There is a line in the movie Beginners which goes like this, in reference to children of the last 30 years or so:
We are fortunate to feel a great sadness our parents could never afford.
I cannot truly disagree. I have toiled over this idea in my head for a few weeks, and I find that it resonates within me as our defining quality. In our contemporary emphasis on the pursuit and expectation of continual happiness, we have made sadness our true friend, as if the ability to willfully surrender to extreme oscillations between "true happiness" and "true sadness" is some kind of noble fortune. Our parents were too busy working hard and having children to truly know it as we do. They arrived upon it later in their lives, if at all, while those of us in the "digital" generation are afforded it wholesale immediately.
We are a generation adrift in a sea of context. Read carefully: we are not a "lost" generation. We are never lost. In fact, we are so hyperaware of our selves and our surroundings, that the idea of being lost is as foreign to us as the Internet truly is to our parents. We've seen that Generation X, the one preceding ours, has the precursors of our hyperawareness, as expressed by their constant contextualization of marriage. The questioning of a generation typically hinges, as that article suggests, on a collective answer. What is ours? You'd think -- as I once did -- that our generation would be defined by the answer to "where were you on 9/11/2001?" or "what did you do as America's exceptionalism failed?" as if the answers are somehow relevant to our future world. Those questions are about symptoms, not the root causes of our problems.
America is too broad a concept, though, and we no longer truly wish to engage with it (see: the new Republican party). The self is our main arena now, within our cultural identity and our social lives. Individualism and its discontents. The first-world human in the 21st century moves swiftly from abstracting the self, to admiring the self, to destroying their own self.
The real questions of our generation have been more akin to "when did you first sign up for Facebook?" or "how many times did you retweet the news about the Japanese tsunami (or a Middle East protest, or whatever)?" or "did you meet your boyfriend online?" We are being defined by our efforts to codify ourselves. In stark contrast to the Gen-Xers, our real problems are inherent questions of our selves, rather than our parents' influence or true world events. The Baby Boomers get asked about Vietnam; before them, about Pearl Harbor. They were asked about world events that held no ties to a corporate entity like Twitter or Facebook or Fox News or the US Government. I wanted to hope that our generation could be marked by Obama's election, but we didn't have much to do with that, as much as we tried hard to make it cool. It was merely as much of a social media campaign and hypemachine as The Social Network was, and it tells the same story of how our human needs are being replaced by extraneous materialistic desires brought on by a culturally manufactured self-guilt.
This adrift-in-context, sponsored by our affluent who-cares-about-debt/social-media-bubble cultural attitudes, has afforded us the tenacity to be sad in a world brought to our fingertips. Our loves are careless. Our new romanticism is an embedded irony. Our musical and cultural voice is stagnant, mired by nostalgia and limitless choice. Who are we? Who are you, and who am I? What are we, as selves, individuals, in the scope of a larger whole? First we should define what I mean by the self. Largely, my concept of the self employed here is synonymous with what others might call personhood or identity.
The self, classically implied, is a collection of perspectives and culminations of experiences that have been built from factors like race, gender, socioeconomic status, family, friends, trials and tribulations. That's obvious, but it's context-as-external. I am white, you might be black; I am atheist, you are Jewish; we are different. Our parents might describe themselves as liberal, conservative, Catholic, Chinese-American, transgender, homosexual, feminist, sadist. (What a great combo that would be.) More or less, you see what we might call a tag cloud, with the text-size weighted for what attributes may be more prevalent in the person's attitude. If they're really Catholic, and don't really identify themselves as liberal (but have a few liberal leanings), then the "Catholic self" might dwarf the rest. I'm not saying that a person could be as simple as a list of characteristics; I'm merely saying that this is how most people would describe themselves on dating sites, or on Facebook profiles, or on a census. However, the difference is that our parents didn't have profiles. Context was, as I said, defined by what is materially external to us.
Tolerance was the acceptance of this external context. However, of course we are also the sum total of life-experiences that can't fit within a word. That sum of experience being greater than the whole of its parts: this is what forms us, what makes me unique from you. Entering my idea of the new self, I would argue that this perception of uniqueness or greater-than-the-sum self has become true to a fault. We know that everyone is unique, we have been told so since birth. We are working hard at eliminating the idea of minorities in the continuing quest for true social equality. Now, tolerance is a bad word. Instead, we are taught to understand that everyone is equal and the same: liberal openness has replaced tolerance. We're trying to insist that everyone should be happy all the time and opportunity is not the privilege of the unique but the inherent right of all. The online facilitators we have built emphasize this: a person is merely data, and all data is stored equally, and all options for that user shared equally. One of the grant initial philosophical accomplishments of the internet was that it held no biases for race, gender, social status, or creed. On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog. Unfortunately, while this is still true, we have chosen to let everyone know exactly what we are -- but only in ways that we are capable of codifying in detail.
Our technology has enabled us to catalog, process, aggregate, and market-analyze who we are. Furthermore, we are dumbing ourselves down to fit this model of being: the continued codifying of our personalities. In doing so, we become mere feedback loops, responding to our selves before anyone else can. Very quickly, the only reason we use social networks is to project ourselves onto them as we perceive everyone else doing. The idea that everyone is unique in concert with everyone is connected means that such uniqueness is a commodity we have to continually reinforce and reconstruct, and in so doing we make ourselves a commodity since we are tying more and more of our personalities to that online representation. We're generally terrible at doing this, because we're skipping any form of true self-creation (that is, we are mistakingly thinking of it in terms solely of within rather than in terms of without), we are actually all quickly destroying our selves.
We move the self from being an ambiguous, nebulous oft-forgot set of experiences, memories, beliefs, values, and norms, (as our parents were,) to a databased, trended, profiled collection of status updates, relationship entries, wiki pages, and photo sets. We are writing our own immaculate autobiographies, with no wiggle room for reinterpretation or self-reflection. (Hence, our future bosses think looking up our Facebook pages are an accurate way to judge us for employment. I don't think they're wrong.) When all we have of an experience is within ourselves, we can do nothing but self-reflect upon it, and the benefits of doing so are immeasurable in their beautiful evolutionary inaccuracies (we are better for not knowing or remembering incorrectly); every time you upload a photo of a party to Facebook, you're expunging the necessity of it from your memory, and every comment upon it only allows the selves of others to further pull your self from the experience. The race towards who can be the most social is an effort to find out who can be the least self-aware. Who can turn themselves into the product of an algorithm faster than everyone else.
It is a God Machine, our new religion, our faith in powers not even man-made but corporate-made. The foundation of social life has shifted from the Church to the People to the Network. We find beauty in the reduction of our selves to fit the models of our media; our pantheon is the mechanized self-generated lies of nobody celebrities. It used to be that celebrities didn't have to say much, and they were heroes, they were our canvases that we'd paint our hopes upon, but now that Ashton Kutcher has a Twitter account like anyone else (and his name doesn't set off the spell checker) and his voice is one among millions, the belief in him is entirely on us. We are actively allowing him to be a celebrity when once it was something determined by an executive. This is where the lies begin; for we are not truly in charge. We admire ourselves in the false worlds we create between our social lives and our work lives, between our Friends circle and our Acquaintances circle. Surely, we think, we are bettering ourselves... by narrowing down the scope of our collective visions in such grand computerized organizations. The ability to separate your "friends" from your "real friends" in Google Plus is only an accomplishment in condemning us to further depths of willful computer-dependence.
This simultaneous democratization and codifying of culture and sociality is its destruction. My favorite, and I feel like the most accurate, social myth to explain this is what I call the plight of the urban creative. It's one that has been prevalent for a decade or so, as more and more of the first-world's economic "strength" (this being a popular myth in itself) is shifting toward creative professions, and more and more onto the shoulders of city-dwellers, as the populations of cities increases. The tale of this urban creative (culturally expressed as the cliché hipster) is fairly simple, and we continue to emphasize them because we love the idea of ourselves becoming them.
The main protagonist is gender-neutral, often white (though irrelevant, being white gleefully adds an extra layer of inherent guilt), lives in a major city (NYC, LA, etc), and has a job in some bizarre studio space where the only task at hand is either drawing stick figures or generally being creative in some capacity. The profession itself is often irrelevant; you only get to see where they work, rather than what they do; our generation is not defined by profession since work equals life and you should only work at what you love, therefore work itself is only an extension of our selves, and the cooler the place you work at, the cooler you are. And the coolest places to work always look cool. Anyway, this is our protagonist, superficially.
On a deeper level, the picture goes from being seemingly amazing to amazingly depressing. They're not happy, they probably just broke up with a girlfriend or boyfriend (because like work, relationships also equal life), or somebody died, and they have a hard time not showing their depression. In fact, the narrative often shows off their depression. We're not talking about the unexpected, lashed-out depression that was pioneered in Rebel Without a Cause, but the blunt, obvious depression of 500 Days of Summer.
Yet in being vulnerable and pathetic characters depth-wise, we as an audience easily hook into their pain and identify. Over the last dozen years, our major cultural protagonists have moved from being escapism-based to being shallowly identity-based. Shallow because they have to make broad strokes to appeal to the mass audience, there's very little specificity to their depression. (My girlfriend broke up with me is not specific, see: from The Smiths to Dashboard Confessional to Bon Iver.) We no longer want to be Superman or Michael Jordan; we want to be that guy from The Notebook. We want to be sensitive, caring, sad, willing to love, and have all of that on tap and expressive. This is not altogether terrible, except it envelops our senses because it's easy. It's extraordinarily simple to be sad and sensitive and vulnerable and look cool doing it; it's very difficult to become a great athlete, or a scientist, or let alone comic book character, because it takes rigorous self-discovery and patience. Our generation has crafted (or rather, allowed the crafting of) "cool" into something that's much easier to package and sell and identify as. It used to take piercings and expensive leather jackets or suits to be cool; now it's as simple as a raggedy thrift store shirt, a bad haircut, and an iPhone full of sad introspective music and Twitter apps bought with maxed-out credit cards. You don't even have to know how to dance to be cool anymore; and we admire ourselves as we "ironically" play out these games.
That construction of the self used to be the following of role models. In the beginnings of our youth, we had ad campaigns such as Be Like Mike which centered around such role models; but they can no longer compete with the easily manufactured, and much more "real" identities of reality television and finally the true "reality" of social networks. The lives of our celebrities and once-powerful role models have been blown open. We have furthermore eliminated the need for such role models as Facebook and Google find faster ways to aggregate yourself and the people you know, so that our friends (who are just as inexperienced as we are) become role models. We become our own reality shows. A simple thought exercise: name some role models truly on the same infallible level as Michael Jordan or Albert Einstein or James Dean that have come "to power" over the last ten years. Twenty years. (Do you remember what it was like to idolize Jordan?) We don't need such people anymore, and it is only because we have destroyed the need for such greatness by our ham-fisted wholesale acceptance of materialistic "real" life, made accessible and identifiable by our own depression. Because real life is so hard. I wonder how we've been doing it for so long.
The urban creative muddles through the plot, always finds a new girlfriend, but may or may not stay with them by the end of the story. They never get fired for being unproductive at work. The ends are left as unjustified and devoid of purpose as the means. There typically is no discernible climax, and there's always a dénouement. At the end, we should be asking, "what did we just watch?" but instead, we ask ourselves why we aren't so in touch with our emotions as they are. But we seldom ask that of ourselves in the context of our friends. Again: we seek our media to inform us of who we are, rather than seek those around us to help us figure out who they are, and in doing so, find a stronger grasp of life in general. We make our friends into potential role models, but there isn't the depth there necessary for reflection.
Every one of us under 30 likes to think that nobody could tell us what we should do, nobody has a better plan or idea, nobody could help us but ourselves; we could not be more wrong. There is someone older than you that has been through what you're going through, and knows more about it than you do, and yet their advice is often the last thing we'd consider following. We have such disdain for our elders on an emotional level. And yet we were willing to make private LiveJournal posts, and now we're willing to make status updates, but only as long as our parents can't see them. We wish to admire ourselves and those around us in our social circles, but we want it to be a closed system.
In thirty years, if the next generation hasn't firmly rejected technology, I want to see if I can turn the Turing Test onto our children. See if a human teenager can prove they're not a computer, not a mere awkward bundle of references and song choices and networked social circles. The faster Netflix's recommendation engine gets better, the more we are losing our humanity. The next major version of Google Plus might open beta testing by creating your social circles, interests, and status updates entirely for you. The system we are creating is a self-perpetuating one, driven by youthful ignorance and arrogance, and allowed thanks to the rising power of the social-consumer-capitalist corporation over all aspects of life. As a society, we are currently transitioning from the Materialist Age to the true Information Age, when traditional "pay for something" becomes "everything is free". But how can that be? It's very simple: the network allows the corporation to offset the cost of your use by the selling of your data, whether it's your purchase history, your clicks, or your status updates. We are, literally, willing to destroy and sell our selves just to use monetarily free services. The limit to how much of the "self" is sold will only increase as we continue to forge ourselves into things that are trackable.
I remember a program on my Macintosh SE/30 called ELIZA. (Actually, some versions of it are available online.) It was pretty simple: an artificial intelligence therapist. You would type sentences as input, and it would reply. The algorithm of its replying-mechanism is what made it unique: it was reflective, as a therapist would be. It would ask: "how are you feeling today?" and you would say "I'm great, actually" and it would then respond with "why do you feel great?" It would pick apart your input to find adverbs, adjectives, names, and want more information. When it didn't know what to respond with, it would fall back on something like "I see." or "Tell me more." to get you to continue.
I found myself wanting nothing more than these questions and to be questioned. The effect of being asked questions by another is one of true sociality; it is the engaging of knowledge between selves. Writing, in its simplest form, is the self asking questions and answering; reading is the asking of questions you did not know you had and finding their answer. Two people learn about each other the most through honest questions. When it becomes easier to get a computer to ask you questions than to seek out others, we truly have lost ourselves, and we forget to ask questions of each other. Really, we are only unknowingly speaking to a mirror.
Of course, such questions are commonplace in the systems we use today. Facebook asks "What's on your mind?" and Twitter asks "What's happening?" and now Google Plus asks "Share what's new..." It's interesting how we've upgraded from ELIZA to Google Plus: the only feature that has been added is that of "social". Instead of talking to ELIZA, a computer algorithm, we now believe we're talking to each other. This could not be further from the truth: we are still talking to a computer algorithm. It is still picking apart our words, our choices, our interests. Smart nerds know this, harness it, and make better software to predict what you might want to buy. Better yet than this, though, are the mathematicians who use these vast collections of social data to predict what markets will grow, which ones won't, what entire demographics of people would be willing to buy, and then selling this aggregated information to advertisers. The real money isn't made in selling you something through a social network. The real money is made by amassing as much data as possible and selling the data itself. An answer to the question "what does a 16 year old want to buy?" which is backed by 500 million users is something you can hardly put a price on.
Who holds the keys to the new self? Facebook. Google. Amazon. Apple. They are the new East India Trading Companies, who control not only the trade of goods, not only the armadas of ships that carry them, but the countries and cultures that both supply and buy the product. Now that the trade is in information and not tea or opium, the market moves literally at lightspeed. Our minds must move at lightspeed to catch up, leaving no time or room for reflection, solitude, the pursuit of understanding. We become hollow, and we feel a great sadness our parents didn't yet have access to. I like to think that the parents' of the Gen-Xers were the first to see that sadness, and they all got divorced because of it. They're still getting divorced over it. Somewhere in the 90s we, as an affluent culture, were hit with a tidal wave of existential crisis: a great questioning of what we have created in America and the first world. The response was to run from it, to bury the self, to condemn their children (see: us) to consume media until we become mere media. (The same crisis occurred in the 60s, and the answer was more drugs and freer sex.) Now we are lonely nodes in the network, connected ad nauseum, adrift in a sea of context.
We will reach the edge of our network one day, all connections having become infinitely knowable by the systems we use, and there will be true nothingness staring back at us. It will be a modest reflection. Another tidal wave of existential crisis will wash over us then, and perhaps none will be truly self-aware to even know it.
The idea of the self is a wonderful thing, but we continue to take it for granted. Who we are is as malleable as we allow it to be, and it adapts as time changes us. We usually grow up and grow out of every social and cultural trouble we encounter. But our culture is trying to extend our adolescence. They want us to stay dumb, longer. 40 is the new 20? I have no idea why. The median age for getting married or having kids is being pushed later and later, because nobody wants to make those kinds of decisions anymore. We're made to feel as though we can't make them. I'm not saying we should go back to getting married by the age of 21, but we should have the social confidence to handle real decisions that affect ourselves and those around us. Too often now we shy away from such decisions, and wish only for some graceful ignorant and indecisive bliss.
Our technology is currently the struggle between how we define ourselves versus how we let ourselves be defined. Context-as-external versus context-as-internal: the context of everyone else against the forces we feel within us. It has always been this way. But to shift entirely toward the latter, as we have been, is to say that by our adolescence we have experienced enough of the world to actually be anybody. The limitlessness of our reach in terms of sociality and information would have us believe so, but it is a disastrously false assumption. Very few 16-year-olds are unique individuals, nor should they really be. Very few 20-year-olds are, either, though they usually think they are.
Our generation's staunch resentment of immaturity is absurd: it's a fact you can't change, you are immature, and you can only work to improve yourself or remain stagnant. Embrace the challenge, experiment with it, feel yourself growing up into a real person. Our generation needs to slow down, find some humility, extend the range of our experience, and learn to self-reflect upon them. I've said this before, and I'll keep saying it: we are in total control of who we are, but you cannot be if you do not understand tolerance, change, and your own ignorance. If you want to, you can become a totally different person, almost overnight, if you know what it is you want to change and how it is to be better. However, the best results can be found with slow, gradual, evolutionary change: it's worked well for life on Earth so far. The greatest aspect of our humanity we can bring to the table is our ability to know how much we are changing, and how to respond to those changes, within ourselves and within our friends. Our social networks and the new selves they are fostering can never represent that.