading a book do that, too? Yes, but in a qualitatively different way, and I know this because I remember.) My childhood was still one dominated by playing outside: running on the grass, digging in the sandbox, climbing over fences, making forts in haystacks, staring at the clouds. (And no, there weren’t as many persistent contrails back then for whatever reason.) I grew up with a younger sister and our TV time was restricted, as well as the content. That made me out-of-touch with much of what my peers at school were talking about, and at the time I resented that, but now I’m grateful. Exposure to less junk entertainment in those formative years helped me to develop clearer perception, reasoning and values than my peers, I do believe. Without a doubt, the time outdoors—in the garden, the fields and the forests—was key in fostering the love and attachment I so strongly feel now for plants, animals, insects, mushrooms and mosses, as well as rocks, streams and stars. My urges as an adult to “save the planet” grow directly from these experiences.
Kids don’t spend as much time outside as they did in my day, and they are certainly far more supervised when they do. I remember being out of earshot of my parents for hours and hours when I was, say, 11. That isn’t even legal anymore in some places, I’ve heard. Smartphone screens do not offer a replacement for these experiences, not by a long, long shot.
But I suspect that the current that’s been flowing in one direction for so long is not only reversible, but might switch directions in the lifetimes of today’s young people. The twin trends of increasing complexity in technology and deeper disconnection from nature—so prevalent the last few centuries—could well come to end, though not without discomfort and suffering. Given that current conditions are causing so many extinctions, so much pollution, and so much destruction, I can only view that as a good thing for the planet overall.
The moment we have now—of such “connectivity”—is inevitably temporary. The break-down is on the way. The cracks are already showing.
Ultimately, I have confidence that the youth of the world today, given free reign, are capable of doing a much better job at creating sustainable human lifestyles than are people my age or older. (Even the Millennials are on the edge of being too old to be helpful.) I would like to help clear the way for the transitions they will need to make.
That is to say, since I am at the half-century mark, society might be expecting me to be stepping into a leadership role. But I see it differently. I believe it’s far more important that I determine how to serve.