Society is devolving?
In 2009 the Wall Street Journal published an article by Mark Bauerlein titled Why Gen-Y Johnny Can’t Read Nonverbal Cues. It was one of the first concrete discussions about the potential impact of mobile technology and social media on face-to-face communication between millennials, primarily focusing on their inability to decipher everyday nonverbal communication. Mr. Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, also released a book that year explaining the dilemma at length. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30) warned that the incessant texting, emailing, instant messaging, and social networking that young people take part in would result in an intellectual armageddon. The inability of digital natives to interpret body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions were considered proof of the impending doom. Over the years Mr. Bauerlein has continued to argue that the digital age is making young people less intelligent than their predecessors, ultimately jeopardizing the future of the human race.
The degeneration of some of these interpersonal skills is perhaps inarguable. Digital natives are often accused of presenting themselves unprofessionally: not using proper capitalization on resumes and in emails, texting in the middle of conversations, using acronyms in professional correspondence, slouching or staring blankly during business meetings as if they aren’t being watched. Young people are accused of being apathetic, self-absorbed, coddled and disrespectful. They seem unaware, distracted, or even rude, especially to their elders, who are fluent in more classical communication styles. Naturally, people of older generations are quick to cry doomsday. Society is devolving! The kids have no attention span! Teenagers are selfish, entitled, social media-obsessed, unintellectual zombies who will let the world fall to pieces!
Generation Me? Think Again.
Meanwhile, research left and right indicates that generation-Y is the most educated, tolerant, altruistic, informed, progressive, socially conscious, environmentally conscious, and world-traveled generation yet. Rates of volunteerism in high school and college are higher than ever. There are record numbers of people in their early twenties applying to work for non-profit institutions, the Peace Corps, Americorps, and Teach for America. Violence among youth has plummeted in the last 25 years. IQs are trending upwards. While voting turnout hasn’t changed much over the years, today’s youth is more involved in political organizations and demonstrations. They are more tolerant of other races, ethnicities, and alternative lifestyle choices than any generation before them. They believe in gender equality and fair distribution of wealth. They give more money to charitable organizations, despite comparatively lower wages and piles of student loan debt. They care about the environment and social justice. So what gives?
The Technological Language Barrier
It’s true that social lives and work lives rely on interpersonal skills, so the importance of learning how to connect, engage, and communicate with one another effectively is still important. But older individuals fail to recognize that the very nature of human engagement has shifted right along with technological progress, and it’s millennials who are speaking fluently.
We live in a time where the generational gap is wider than it has ever been, both in actual age and in acceleration of technologies. Not only are individuals living longer, undoubtedly feeling further removed from the generations beneath them, but the language of engagement is changing so quickly that it’s nearly impossible for those who aren’t digital natives to keep up with current styles of communication. The nuances of engagement are so complex that they are almost unrecognizable to those who weren’t raised immersed in it. An older individual watching the digital exchange between two young persons might be unable to identify any kind of meaningful interaction, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. It just looks different than what they know and understand. Digital fluency is the new body language.
A Revolutionary Global Perspective
Today’s unparalleled interconnectedness and access to information contributes directly to the unique world perspective of today’s youth. While older generations love to lament how easy young people have it nowadays, the fact is that while technology has changed the way millennials engage with the world, it hasn’t curbed their curiosity, ambition, and work ethic. Sure, millennials have it easier in many ways; they can access almost any resource, product or service from anywhere at any time. But their absorption in new technologies promotes a unified view of the world unlike any generation before them. Their global awareness is revolutionary. They crowdsource content in a way that promotes accuracy, quality, and community perspective. Instead of learning about conflict in the Middle East in a classroom setting, they stumble upon viral videos on their Facebook feeds exposing first hand accounts from the front lines. The outside world isn’t abstract; it is tangible and gigantic. Their reach outside of their own insulated bubble is limitless. As a result, their acceptance of diversity and alternative lifestyles transcends the barriers that many of their parents or grandparents still operate within – race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and religion. They are constantly exposed to information about people and places that are different from them, whether intentionally or accidentally. Their sense of individualism and self-entitlement does not translate into selfishness; instead, millennials extend their value of individual rights to all individuals.
Technology Is Enhancing Quality Engagement
As technology evolves, both good and bad consequences are inevitable. This has always been the case for all technological progress. Evolving from swords to bombs, from books to television, from hunting for your own food to buying it from a grocery store – there have been skills that have fallen by the wayside as society has become more efficient and complex. But with each of those steps forward, we have freed up our time and our mental real estate to solve bigger and more complex challenges. That is the very nature of technological progress. To assert that the baby boomer generation magically landed smack dab in the middle of the perfect balance between human interaction and technological distraction is arbitrary and arrogant. They are fluent in their own era, just as millennials are fluent in the present era.
Technology itself is not creating a generation of zombie-like, morally vacant, intellectually bankrupt citizens. As it has always done, technology is constantly working to enhance human engagement – to make it more efficient and more effective. Sometimes it hits the mark, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it marches forward nonetheless; progress is never a straight line. From written letters to the telephone to video chatting, technological progress ultimately seeks to bring people closer, not push them farther apart. But just as “the arc of the moral universe…bends towards justice”, so does the arc of technological progress. It is up to the ambitious, intelligent, informed, digital native generation to continue evolving technologies that improve the quality of human connection – technology that works to eliminate the time-consuming distractions impeding quality human connection and allow us to engage more and better.