[ This week a guest post from George Mattei on technology and generational change – Aaron. ]
I remember clearly the first time I saw the internet. It was circa 1992, I was in my late teens, and my best friend’s uncle had just installed an early version of Prodigy internet service on his computer. He showed it to us – describing how you could look up news, get weather and even send letters all electronically. It was a really neat service, and I immediately saw that it would be popular. However, I’m not sure if I realized how transformative the internet would be.
Looking back on that moment, and projecting forwards to the golden years of my life, I can’t help imagining that one day I will be like those old ladies you would meet every once in a while that would tell the story about the first time they saw a “horseless carriage”. Those are great stories, if only because of the context – it’s interesting to imagine what life was like back when cars were a rare and fascinating and before they had permanently transformed life as we know it.
I has been rare so far that a truly transformative technology appears that absolutely revolutionizes our everyday lives. 70-80 years ago it was 2 things – automobiles and the infrastructure they begat, and alternating current electricity – which suddenly empowered people to live in far flung locations and still have access to all of the amenities that previously were only reserved for those in the cores. In recent years clearly the internet and communications innovations have revolutionized how we live and work and play.
A hallmark of these technologies is that few realize at first how transformative they will be, and it takes at least 20-30 years for their effect to be fully realized. After all, by the year 2000 everyone knew the internet was the next big technology, but few realized how powerful social networking would soon become. In the same way few realized in the early 20th century the impact that automobiles would have on depopulating cities and creating vast, sprawling metro areas.
Interestingly, generations seem to react to these disruptive technologies differently, often based on the period in their life cycle when they appear. There appears to be a definable pattern which – in my opinion at least – is as follows:
- The old guard fears it
- The new guard embraces it and molds their life around it
- The children of the new guard moderate it to fit into but not define their lives
We can draw parallels between the Boomers and Millennials, both the first generations to come of age during the blooming of a disruptive technology, by looking at some of the criticisms of these generations by older generations:
- They are self-centered
- They are too wrapped up in their lifestyle which is dominated by (automobiles) (the internet).
- Their embrace of this technology leads to social ills:
- For Boomers, the love of automobiles and suburbia drained our cities, led to de facto segregation and stretched our ability to fund infrastructure
- For Millennials, the love of the internet has led to decreased face-to-face social skills, a need for instant gratification and no less than the death of privacy itself.
To some degree these statements are probably correct. This is not to downplay the obvious advantages that new technologies bring to the table – clearly automobiles and the internet have contributed tremendously to our economic and cultural advancement – but to illustrate a cultural phenomenon. A generation raised during the early blooming of a transformative technology tends to embrace it. They seek to change the world, and see technology as one of the main tools to mold their own future and their generational aspirations. The ascendant generation is quite willing to overlook or minimize the detrimental effects that new technology can have. Even more, their blatant disregard for past social norms and constructs is necessary in order to rewrite the world in their vision. Just as the Boomer’s Summer of Love and Woodstock (not possible without cars) destroyed the Ozzie and Harriet/Superman vision of America, the internet is transforming our society today, with all the benefits and risks that entails.
Older generations, on the other hand, seem to see disruptive technology primarily as a threat – after all, they were once young world-changers too, and they formed the world to their liking. And now suddenly here comes this new generation with this new technology that will upend their functional social framework in favor of a new paradigm…a frightening prospect for them. How else to explain the legions of Boomers and older people that cannot bring themselves to become functionally literate with computers? They are often afraid they will “break it”, when this fear is mostly unfounded. Contrast this to driving. It is one of the most dangerous things we do in a typical day, and yet few of us think much about it. Some of this is due to brain plasticity-studies show that younger brains are more adaptable to technology than older ones are. This combination of less adaptable minds and well-established social construct are leading Boomers to join the legions of past generations bemoaning the ills of a new generation.
This “best of times, worst of times” narrative has another act, however. To explore this, we can look at another interesting phenomenon – that is the trend of Millennials to live in urban areas. As an interconnected generation, Millennials truly are more communal. Even though, as some studies show, their face-to-face skills may suffer from frequent use of digital communication, they have an ethos – partly born of the internet – that respects everyone’s ability to provide input and be part of the group – and this bleeds into how they live. For example, it’s much easier to go down the block in an urban neighborhood than it is to get in the car to drive 5 miles. That kind of interconnectedness and immediate social gratification seems to be driving Millennials’ living choices.
This is not totally unlike – if somewhat opposite from – the Boomer’s drive for independence. Automobiles at the time represented freedom- from public transit, from parents and from general locational dependence. Suddenly the individual’s ability to choose their own path was paramount, and the freedom of driving seemed to represent this best. While this may have led to the depopulation of our urban neighborhoods, it’s also highly unlikely that the Civil Rights movement would have ever been successful without the Boomer’s viewpoints. They may relish the freedom to live far away from those of a different race or lower income, but Boomers also favor the right of a person of any race to achieve all they are able to. This manifested itself in strong support for the Civil Rights acts of the 1960’s which ended legal segregation in this nation.
While the type of technology itself may partly explain this change, there may be another more overarching reason that Millennials are embracing urban living. The automobile is not the Millennial’s technology of choice. To them a car is a utility, much like electricity. They don’t see it as defining their world or their lives, and they will not allow cars to do so. That’s not to say they don’t use them, but the way in which they use them changes greatly from how Boomers used them. This is why services like Uber and Lyft – not possible without the internet and smartphones – are gaining in popularity in urban areas.
So we see the final phase of this pattern – Millennials are reversing some of the ills of the automobile age, while still recognizing their utility. In fact this is not surprising. Having grown up in the maturing age of the automobile, Millennials are much more likely to have a balanced view of the technology. They have seen both the good and bad it can bring, and will likely keep the best parts of the technology while mitigating the worst parts of it.
Since it appears that timing can shape generational proclivities as much as anything else, we can project this pattern forward to the future of the Internet age. Just as we can now see the side-effects the automobile caused in because of the passage of time, the negative side-effects of Millennial’s technology embrace is just beginning to be understood. But we should anticipate that, as with the Boomers, there will be a more critical judgment applied to the Millennials’ choices as time goes on. Furthermore, while today’s Millennials are likely to overdose on smartphone technology, their children may revolt somewhat against this technology and move towards a more balanced integration of these tools into their lives. In truth, this is where the final assimilation of a new technology occurs.
What will the future bring for our cities and for our communications, and hence for ourselves? No one really knows. However, if I were a betting man, I would bet that this pattern of pendulum swings will continue. For our cities, this is good news – it means that the trend towards urban living is not likely a fad and will continue to strengthen over time until cities reach a more balanced equilibrium with the suburbs. However, for those urbanists that believe the suburb is dead and cities will once again rule the day, a note of caution is in order. Modulation is not conquest, and it’s unlikely that Millennials will give up the best features of the automobile and the benefits they convey.