Jan 22, 2014

    Thou shalt not judge Generation Z

    IT'S not easy, being of a certain generation, to avoid the dinner conversation that veers into a lament about the short attention span, constant device distraction, sad superficiality and online exhibitionism of a younger generation geared to life in 140 characters or less.

    You have to duck under the table or at least bite your lip as yet another jeremiad about the depredations of social media unfurls: How the screen has taken over. How flirting is not what it used to be. How genuine experience is being lost.

    It is as if baby boomers had all fallen prey to some collective amnesia about the fact that our parents understood nothing about how we communicated, how we interacted, how we dated and mated. They had no idea. We have no idea, either.

    More things do not change than do. Seduced by all the 60-is-the-new-40 babble, they fail to see that their irritation about Twitter, Snapchat and the rest is, in essence, irritation at the new, and that in their grumbling, the most potent factors are incomprehension and sheer incapacity.

    The advent of the book certainly left monks seething in the seclusion of their cells, grumbling about how nothing could replace the illuminated manuscript for depth, and how the vulgar masses would succumb to the ephemeral thrill of the printed page.

    Well, we have survived printing and books. We will survive Kindle, too, even if appropriation is now bloodless, no more than pressure on a button or a page-turning movement applied to a screen.

    The whole 140-character thing is, of course, a canard. Worse, it is a betrayal of ignorance. The genius of Twitter is instantaneousness and compression.

    It is solipsistic, a form of narcissism and, at the same time, the ne plus ultra of outreach. Its essence is the link. Through links, tweets are in fact very long, so long that Twitter is a great way to waste time. It is also a great scattershot way to stumble upon the unexpected or the enriching.

    Repeat after me: Thou shalt not complain about social media or judge the habits of a generation you do not understand.

    Remember, boomers - born in the mid-1950s - that you were lucky, arriving midway between the atomic bomb and the release of The Beatles' Rubber Soul, at the start of a post-war boom that would endure for decades, safe from the Nazi death factories, too late for the trenches, not too late for flower power.

    Such luck could not but build forms of amnesia. Weren't things always this good and love always this free? The distance between our parents' generation that had known the war and our own insouciant band was not easy to bridge.

    We should not fall prey to new forms of amnesia when it comes to the Facebook generation.

    And we can always fall back on unchanging truths, like these lines from Walter Benjamin: "Work on a good piece of writing proceeds on three levels: A musical one, where it is composed; an architectural one, where it is constructed; and finally, a textile one, where it is woven."

    The next generation, in time, will discover this too. And if they don't, that's fine.


    The writer, 58, is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times.