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Flat panel display

February 06, 2007

In New York magazine, Emily Nussbaum surveys today's post-modern youth movement, where you're only real if you've cast yourself as a minor celebrity on the Web's infinite screen.

In essence, every young person in America has become, in the literal sense, a public figure. And so they have adopted the skills that celebrities learn in order not to go crazy: enjoying the attention instead of fighting it - and doing their own publicity before somebody does it for them.

What's fascinating is that, in contrast to earlier youth movements, this one is not about rebellion. It's about acquiescence. What we're seeing looks like a mass surrender, pursued with great enthusiasm and packaged for easy consumption.

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?

The pragmatic questions about future regrets seem beside the point. As Johnny Rotten once put it, "When there's no future, how can there be sin?" Avatars don't age. They exist in two dimensions. Depth is simulated, and time doesn't enter into it. There is no change of death in Sim Paradise. The ripe fruit never falls.

Clay Shirky, the NYU professor, sees an age-old tale playing out:

“Whenever young people are allowed to indulge in something old people are not allowed to, it makes us bitter. What did we have? The mall and the parking lot of the 7-Eleven? It sucked to grow up when we did! And we’re mad about it now.”

Shirky's one of the more astute analysts of the digital realm, but while the tree he's barking up here may be the convenient one it doesn't strike me as being the right one. First of all, I don't sense any strong intergenerational resentment going on. Sure, there's some parental anxiety about shadowy predators and such, but that's hardly inspired by envy. The more common reaction from the older set is some variant on "Look at little Suzy - she can carry on six IM conversations simultaneously!" The idea of free sex produced envy. The idea of free simulated sex doesn't.

Second, I'm not sure I understand how exactly a virtual mall, where you're one of the products, is necessarily superior to a real mall, where there's at least some vague line between the commodity and the self. Hasn't the marketer's message, once you boil it down, always been "Friend me!"? As for that 7-Eleven parking lot, I was there, and it wasn't so terrible. Are people really bitter and mad that their kids get YouTube videos instead of Big Gulps? Sugar water is sugar water.

More intriguing is Shirky's sense that "there may actually be real neurological changes involved.” I'm sure he's right, and that brings us to the really interesting question: What happens when the medium becomes the person?

Comments

"More intriguing is Shirky's sense that "there may actually be real neurological changes involved.” I'm sure he's right, ..."

You just proved the old-bitter-grouch theory.

OH MY GOD, IT'S *CHANGING* *THEIR* *BRAINS*!!!
(I was going to say "eating their brains", but sigh, I'd be setting myself up for a deflection that though that was the implied idea, it didn't come right out and say that, so yadda yadda not playing fair ...)

I assume that you - and he - know all about the history of how every technological advance gets this punditry, you can find the same stuff 50 years ago about television. Now that pundits have grown up with television, that one is a marginalized complaint.

We're just seeing it played out now with The Internet.


Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 6, 2007 09:59 AM

I think the real important factor here is the parenting: parents don't realize the ramifications of what their kids are posting on the Internet, and that it WILL stick to them for the rest of their lives. An uneducated parent will produce a kid who grows up to be an adult with a lot of unwanted baggage in the form of pictures with their head in the toilet, doing bong hits, and giving the finger to the camera. At some point people are going to realize that what they put on the Internet is part of their identity, but not a part that is so easily changed as their clothing or their hair--it's much more permanent than that.

Posted by: Jason Kolb [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 6, 2007 10:09 AM

Seth, I think you can be curious about the possible neurological effects of a new universal medium without being bitter or grouchy, or even old. I'm sure television has had neurological effects as well. The fact that we've adapted to them - that what was once strange is now normal - is part of the point. Nick

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 6, 2007 10:11 AM

Nick, as a theoretical matter, I suppose it's possible. But, like brain sex differences, in practice, it's almost always a story fabricated for popular consumption (there's negatives stories and a backlash/lobbying of positive stories, but these are culture war, not investigation). The "neurology" is a metaphor for the usually crotchety issue of "What kind of people are these kids"?

So "bitter" may not be the best word - "apprehensive" may be the most accurate.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 6, 2007 10:24 AM

Initially, I read the key phrase in your opening sentence as "today's post-modem youth movement", which I think describes it perfectly.

Posted by: Berislav Lopac [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 6, 2007 11:14 AM

I like Seth's comment. This is not about new media or the person becoming media. Its about the coming of age process in adolescents. We all did it or will do it.

Posted by: MarcFarley [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 6, 2007 12:28 PM

I like Seth's comment too. I think the 'old generation' [the pre-modems?] often resent or fear the 'new generation' [the post-modems]. Perhaps this is because time forces them to surrender control.

"At some point people are going to realize that what they put on the Internet is part of their identity, but not a part that is so easily changed as their clothing or their hair--it's much more permanent than that."

I doubt MySpace and Blogger et al will invest much in making todays 'shitstream' (to quote Nick) content accessible to the future... Finding old content online is hard enough already (eg http://www.archive.org/web/web.php).

Posted by: Iremonger [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 6, 2007 05:01 PM

Nick wrote, "What's fascinating is that, in contrast to earlier youth movements, this one is not about rebellion. It's about acquiescence. What we're seeing looks like a mass surrender, pursued with great enthusiasm and packaged for easy consumption."

I disagree: I think it is a rebellion. After all, who is trying to stop them? Isolationist parents, schoolmasters, authorities in general. If you want to stretch it, it's a stand against the conservative trend of state secrets and trade secrets despite the call for transparency. They rebel against the people who believe that everything has its place and privacy is important.

Of course, I'm not sure about this; I don't have data of any kind; but I think that framing it as a "mass surrender" is probably inaccurate.

Posted by: Michael Chui [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 7, 2007 01:43 AM

There was a student/hippie commune named "K1" here in Germany in the 60's and what they did was they would have journalists pay them before they could take pictures of the sleazy joint they were collectively living in (showcasing piles of mattresses on the floor etc.) They made their lifes -including intentionally overstated notions of polygamous sex- public as a form of rebellion against their parents's tight morale. It made big waves back then -and together with what followed it changed the whole of society. It appears to me that youngsters are doing the same today. The medium has changed and capitalism has found a way to cash in on it from the beginning. Since everybody seems to do it the real rebellion nowadays must be REFUSING to have a MySpace page asf. and shroud yourself in mystery.

Posted by: darkobserver [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 7, 2007 08:17 AM

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