Friday, April 15, 2016

Middle Schoolers Are Revolutionizing the Planet

I have a better than average understanding of world history. It has gaps, and I’m still learning all the time, but my grasp of content, forces of change, and angles of observation is rather wide. Cultures and civilizations I am unfamiliar with I take pains to study.

Usually this directly translates to my being a better teacher, teaching courses such as AP World, AP Europe, World History and U.S. History or World Religions and Art History. But for the past two years I have been teaching technology to middle school children.

These are children born 2003/2004. And this fact has some very interesting repercussions, in a world historical context, which aren’t being discussed. To explain that, a quick word on my own childhood.

The music I listened to, on LPs, were my mom’s records – mostly Broadway and oldies. The VHS we had were ones my parents had bought, same with the books on the shelves. When a show my dad wanted to watch on TV came on, we would watch it with him. So when The Simpsons did the Monorail Episode I got the joke – because my mom was a fan of The Music Man, which I’d seen and listened to.

Culture was inherited from our parents.

There was some chip-away over the years. It was usually child-centered, though. For example, Saturday morning cartoons, a tradition begun in 1960, represents an example of culture not inherited from parents, but it was certainly dictated by society’s elders – network executives and advertisers who wanted to reach the kids, the kids, dammit! In the realm of audio, many decried the Walkman as being the death of the family unit – kids buying cassettes without supervision and listening to that terrible rap/metal/rock and roll/Elvis Presley… Comic books, too, weren’t as much the purview of adult readers as they were for young ‘uns.

But in a way these don’t contradict the point of culture being inherited from parents/elders. Youth have always had their own idiosyncratic traditions, games, and mores. The knowledge that the Ol’ Jennings House on the corner was haunted – inherited knowledge from older siblings, this is not new. Nor does it preclude, or in any way, contradict my point. Despite knowing the age-exclusive neighborhood kid-culture, parents still commanded a significant measure of control over other cultural inheritance. After talking about the Jennings House we can picture a young boy running home because at dusk prayers begin.

As we get older we select our own culture. We decide what clothes we want to wear, posters to have on our walls, groups to hang out with, identities to try on. We watch what we want to watch, read what we want, consume what we want, and browse the internet for what we want. And it is this latter point that is the critical aspect for children I am teaching born in 2003/2004.

To say these kids are “digital natives” is true, but insufficient. There are post-Web 2.0 kids. They have never been without YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Vine has been around since they were in elementary school. They know of no other way of living. The iPhone was released when they were three years old. They don’t remember a time before smartphones.

Much has been discussed of this obvious fact, but not much, I don’t think, of a very important issue:

This is the first generation, in the history of the world, which selects its own culture since childhood.

And that is significant. My middle schoolers have favorite YouTube channels, Instagram accounts, Tumblr accounts, and Vine stars. They have owned smart hones since they were ten years old – the internet in their pocket, and private. They have to make their own culture, and are embracing whatever they like. They are not just creating their own child’s culture. This is not the same as choosing to watch Nick or PBS for Saturday morning cartoons before your parents are awake. These devices are how they consume almost all culture. To put it another way: culture is not being inherited from elders in the same way as before. And that is revolutionary.

To step back for a moment, I want to make clear this is not some alarmist call to ‘fix’ anything. Nor am I making the ridiculous claim that they aren’t inheriting anything. The boy mentioned before still needs to put away his phone for Hebrew lessons. However, the cultural inheritance of prior generations has undoubtedly changed, with as of yet unforeseen consequences.

What happens when a generation privately selects their culture, from when they are ten years old? We can’t yet say. The obvious issue, I think I can safely predict, though, will be shared culture – references, common idea/ideologies, values. It’s hard to stand around the water cooler talking about last night’s shows if every person standing there was watching something distinct. Imagine how much more difficult for people who have no shared…anything. Tumblr, Instagram, and YouTube – these are self-selecting culture machines. You never need to see anything you don’t want to. Moreover, each is so deep that you never really have to leave them to be satiate in your culture.

Meat-space culture will be drastically effected, but it is too early to say in which way. Either this youthful age bracket will grow up and seize upon the importance of meat-space interaction – just so they have something to talk about with others – or it will become increasingly obsolescent. What is clear is that it won’t be the same as it is now. Is this just superfluous commentary? Of course, as time marches on, the future is never the same as the past!

But allow me to return to world history. All societies, since the first mud hut congregations, have had culture inherited by elders. This is not the passing of some incidental aspect of our society. This cultural-shift is far more profound than flivvers eclipsing horse-and-buggies or the Constantine’s adoption of Christianity in 312 C.E. Globally, all societies, have had a control in the culture inherited from elders since time immemorial. Whether that culture is Polynesian, Mayan, Edo, Scotch, or Navajo – parents and elders dictated the amount of culture, and what culture, you ingested. The slow fraying of this, begun with universal education and the rise of the mass market book in the Industrial Revolution, began picking up speed only when industrial technology became commonplace in the farthest reaches of the Earth. As smart phone technology penetrates to these same corners, the middle school class I teach is crest of a coming wave – the first glimpse of what will likely become a planet-wide trend. The internet is not like a paperback – which can be easily suppressed and not stocked on a bookseller’s shelf. To have the internet in your pocket from childhood means you select your own culture – and no one can dictate what you consume. It is private, it is limitless, and it ranges from pictures to movies to music to literature. The slight resentment of the preteen who didn’t get to watch South Park, or The Simpsons, or stay up and watch Letterman or Leno – will have no counterpoint. A parent, short of taking the child’s phone, can’t stop them from watching anything.  The arguments of the 1980s about children listening to morally reprehensible music, foolish enough at the time, have moved beyond quaint – if raised today it would be hopelessly out-of-touch and naïve.

The outcome of this cultural revolution? Who can say? But that it is a revolution happening right beneath our noses is undoubtable. And no one seems to be talking about it.

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