On Gen Y Utopianism

There was another blog post on the future impact of Gen Y this week. It annoyed me.

I have to admit that I have an immediate and strong negative reaction whenever I read or hear someone talk about Digital Natives or how Gen Y is going to change everything. This is troubling because I fully agree with many of the basic assertions typically found in these arguments. I agree that the online experiences, media choices, and thousands of hours spent playing video games have a significant effect on the learning preferences and styles of the newest generation of college students. I agree that educators concerned with maximizing learning for these students need to be aware of their preferences and modify our pedagogies to suit our audiences. Given these areas of general agreement, why do articles like the one linked above annoy me so much?

“Hey you kids, get off of my lawn!”

Is it possible that I’m a just another reactionary curmudgeon? Am I just on the wrong side of the latest generation gap? I think I need to give this honest consideration, but I doubt this is the case. When Clay Shirky presents arguments of a somewhat related nature I tend to find them reasonable and compelling. When John Beck and Mitchell Wade make their arguments for the so-called “gaming generation” changing business practices I paid them respectful attention and was largely persuaded that their analysis was sound and based on solid methodology, even if their conclusions seem a bit overstated. When James Paul Gee writes about key learning principles found in good video games, I followed his argument with interest and understood that the quality of the learning was key, not the current media fad. So even though I tend to be grouchy and remain attached to my existing opinions, I believe I can dismiss reactionary grumpitude as my primary motivation for being annoyed with folks who apparently want adult professionals to start acting like children. Where then, does my dislike for certain optimistic visions of the future derive?

It can all be explained with Logan’s Run

From the BBC Comedy series Spaced:
Tim: You’d be dead in four years’ time, if this was Logan’s Run.
Daisy: That’d be terrible.
Tim: I know. I’d look like a twat in a jumpsuit.
Daisy: Don’t say that, Tim. That is a word which hates women.
Tim: What, twat?
Daisy: No, jumpsuit.

The answer, I think, can be found in Logan’s Run and Jitterbug Perfume. I’ve somehow managed to grow up and now I’m afraid of death. In part, my reaction against youth-based utopias is founded in the fear that comes from realizing I am no longer young. Like Logan and Alobar, I find myself enjoying life after youth and I’m not willing to step aside and have my new point of view declared irrelevant. I’m not reacting to the assertion that the young have adapted to new media in ways the rest of us can learn from. I am reacting to an enthusiasm for those two ideas that implies childishness is an evolutionary step beyond maturity. I’m in favor of integrating new media studies, Web 2.0, and Generation Y information preferences into our library services, but not ready to immediately abandon all that is useful in the 1.0 world.

My main problem with Prensky and his ilk is that their praise of the information preferences of Generation Y seems to lump in too much that is childish with their salient observations about new media. Shirky, Beck and Wade, and Gee make related observations about communication, Web 2.0, video games, and information that recognize potential advantages in Generation Y without implying that childish behavior is progress. It is possible to be fully engaged with the new media and what they mean without completely neglecting the warnings of Marshall McLuhan or Jacques Ellul. The new is worth both exploring and understanding, but it is foolish to ask that it be adopted before we can come to a rational decision about whether or not it is an improvement.

I’m not even against optimism in general. The newly coined term Poptimistic seems to be significant as well. I admit that I prefer a bleak Blade Runner vision of a future dystopia to the “super-saturated richness, hyper-realism, brightly lit in even the furthest corners, up tempo, and generally positive” vision that is Poptimistic, but Poptimistic art is still cool. I hope that a fully connected and tuned in generation will revolutionize information culture and solve all our problems. I’m just not holding my breath. After all, I’m Generation X and I grew up hearing about how the Baby Boomer generation set out to change the world with peace, love, and idealism. Unfortunately, I’m also aware that the legacy they are leaving the rest of us with is environmental catastrophe and a broken social security system.

So by all means bring on the new. Let’s have social networking, parallel processing, and community generated information. Let’s just not forget how to evaluate these things or suspend our judgement in the race to keep up.

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