Among the detritus to survive my late adolescence are a few cases of cassettes, dozens of paper books, a crate of vinyl albums, and many plastic albums filled with CDs. Typical Gen X ephemera. Today, scanning all of that and creating digital versions would require about 20 gigabytes of storage.
Back then I would have needed to spend around $15,000 to buy a bunch of hard drives to store that stuff, roughly the same amount as my student loans. I probably shouldn't say that so loud that millennials might hear, but it would have seemed like a lot of money at the time.
Today the local electronics store gives you 32-gig SD cards free with a coupon. Which is insulting. I lugged this essential information around for three decades and you tell me it fits on a black chip of plastic smaller than my (admittedly curiously broad) thumbnail?
I hate the concept of generations. Maybe it's because I'm Generation X, and I hate popular things. But that's not a correct characterization—I enjoy things, dammit. I have been to therapy and I am capable of like. I tweet. I leave others' yums unyucked. I am glad you like Coldplay. I welcome feedback. It's cool that you believe in astrology (sound of grinding jaw).
A generation, at its footnoted best, is a sociological tool intended to make sense of behavior across large cohorts—i.e., if geography can influence a culture, then so can time: market crashes, earthquakes, war, the VMAs. Certainly a noble horseman of the Khan had a different worldview than I do, and drank more horse blood. But that's not what generations represent right now. Generations are drama.
Oh poor millennials. “They are largely self-absorbed and extremely focused on personal appearance. But they are vaguely aware that identity is primarily a construct of culture and family conditioning, variables over which they have little control.” Actually that's a description of Generation X as drawn by marketers trying to sell them stuff at Lollapalooza. In 1958, teen researchers were talking about the “young phone addict” developing his personality. And so on, back to clay tablets, where I'd guess a dude named Timgiratee complained that teens don't buy enough barley.
Anyone can make a pop generation. Do it with me: Subtract 20 from the current year and round to the nearest multiple of five. Give it a name, like the Double Zeros or the Naughties, and describe the universal qualities of youth (Jealousy, Sex Drive, Openness, Narcissism, or JSON) as the side effect of new technologies and trends. “The critical thing to know about Naughties,” an imaginary critic might say, “is they're obsessed with their communication devices and social status. They will never invest in low-yield bonds.”
Worse, I found myself starting to buy in. After 20 years of never giving the tiniest hoot about my own generation, and as a person of a certain age in a management capacity, I fell prey to the 20 or 30 articles a day about dread millennials entering my feeds. I've plopped down in a conference room to moan over the youth with their crying and social media and their refusal to prioritize my exact goals. Why won't young people simply submit to my whims and admit I am right? I am only trying to profit from their labor.
The pop concept of generation is about placing us in a box of singular, predictable, manageable identities, branding us so that we might more readily hate each other, and then stepping right into River City to market to the carnage (“and that stands for pool”). Don't we have enough of all that? My children are roughly the same as I was, just less into computers. My grandfather grew up on a farm between the wars, trapping raccoons. Later, together, we watched Knight Rider.
One of the things that is joyful about the current youth, for me as a mid-old, is that they are creating a new world of zillions of identities, in an age of chaotic recombination and Finstas. One day a furry will win major public office in a fursuit, and wear their suit to the chambers, and that'll be that. The world is unruly and will not behave. As someone who struggled (still struggles) to figure out what I was even about, I've always believed that people had the right to define themselves, and it's thrilling to see it suddenly in practice, even if sometimes I'm a little uncomfortable with all the drama.
Not that they care what I think.
Generations imply some giant disruption in the universe. I like curves more. Moore's law (always more transistors), Metcalfe's law (bigger networks are more valuable), experience curves (making things gets cheaper when you learn by doing), and so forth. I like these thumbnail rules because they encapsulate the Great Muchness more than some theory of intergenerational strife. It's terrible that we're headed into global climate catastrophe, but then again, we're only facing doom because for 75 years no one started a nuclear war.
We aren't so different, are we? Just born along different curves.
I trundled from concert to concert in the waning days of the Clinton administration. Recorded music was precious and carried from place to place; my 20 gigs weighed a lot. Now music is more like food—something to be enjoyed, digested, remarked upon in passing. We all still like it, though. And in 20 more years you'll have a personal petabyte nearby, enough storage to hold a hi-def video recording of 30 continuous years of your life, sleep included. Or you could download all of Sci-Hub, the great illegal archive of 80 million scientific articles, now available via torrent and presumably forevermore, and have most of science on your phone, with room left over for porn and recipes. You will always have enough space for your thoughts, and all the other thoughts too.
So our sleep will be transcribed and robots will deliver our sneakers, which will themselves be computers. Technology will not solve bad marriages, bad eating, or racist thoughts, nor stop DisneyWarnerNetflixQuibiPlus from making superhero movies. I find it profoundly helpful, then, to not just reject the concept of generations but to invert it: The immense changes in technology show us, again and again, year after year, that we are basically the same as ever, just reacting to our place along curves of life well out of our control. One can get very mixed up about what makes us human. And it would, in fact, behoove all of us on the grayer side to get to know and love our peculiar youths, so that they might speak well of us when we do not matter anymore.
Paul Ford (@ftrain) is a programmer, award-winning essayist, and cofounder of Postlight, a digital product studio.
This article appears in the March issue. Subscribe now.