Generation X caught in the web

Generation X is the only generation to have had an analogue childhood and a digital adulthood. For them, this amplifies the feeling that something was lost through digitalization. Recent brain research indicates this is not simply a feeling. In fact, the brain changes when life is led online. The Internet fundamentally changes our culture because it alters what we read, and how we read.

Quite a while ago Generation X began to have children who have lived a totally digital childhood. The offspring do not feel any sense of loss. It is only we – Generation X – who talk about it. We have difficulties concentrating and experience an odd perception of time and the times. This is a sign of a dramatic cultural-historic point of departure on several levels.

Generation X was born between 1965 and 1980. We considered ourselves to be the generation that sidestepped convention. It was especially the acceleration of a marketing and advertising culture throughout the Eighties and Nineties that was the object of our sarcasm and irony. We rejected anyone who attempted to tell us who we were, which products we should buy, how we should live our lives. “I am not a target market” is the title of one of the chapters in Douglas Coupland’s novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. It was his book and he, if anybody, who defined our self-understanding. Coupland took the words out of the mouths of the advertising agencies and marketing masters and paraphrased them to create new, ironic meanings: McJob: A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no future job in the service sector”. Status Substitution: Using an object with intellectual or fashionable cachet to substitute for an object that is merely pricey; “Brian, you left your copy of Camus in your brother´s BMW”.

Coupland’s description of the generation was mainly meant as a parody of a designation of a generation. The point was that Xers would not be categorized, not even through a designation of a generation. And in the years that followed the discussion bounced back and forth: Is there a Generation X or not? For many years I believed the answer to be, No. In recent years I have had my doubts. Xers have one thing in common: We are the only generation who will experience the transition from analogue to digital technology occurring concurrently with the transition from childhood to adulthood. It gives us a distinct feeling of loss.

The loss describes Xers themselves when they discuss it among their peers. They say, for instance, that they have “problems concentrating,” that they “never read books anymore,” that they instead, “aimlessly surf the Net.” In short, they have lost the ability to contemplate and reflect – and they miss it. They explain the loss as the result of a restless life online, where there are constant temptations to interrupt what you are doing.

Coupland recently expressed a similar notion: “…somewhere around 2003 the texture of daily life inside Western media-driven societies began to morph, and quickly, to the point where, a half-decade later, it´s now obvious to people who were around in the twentieth century that time not only seems to be moving more quickly, but is beginning to feel funny, too.” The quote comes from Coupland’s biography on Marshall McLuhan.

It’s no surprise that Coupland writes about McLuhan (1911-80). McLuhan was a communications theorist known for having visions of the Internet and its cultural consequences. Most of us are aware of his ideas about “the global village” and his assertion that “the medium is the message.” McLuhan’s thoughts remain contemporary because the digital media seen in a historic context are the most extreme examples of how the media form the message. And the Internet has most certainly changed what we read, but what has more dramatic consequences is the way the Internet changes how we read.

What we read most assuredly influences what we spend out (life’s) time doing. It would not be likely that you sat with a delectable dessert before you in a restaurant 20 years ago thinking, “if only I could photograph my tempting dessert and could immediately send a picture of it to everybody I know.” We did not miss sharing nor seeing this type of content in our lives during the Eighties. Now we project pictures of food, of panoramas and of ourselves in a constant flow, only because there is a medium that allows us to do so. The medium is the message. What we see on the Net is certainly an expression of the culture, but if we want to understand how fundamentally the Internet changes us, we need to study how we read.

Nicholas Carr was nominated in 2011 for the Pulitzer Prize for a book, The Shallows (2010), which convincingly describes the cognitive consequences of reading on the Internet. Carr tells how the book was, in its time, also a medium that fundamentally changed the culture by altering the way people think. What we are experiencing from the Internet is not a unique historical phenomenon. Something similar also began to happen at the end of the 1400s when books started to gain significance in European cultural history. This continued through the centuries into the time of Generation X’s childhood. Books played a central role in our learning and development.

When we read a book, we use long-term memory. Long-term memory is your memories and experiences. This information can later be called forth to be used in a new context, either directly or adapted to a situation. You use long-term memory when you need to understand a complex relationship, one in which your knowledge and experience come into play, for instance, when you read a longer printed text such as a book or essay. This is known as “deep reading.” During a deep-reading session, brain activity reflects what is written in the text; that is, if you are reading about love, it activates the part of your brain that reacts to the feeling of love, etc. Deep reading is not in any way passive; the reader experiences an adaptation created from his/her own experiences, which means you bring your past, experiences and feelings into play. When we read “deeply” we understand ourselves in other words.

Nowadays the book has played out its role as the central medium we use for learning. Children of today grow up with a new technology. They read online. When we read online, we do not read “deeply.” We use short-term memory. Short-term memory records information for a very short period of time, from a milli-second up to a couple of minutes. It is not a type of memory suited for recollection and understanding. You use your short-term memory when you drive a car, when you need to remember a phone number for just a little while – and when you read on the Net. Its function enables action and some types of decision making. Once you have used the information in your short-term memory, you forget it. Carr has no doubt that the consequences of the Internet result in a weakening of long-term memory. Those parts of the brain we do not use become inactive, exactly as it is with muscles we do not use.

The weakening of long-term memory is the greatest cultural upheaval we will come to encounter since the proliferation of the book. Consider the lonesome author in his room, or the artist who wanders into nature to find inspiration. Our culture abounds with narratives like this. We want to believe that the individual “can find his own way” and through deep concentration and reflection, find a way through life and inspiration for his creativity.

The novel Generation X  was something of an adaptation of this narrative. The three young protagonists flee from society’s expectations of them and end up in Palm Springs. They get McJobs and tell each other stories to create some meaning in a world they otherwise consider to be meaningless. Through their stories, they find the meaning of life. It is the basic substance of enlightenment: the individual can enlighten himself through knowledge, reflection and contemplation. Enlightenment might finally end with digitalization. Life online has become, as Marshall McLuhan had envisioned it in the Sixties: “There are no remote places. Under instant circuitry, nothing is remote in time or in space. It’s now.”

Generation X wanted out, and they did not want to be a target group for others’ commercial interests. Life online makes both virtually impossible. Both the brain and the powers of commerce work against this. Your behaviour on the Net is almost habit forming. It is almost impossible to go offline. Short-term memory is stimulated by repetition, searches giving quick results and constant interruptions. It is precisely this behaviour Google and many other heavyweights have a commercial interest in – that’s why their design rewards the quick searches and multiple clicks. Every time you are online you create value for Google. Your behaviour, your clicks, your interests and wishes are registered and sold. The buyers are companies who use the information to make you the target of their ads. In other words, you are your own focus group on the Net. And the next time you google something, the net tightens. Your data goes into the algorithm Google has written for you, so what you see and click on has been predetermined.

The concept of the autonomous individual is central to our cultural self understanding. We will hardly see this survive digitalization. In a digitalized world, where each burst of information is pre-planned and habit forming, the concept is difficult to envision and nearly impossible to practice.


  1. I don’t have time for reading books, since I am at uni so my reading list is predetermined for me by the course … and even then I dont have time to read that stuff either … because I am also simultaneously writing 3 books AND a film script … and I did escape the becoming a “target market”, but the price has been poverty … meanwhile, I have reinvented the entirety of human civilisation from the ground up (just a little mental exercise), and looking for a way to bring it all about … so that the dream of Gen-X as you describe it can be realised for everyone (human & non-human alike) ie – not to be a resource to be exploited

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