children of the internet

Written by Patrick J Turner Jr

Published on January 23rd, 2024

Lately I've been thinking about generational theory. I've been thinking about generational theory because I've been thinking about my place in the world. As an older member of Gen Z I recognize my peers and I as being in a unique position in time and space. We aren't quite Millennials (though we often catch a lot of the same flak that they do) and yet we're pretty distinctly different from Gen Alpha.

Now normally I think most generational theory as put forth by William Strauss and Neil Howe in their 1991 book Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069 is kind of bullshit. At least in the form it takes in the collective consciousness, it's typically regurgitated in the form of pseudointellectual gesturing at things older generations think is going on in the minds of select age groups of the population. Sometimes it hits on ideas that may be close to right (with little to no proof), but at the end of the day it's all sort of a guessing game at why people are the way they are. Maybe guessing is all we can do. However, if you're going to make guesses they should at least have some empirical basis to help back it up.

One thing I do think generational theory broadly gets sort of right is the idea of the Digital Natives and Immigrants coined by John Perry Barlow. If there's one thing that does differentiate the generations, it's their relative exposure to computer technology. It's also worth noting that this concept of digital natives and immigrants is also contested and lacks a lot of scientific evidence to back it up. These are popular theories that persist in our mythos for a reason, though they are far from any standard of truth. In other words: some dudes may have been talking out of their ass when they came up with this stuff and I'm about to talk about it further, so take it with two grains of salt for good measure.

The theory goes like this: Gen X, my parents, were raised in a world of primarily analog devices. Computer electronics as we know them today were but small seeds being planted mostly by universities or innovators. Early experimentations with logic boards and computing and their subsequent application to the world of business have built the world that we live in today. My parents witnessed the rapid rise of digital technology and how it changed the world. They had to adapt to it. Their idea of computers grew naturally from arcade machines and Atari to YouTube and Excel sheets. Importantly, they were not born into a world dominated by computers. They grew into the world at the same time which that technology took over. This makes them, and the preceeding generations, Digital Immigrants.

Compare and contrast this to Millennials. Most so called "90s kids" in America were growing up at the time of technology beginning to take a major foothold in culture. They may have surfed the early World Wide Web, instant messaged their friends on AOL Instant Messenger, or played 3D video games on their computers and consoles. As they grew into adolescence, the internet became more social with blogging platforms like LiveJournal or early social media like MySpace. This was the first generation to be more or less "born" into modern digital technology, thus making them the first Digital Natives.

Each subsequent generation has integrated the internet and digital technology more and more in their lives as the world itself has grown more dependent on it. This doesn't mean that each new generation is necessarily better with, or more adaptive to technology than the preceeding generations, but it does mean their exposure to new technology is generally happening at an earlier age. Most Millennials were probably in their mid to late teenage years when they first entered the digital space. For Gen Z and myself, we may have used smartphones or laptops for recreation as early as our tweens. Much ink has been spilt catastrophizing over Gen Alpha and "iPad babies" as they are arguably the first generation to be on the internet consistently before the age of ten. Each generation accesses and learns the new technology of the time earlier than the preceeding generation.

Essentially, if you believe that the progression curve of technology is somewhat exponential (let's not get into the idea of a singularity at this moment in time), then each new generation is being exposed to more advanced technology earlier in their lives than the preceeding generation. My point is this: if technology is shaping the way we interact with the world, what does it mean if each generation is being shaped by technology at earlier and earlier ages?

I'm mostly interested in the psychological effects of this. Digital technology, in particular social media, video games, and other now ubiquitous commercialized platforms in constant use; effect and change our psychology in many ways. Not all of these are bad! I feel we have a tendency to cynically focus on the negative aspects of technology in our daily lives, but it's important to note there are upsides. Technology has allowed us to connect with each other in new ways that were not possible before. I personally have met people through the internet whom I would never had met otherwise. Technology has brought us new forms of entertainment, creation, connection, education, and more that would have been unimaginable even 20 years ago.

However, it's also worth pointing out, and perhaps being a little alarmist (as a treat!) about the negative effects technology has on the human psyche, especially in its current form and progression.

When referring to the current form and progression of technology, I mostly mean its melding with the world economy. The internet and digital technology, while perhaps starting out with genuine aims to aid our daily lives, have now been co-opted by businesses as a tool to make more money. We see this in everything. Apps are being designed like slot machines to hold and keep our attention as long as possible while keeping us coming back from more. Ads can now track and follow us as we surf the web and change their shape to appeal our specific tastes. The internet is becoming increasingly regulated, owned by major tech corporations, and designed to extract as much of our time and money as it can take.

This isn't really the fault of the user in any case either. Technology is being designed from the ground up to exploit our brain chemistry in such a way that we become addicted. It is increasingly common to see people (myself included) lament over their free time being sucked away by doom scrolling infinitely on any of the dozens of apps on our smartphones. Our attention spans are getting shorter. We are spending our money on cheaper products, hastily produced in factories being increasingly automated, advertised to us by flashy ads at all times of the day. We are lonelier than ever as we stare at each other through pixelated screens. None of us can disconnect from the internet or our devices as they are used in our work, our free time, and even aid us in our bodily functions. If there was a point of no return for the digital age taking over our lives, my any reasonable metric we have long since crossed it.

So, where does this leave us? For one, let's refer back to our initial more optimistic belief that technology has some great benefits; because it does. Technology is not inherently evil by any means. I do not intend to take the stance of a luddite or to be distrustful of all technology. I'm a computer scientist. I work with computers every day and use them in my personal life as much as everyone else. My point with this long-winded rant is that technology is largely progressing in negative ways that only serve to increase value for corporations and stockholders. This is less a problem with the technology itself, and more a problem with the designers who only have a mind for finance and capital.

Perhaps then, the conversation should be skewed away from technology and more towards the economic forces which shape it. Late stage capitalism has consumed the technology that was intended to make our lives easier and has warped it to make our lives dependent upon it. Maybe I'm getting a little too cynical and everything will turn out fine, actually. However, when looking at the history and statistics on business and technology, I think it's at least fair to say that maybe business should be regulated in a way that prevents it from weaponizing technology against consumers for profit.

At the end of the day, it's humans, not dollars that use technology. Humans are the ones who shape technology as well. If we can shape our technological development in such a way that is human-centric; that is, with human psychology and needs in mind, maybe we can make a better future for ourselves. Maybe we could make the world a happier, more connected, less desolate place.

I am a child of the internet. I was on the internet from an early age and now use the internet every day for work, social connection, information, entertainment, and expression. I would not be who I am today without the internet; for better or for worse. I have been shaped by it. My neural pathways have grown to seek information from any of the numerous devices I have access to. My first experience on the internet was using Facebook. I have only ever known the internet as it has existed in the modern era. I have only heard stories of the way the old internet used to be. I read about it in history books. The internet will never be like that ever again. It won't be like it is now forever either. Despite it's abstract shape and seemingly infinite size, the internet is shaped by people. It is formed by our culture, laws, and business. Technology is shaped as humans see fit. Thus, let's make it into a shape that will serve us best.