January 18th, 2008

ozarque figure

Eldering; about that Generation Gap....

A while back, in the context of "communicating across the Generation Gap," a number of you (a) disagreed with my contention that the gap is wider than it has been since the arrival of the first generation that took literacy for granted, and (b) asked me to explain why I perceived the gap as so vast. I thought I'd give that explanation a try this morning, with the caveat that I'm well aware that there are many different younger generations and that what I say doesn't apply universally. Most of my interaction with the younger generations is of three kinds: with my twelve grandchildren; with the youngsters [for me, that's people from roughly age 12 to age 50] who go to science fiction conventions; and with the readers of this journal. That may not be a very representative sample, but it's reasonably numerous.

The world I was born into was so different from today's world that it might as well have been Mars. I was a child in a world where a long distance telephone call was a Very Big Deal. A world where you and your family would get all dressed up in your Sunday best on weekends and holidays to "go for a ride in the car," and that was a big deal too. A world where -- with a very narrow range of exceptions that I knew nothing at all about -- there was literally nowhere to go after midnight outside your home, because everything was closed, locked, and dark. A world without air conditioning. It was most emphatically not this world I live in today.

It seems to me that there are three major differences that define the Generation Gap as I perceive it, and that make it seem so vast to me: the radically different understandings of time, and of space, and of what -- for lack of the right word -- I'm going to call privacy.

For the youngers, now, time is pretty much irrelevant. There's nothing they could be doing at nine o'clock in the morning that they can't be doing at two o'clock in the morning, or any other time whatsoever. Everything is open, unlocked, and all lit up 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. If they don't want to try to reach a friend because they know that friend is sleeping and has a day's work ahead, no problem -- they just reach out to friends who live in parts of the world where it's an appropriate time for socializing. That's a semantic revolution. There's no way I can make my grandchildren understand how alone people used to be in these United States from midnight till dawn, or how long it took us to find out about things that had happened, or what all the vocabulary of time -- words like "early" and "late" and "schedule" and "slow" and "fast" and "during" and so on -- meant to us.

For the youngers, now, space is pretty much irrelevant too. They don't yet have a reliable "Beam me up" device, but it doesn't really matter, because even if one of their group is in London and another is in Detroit and another is in Beijing they can still be what my generation would have recognized as "together." They can be talking to one another, they can be watching the same movie, they can be playing games, they can be involved in the most intimate shared activities, and where they actually are -- in the sense my generation understands "actually are" -- doesn't matter at all.

Which brings me to the "privacy" issue. Wrong word entirely, but I don't know what the right word is. The youngers are perfectly comfortable being "together" all the time, linked by their cell phones and their laptops and their PCs, even if they're all doing quite different things. There was a comment in this journal some months ago explaining to me that nobody considers it unusual or rude if -- while five of them are in the same room being "together" in my generation's sense of the word -- two are IM-ing with other people not present in that room, and one is blogging, and one is talking on a cell, and another is playing a videogame with a whole bunch of people not present in that room. The whole world, potentially, is with them, and that's fine; they're comfortable with that. For my generation -- to the extent that I can qualify as a generic representative of that generation -- that is as alien as a picnic on Mars.

This is a very difficult topic to write about with any kind of clarity... even for a science-fiction-writer-linguist.