Three decades after his debut novel made him the unwilling voice of a generation, the author wonders whether – after Y, Z and now C, for Covid – individuality will become obsolete
I’m 59 and a half years old – and these days I no longer feel that I identify as a human being. I’ve turned into an app. I’m a filter for words. I filter the ways I experience the world.
How you identify has always been a big deal. In the late 1980s, I disliked being classified as a baby boomer so much that I had to invent my way out of it; my debut novel, published 30 years ago, was called Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. Why accelerated? By the tail end of the 80s and the start of the 90s it felt as if history was finally emerging from locked-in syndrome. The Soviet Union was over. Liberal capitalism was triumphing. Music changed completely. It became a cliche that every other advertising montage showed someone sledge-hammering the Berlin Wall – and there was this new group of younger people who obviously didn’t fit into any pre-existing category, so who were they? Marshall McLuhan wrote that the oversimplification of anything is always exciting, which is I think what happened with Gen X. The term became a meme back when society only had five or six of them a year.
Let me tell you from experience that nothing makes you cringe more on the inside than being introduced somewhere as a voice of a generation. I spent much of the early 90s in TV studios with perplexed interviewers saying: “But surely all young people are boomers. It would be preposterous to think otherwise.” The thing about a term like “Gen X” is that everyone has his or her own definition, and people always wanted me to agree with theirs. At some point I realised X had become something other than me. It had taken on its own life.
I was born in the 20th century at a specific moment in human history where my brain was exposed to TV and film and then, starting in the late 80s, digital technologies. Marketeers love to carbon date generations. But it’s not a hard science. Now that I see myself as an app, I see one of my jobs is to explain the old era to the new era, but there’s nothing quite so micro-humiliating as making a Brady Bunch reference and the room going silent. Generations are united and divided over sentimental markers much more than when they were born.
The false assumption of human sameness is a key ingredient in generational discussions, because without it, you can’t demonise younger people – and there’s a ton of money to be made from demonising the young. It has been entertaining for me over the last 15 years to see the exact same venom that was thrown at Gen X being thrown at Gen Y (millennials): they whine, they’re lazy, they’re useless and all of that. I think that kind of generational trashing is actually eternal human behaviour – we all just never collectively lived long enough before to see it repeatedly deployed.
Three decades since Generation X came out, what’s changed? Well, millennials are getting old now. There’s even a microdemographic term for those born in the early 80s: “geriatric millennials”. These days, pop anthropology has moved on to scrutinising the mysteries of Generation Z, while Gen Z is now old enough to pick fights with Gen Y. The things that become emblematic of a tribe are often unwitting. For X, it was the flannel shirt. For Y, it was avocado toast. For Z, it is despising avocado toast and skinny jeans. For the next generation, perhaps it will be an industrial tub full of diazepam.
Today, I wonder how much of what we call a generation is simply a matter of any given temporal cohort’s tech exposure during their pre-pubescent neural wiring – plus exposure to global financial cycles.
This discussion of brains and generations is important because around 2010 my own brain started feeling truly different. I realised that I was never going to go back to my old, pre-internet brain: I’d been completely rewired. Ten years later I don’t even remember what my pre-internet brain felt like. I find comfort in the fact that brains all over the planet have been rewired similarly to mine. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that our species has never been as neurally homogenised as it is now. So, from a neural perspective, are generations possibly becoming an obsolete notion altogether?
What next? Babies born during the pandemic have been referred to as “Generation C” – for Covid, or Corona. A few years before that, Jordan Hall proposed to reboot the naming system entirely by using Greek letters instead. He suggested “Generation Omega” – the last generation, which sounds glamorous and cool, but then every generation thinks it’s the end of the line. If nothing else, Gen Z has to be wondering what work skills will be truly future-proof from total automation. Me, I think they should start naming generations the way the Americans label hurricanes: start alphabetically and alternate boy/girl.
In my new book, The Extreme Self, which I’ve written with Shumon Basar and Hans Ulrich Obrist, we explore how individuality has been morphing into something else, first because of technology, and then as a consequence of the pandemic. If emotions are being engineered by machines all the time, what does it mean to be a person belonging to a generation any more? Here follow some hints.
Is the “fear of being an individual”. Let’s face it: being an individual is a lot of hard work, and these days I’m unsure human beings are cut out for the job. Individuality has become about as much fun as dental flossing; no wonder it’s easier just to subcontract your identity to QAnon or Antifa. You may not get a million hits for your own Instagram post, but your newly adopted fringe group will get them on your behalf. It’s going to be easier to feel utterly alone and also part of a planetary movement.
The pathology bell curve
I’m always curious about the point at which personality starts being recognised as a pathology. When does somebody go from being bubbly to being rattled to being a train wreck to being diagnosed with something scary? Maybe we should start describing people the other way around. So instead of saying “Sheila is kind of mellow and collects owl knick-knacks,” we say, “Sheila’s brain has a steady flow of dopamine and she is mildly on the spectrum with low-grade hoarding tendencies.” At least you’d know where you stand. You could also have a nature/nurture index, too, a number to tell people what percentage of someone’s behaviour can be excused by, say, bad parents or growing up in a small town.
High network worth individuals
When the internet started for real in the 1990s, everyone thought it would only be used for the forces of good. What drug was everyone taking? And why were people so surprised when it went dark in 2016? Truth be told, it should have gone dark much earlier. I wonder sometimes if Donald Trump is out there quietly building a new internet, in parallel with the blockchainers building Web 3.0. At one point Trump was the most high network worth individual on Earth. He demonstrated that a single individual can transcend august institutions if that individual is networked enough. I wonder who’s now the most connected human being on Earth. Vladimir Putin? Elon Musk? How would you measure it? How do you reward it? (Maybe it’s still Kevin Bacon and always will be Kevin Bacon. Hi. I’m Kevin Bacon. You may remember me from such films as JFK or Footloose.)
The democracy plateau
A curious subset of the implosion of individuality is the cratering of democracy, the dynamic of which is: “The internet has told me I’m incredibly special, so if I can’t be in the majority and have the world run my way then no one can run the world their way.” Does democracy have some sort of built-in suicide pill that sooner or later always gets used? And now that we seem to have dismantled consensus-based reality, what will replace consensus?
The hurt wars
Everyone is outraged by everything these days, even when they’re not even remotely outraged. It’s mostly fake outrage, the emotional equivalent of Diet Coke. Maybe one day we’ll treat the extreme left and extreme right like racist grandparents you only see once or twice a year. Whatever you do, don’t bring up Greta Thunberg or vaccines.
Me. You. Us. Them.
I wonder at what point people stop being people, the exact reversal process of watching newborns become adults. I’m dealing with the elderly much more, and I live in dread of the day someone close to me no longer remembers who anyone is. Maybe it’s the same with generations. We don’t really know when one generation ends and the next one begins. We try and predict the pleasures and hardships they’ll have to endure, but it’s the unintended consequences of the present that dictate the future.
I’ve been Zooming a lot this year, like everyone else, and I always end my calls by closing the lid of my laptop. Maybe that’s all death is: the laptop closing, nothing cosmic, just a gentle click as we stop using our app.
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