TCS Daily


Life At the Generational Crossroads...

By Ilya Shapiro - December 6, 2005 12:00 AM

The internet exploded in the fall of 1995, with the acceptance of email as a mainstream form of communication and the rise of Netscape as a user-friendly "browser" of the "world wide web." It was a time before Silicon Valley began to siphon off (and then lay off) would-be lawyers and bankers, when Google wasn't even a glimmer in its creators' optical readers. This was the brand new world of the information revolution, and anyone over 30 literally could not be trusted -- at least with anything technological.

That heady time coincided with my freshman year of college. As my cohort -- the tail end of Generation X -- went through the "best years of our lives," Bill Gates caught and overtook Netscape and email moved from the now-primitive PINE to all sorts of webmail options. And we saw the tech boom open the doors to a shimmering New Jerusalem, where hanging out any sort of virtual shingle magically attracted millions of venture capitalist dollars.

All this was a big change economically and, perhaps more importantly, it changed the way people interacted. We could not imagine life without, to use my experience, sending columns to your editor at four in the morning from the privacy of your bedroom or, to use, um, a friend's experience, sending drunken email to last week's hook-up while surfing for internet porn. Accordingly, anyone who graduated college before 1995 was a virtual "immigrant" to life as we knew it.

Over the next few years, computers got smaller and more powerful; Internet Explorer got faster and somewhat less buggy; cell phones finally arrived in North America. (The technology existed before, of course, but land lines are so cheap and ubiquitous here that it took longer for cells to establish their comparative advantage; most of my friends in Buenos Aires were wireless in 1997 by contrast.) Important changes to be sure, but nothing as earth-shattering as 1995, so no new class of "technology immigrants" was created.

By the middle of law school, however, wireless internet had sprouted on finer (and not so fine) campuses everywhere, and nobody bothered answering their land lines anymore because it could only be telemarketers (or worse, parents). Perhaps most importantly -- and to dispel any thoughts that I'm actually writing a TechCentralStation column purely about technology -- 9/11 happened just as the college class that graduated this past spring matriculated.

To these kids with whom I did not overlap at all in college -- Generation Y, who were all born in the (gasp) '80s -- the pre-9/11 world was more about adolescence than geopolitics. (And the fall of Communism was something you read about in textbooks.) So the post-9/11 world, with the omnipresent specter of Islamofascism and its concomitant thermidorian war on terror, is the norm.

Gen Yers grew up instant-messaging (or IMing) each other, and so expected to be able to use their cell phones similarly. Text (or SMS) messaging -- again a late arrival here compared to, say, the Philippines -- allowed them to tell friends where they were in that noisy bar or concert, to flirt silently in class, to relay the latest gossip (all written in cutesy "keybonics," if u c what i mean).

They were all into Friendster, a social networking site, and now Facebook, which is exclusively for the college set -- and which allows fraternity boys to check out the incoming fresh meat in a much more efficient way.

All of these inventions again changed how people interacted. Here, for the first time, my peers, the first generation of David Brooks's Organization Kids, became immigrants ourselves. Sure, text messaging -- or "texting" -- is a breeze, and it's as easy to use Facebook as to put your profile on an internet dating site (which practice Gen X destigmatized). But we by and large don't do it.

I sent my first text in mid-2004 and still have never flipped through Facebook (which I theoretically can do now that I'm teaching and again have an .edu email address). Most of my friends still communicate by email, or by actually -- wait for it -- calling the person up.

As for IMing, who has the time? My firm has an internal instant-messaging system, which, as is to be expected, many associates use to leave a less permanent record of our kvetching. But I only sent my first non-firm instant message (through the popular AIM) a couple of months ago, mainly as a novelty, and still only have two people on my "buddy list."

There is some utility in IMing, beyond facilitating 8th-grade gossip, of course, but that in itself is a Gen Y cultural invention: ├╝ber-multi-tasking. Without IM and the related voice-over-internet-protocol (VOIP), how would you be able to talk on the phone with your friend studying abroad in Kazakhstan, while writing a paper, while intermittently exchanging random thoughts with your bf/gf -- all the while tracking the baseball and football scores? (Indeed, I've been IMing off and on while writing this column, on which my correspondent has already given valuable editorial advice.)

Then there's the iPod, which has now gone somewhat mainstream (meaning both spoiled teenyboppers -- the so-called Millennial Generation -- and 30-something yuppies at the gym), but whose early sales were driven by the extent to which Gen Yers could persuade their parents to buy them. Although I was a skeptic at first -- I'm anything but an early technological adopter, and I was never big on walkmen and discmen -- my iPod significantly enhance the quality of my life.

If there's one Gen Y-era innovation where Gen Xers (and some Boomers) still managed to gain superiority, however, it's in the blogosphere (at least at its higher end, discounting so-called "kitty blogs"). Merely by virtue of our greater education and experience, journalists, professors, lawyers ("blawggers"), writers, and other professionals turn out better (and more frequently viewed) product. But just wait for the Millennials; they already use this new gossip-blogging interface called Xanga, and 10 years from now we may be talking about Instapundit, DailyKos, and the Volokh Conspiracy as nothing more than quaint pioneers.

The larger point is that, just as the '60s and '70s transformed universities in a way that influenced (and reflected) society at large -- civil rights, co-education, the decline of in loco parentis, better communication with authority figures -- the early part of the current decade/millennium has seen a vibrant breakdown of conventional social relations into more accessible forms. To use Thomas Friedman's metaphor in a more apt way, the world of the average student is now remarkably flat -- my George Washington University students are almost in as much of a community with their peers at the University of Washington (in Seattle) as with those at Georgetown (here in D.C.).

These changes have been fascinating to follow (and grow alongside) over the last ten years, even if I am destined to remain an immigrant and autodidact in certain respects. Thankfully, as I've gotten older and more set in my ways, those ever-transformational college kids have stayed the same age.

Ilya Shapiro is a Washington lawyer whose last "Dispatches from Purple America" column reviewed Victor Davis Hanson's book on the Peloponnesian War.
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