The Kinder Gap: The Generation Gap

  1. You’re Paying For It, Sucker
  2. The Kinder Gap
  3. The Pinball Wizard

“One of Columbus’ sailors would have been a valuable able seaman aboard Farragut’s ships. Even a sailor from the ship that took Saint Paul to Malta would have been quite reasonably at home as a forecastle hand on one of Joseph Conrad’s barks. A Roman cattleman from the Dacian frontier would have made quite a competent vaquero to drive longhorn steers from the plains of Texas to the terminus of the railroad, although he would have been struck with astonishment with what he found when he got there. A Babylonian administrator of a temple estate would have needed no training either in bookkeeping or in the handling of slaves to run an early Southern plantation.”--Norbert Wiener, The human use of human beings: Cybernetics and Society

A few nights ago I attended an in-person meeting of a comic-book trade organization, Friends of Lulu. The hottest topic of debate was, “how should we hold meetings in the future?” Friends of Lulu could not have been created without the Internet. We’ve managed to find only a few hundred members, scattered throughout the United States and Canada. Almost all of our real meetings are held on-line. This meeting could only be held in person because it’s in conjunction with the largest comic book convention and trade show in the United States. Even then, only a small fraction of our membership showed up.

The problem is that some of our members are left out of the on-line discussions, and they don’t like it and they don’t understand it. The on-line members would end up being left out of “traditional” meetings. Our one conference call cost us hundreds of dollars and that was just for the officers. An organization as small as Friends of Lulu can’t readily afford that on a regular basis.

The breakdown was clearly on age lines. The older members suggested conference calls and postal mail. Some of the less reactionary suggested FAX, which would incur heavy long distance charges, but even that didn’t go over well. These members couldn’t understand that Friends of Lulu only exists because the Internet allows disparate individuals to come together, and that these members will not want to give up the immediacy of the Internet for postal mail or midnight FAX.

The on-line, younger members, for their part, couldn’t understand their elders’ opposition to being on-line. Some thought it was a monetary problem, and volunteered to donate cheap computers--after all, you don’t need much computer power to be on the Internet. Others thought it was just a matter of training, and volunteered to provide free Internet training. Both of these were considered insulting by their elders.

Neither side understood that the problem was a fundamental difference in culture. One culture can’t see any advantage to on-line communication vs. face to face communication, and the other culture can’t see how an organization as far-flung as ours can survive without the important decision-making happening on-line.

This is not your father’s generation gap.

Scientific American published a “Parable of the Pizza Parlor” (?) in which a pizza parlor goes on-line and jettisons the restaurant aspect completely. The MIT dean who wrote the parable finished with:

The customers also liked the new setup; they could always get exactly what they wanted, quickly, reliably and inexpensively. But they sometimes missed the atmosphere of the ramshackle old parlors, the conversations that unfolded there and the opportunities that the pizzerias afforded to get out of the house and feel like part of a local community.

The customers will miss no such thing, because (1) they won’t know it existed, (2) they’ll get into their own conversations with who they want to talk to, (3) they will use the term “get out of the house” to include getting onto the world-wide discussion, and (4) they will already have their own definition of local community that will not include the dean at MIT. The only people who will miss it are the dead and a few aging MIT deans. Cliff Stoll, Silicon Snake Oil, warns that giving in to the hype will create on-line addicts, lonely for real community. I think that the most lonely will be those who stay behind.

The ‘generation gap’ has existed for all of our lifetimes, but it is not an inescapable fact of human life. It is common to claim that the generation gap has always been with us, from cavemen on down. There may certainly have been some form of friction between young and old before the twentieth century, but it was as much the friction between wise and foolish or weak and strong as anything else, and even this was acknowledged as the natural order of things.

Our generation gap is far more than the wildness of youth. Our generation gap is a generational war, a war between cultures, in the same way that Muslims and Christians war. It is the friction between people who do not understand each other, the same friction and frustration felt by businessmen and tourists traveling to completely different cultures.

And this is no symbolic war. It is the real McCoy, complete with soldiers, guns, and concentration camps. Ever since the sixties, being “young” has been part of the profile that police use in determining whether or not to stop someone for the purpose of putting them in jail. We have laws designed specifically to target the college-age and just beyond.

These are the drug laws. The drug teetotaler and the drug abuser are both more unhealthy, psychologically, than the drug experimenter; this has been shown time and again, and the vast majority of drug users are experimenters, not abusers. But ever since the sixties, when our generational war spilled onto the streets, we have used “the drug scourge” as a reason for jailing the young. These laws, originally designed to keep minorities under control, were strengthened by the old specifically to target the new breed of unruly youngsters.

In 1969, one survey found that “42 percent of American parents would report their own children to the police if discovered using prohibited drugs.” (?) Would you be willing to point a gun at your children and force them into the county jail next to the man who murdered your neighbor?

In today’s world, we’ve decided that jailing our children for using drugs is more important than jailing the man who murdered your children. The sentences are longer, and when there’s no room to hold both the murderer and the drug user, we set the murderer free.

In the many small depressions of the eighteen hundreds, we took a look at the drugs of the Chinaman and made opium illegal, so as to “vex and annoy the Heathen Chinese”, (?) who were then taking jobs from real Americans. When free Blacks flocked to the northern cities, we decided that the “cocaine fiend” was almost always a Negro, and the Harrison Narcotics Act cracked down on “their” drug. During the great depression, it was the Mexicans we looked to for scapegoats, and we discovered a relatively boring drug called marihuana. Marihuana soon became the source of the “moral irregularities of Mexicans”. (?) And we made marihuana illegal so as to be better able to arrest Mexicans, as we had done for Blacks and Chinese before.

In the seventies we acted no differently: we took a look at the drugs in use by the young, and rather than control them in the fashion of alcohol, we uncontrolled them in the most violent way possible. We sent their trade off into the black market. We then declared war on the buyers and sellers and filled our prisons with those we captured. Already a third of state felony convictions are for drug charges. Fifty percent of all felony prisoners are between the ages of 20 and 29. A full ten percent of felony prisoners are teenagers: 13 to 19 years.

What do we do with these prisoners of war? We sentence them to more prison time than murderers and rapists, and in some cases we even force them through a “boot camp” to indoctrinate them in the ways of the old.

What does this mean for the net? You can bet that hacking will follow drug use as a crime, not because it kills or maims, but because it is a crime of the young. How many eighty year-old hackers have been paraded onto TV?

The world of today is not the world of yesterday, and yesterday’s world was not last week’s. This was not always the case. From the ancient Roman empire to the American War Between the States, the world was the same as it had been for the last generation. Farmers in the seventeenth century would have had no problem ‘falling back’ to the dawn of agriculture. Scholars from Babylon could, as well, have understood the philosophies of the age of reason. Today’s farmers and scholars have no such luxury. We have neither the option to turn back the clock nor, like Buck Rogers, to turn it forward. The science education of forty years ago is nearly worthless today. The mechanic of forty years ago would not be able to fix today’s cars, nor would today’s mechanic, forced into the 2030s, understand the cars of the future.

Should any of us crawl into a cave of strange gasses and awaken a century later, we will not be the heroes of our own movie serials or television series. We will be helpless and confused, and completely unable to cope without extensive help from the people of that time. Neither Colonel Deering nor Dale Arden will fall in love with us.

In the twenties, youngsters learned of cars and mechanics, where their parents had traveled by horseback or been forced along the water routes--or hadn’t traveled at all. Trips across the vast United States become possible nearly on a whim, though this didn’t become popular until another generation had passed and the idea could seem ‘normal’. Normal to a new generation that grew up with cars.

In the fifties, we received television, and teenagers and young men ‘played’ with the electronic innards of these new Cyclops, but it wasn’t until a generation later that these one-eyed monsters stole children from their parents. We know nothing about computer networks, in the same way that the geeks and techies of 1910 knew nothing about cars. Some of us do know that computer networks will revolutionize the world, but none of us know how. Our children, however, will take to the computer nets in the same way that the post-World War II generation took to the automobile. We haven’t yet figured out who the first James Dean of the 21st century is going to be, but she will be a hacker, and she will die young.

In the late seventies and early eighties, the children of the electronic age turned to computers. I bought my first computer in the summer of 1980 or 1981. To the elders of the town it was as strange as the atomic bomb. My picture accompanied a quarter-page article in the Muskegon Chronicle, a newspaper serving a city of 40,000 and a surrounding area of at least 20,000 more. It was news solely because I owned a computer, and could actually make it do things. Today’s children don’t care about computers. Where I worked, they play on the infobahn. I’m struggling to keep up, but I’m always a day late and a dollar short.

I’ve a recurring nightmare in which, minutes after dropping this manuscript in the mail to the publisher, I’m surprised by a bookstore display for some kid’s Why Don’t We Do It In the Road: Generation Y on the Infobahn. The only thing that’ll save me is that publishers are all old fogeys too, and they don’t understand why such a book would become the bible of the next generation.

If you went to college in the fifties, what you learned is no longer taught. What I learned in college is taught to high school students. In another generation it will be part of kindergarten fare, if we even have kindergarten or anything resembling the modern school system in another generation. Today’s children are more knowledgeable than their parents. The kid fresh out of med school is more up-to-date on medical practices than the experienced doctor. Experience and the wisdom of age no longer go hand in hand with knowledge. We’ve separated wisdom and knowledge right down to the games our children play, (!) so that it is not out of the question that a man may be wise but not knowledgeable.

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan quotes an IBM executive as saying “My children had lived several lifetimes compared to their grandparents when they began grade one.” (?)

The wise fool is no longer an oxymoron; the term simply applies to the older and middle-aged rather than the college sophomore. The accumulation of knowledge in all fields has accelerated to such a speed that some theorists believe that trade in knowledge, like trade in weapons or wheat, will become, or has already become, the “next major source” of power. Be that as it may, our store of knowledge is growing at a phenomenal rate, and there are no signs that it will let up. More likely, it will accelerate even faster, widening each year’s generation gap into a more and more unbreachable chasm before we settle down into the information age.

It may not be that long after we’re settled into our information age rut that we enter the next age, currently predicted to be the nanotech age. Nanotechnology promises to give us full control over matter and biology, bringing us to the heart of the cell and the molecule. Nanotech is a subject for another book entirely, but the very fact that we can predict the nanotech age is proof that something even more inexplicable will soon replace even that.

What will your children be doing in the future on the infobahn? If you’re lucky, they’ll be supporting you, because you won’t have the knowledge to support yourself. During an interview on Marketplace on Public Radio International, a guest noted that Microsoft Corporation, the premier software company, has an incredibly high turnover rate. Employees in their twenties expect to work there for three to five years before leaving, and employees in their thirties are already talking about retirement. “You cannot turn over employees by the thousands and expect to retain that edge,” said the guest. (?) But Microsoft has been “turning over employees by the thousands” for years, and they have, at least for the moment, retained “that edge”.

Most likely their edge is the result of their high turnover. They throw out the old and obsolete and bring in the new and cutting edge, just like the rest of us do with computer hardware and software. How much programming has Bill Gates done lately? He hires young people to do it for him.

In Rome, the elite and the common people grew apart so much that they spoke different dialects; the common folk spoke “vulgar” (that is, common) Latin. In England after the French conquerors left, French remained the language of government. Governments are institutions devoted to remaining in power, and that usually translates to remaining the same. If you read histories of American politics, you will see, for example, the same names in politics in the twenties that you see today. The children of politicians become politicians.

The “generation gap” goes beyond mere human age: any industry or institution that lives in the past will find itself in conflict with the real world, or at least increasingly apart from it.

Governments, whose power is generally devoted simply to staying in power, foster a lack of change. Organizations created ‘temporarily’, such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, created for enforcing post-prohibition alcohol, tobacco, and firearms bans, or the various electrical ‘cooperatives’ of the thirties, live far beyond their useful lifespan. Their leaders claim tooth and nail that the need lives on. And the need does live on: the need is for jobs for voters and power for the leaders themselves. When opponents claim that such projects are no longer necessary, the cry goes up that eliminating the project will eliminate jobs. A large number--indeed, possibly the majority--of government jobs are simply well-paying forms of welfare, producing unneeded service in exchange for a dole.

As change in our society accelerates, government bloat will also accelerate, as we start more and more ‘temporary’ projects. Government will become a very expensive archaeological dig, with each year’s projects providing a layer for historians to dig into and for humorists to laugh at. But government bloat is also likely to increase the dangers of the generation war. The more money being spent on obsolescent, long lost needs, the less money exists for the needs of the day.

That money will need to be taken from the young at federal gunpoint. And the conflict between government and governed becomes as dangerous as the conflict between old and young.

The Internet, or whatever replaces it, will be the major weapon in that conflict. It is the neutron bomb of the information wars: the generation gap as well as voter rebellion. Never trust anyone over thirty? I haven’t trusted myself for years.

  1. William J. Mitchell, “The Parable of the Pizza Parlor”, Scientific American May 1995, p. 112. Incidentally, the idea that a pizza parlor could go completely on-line is not completely ridiculous. A city-wide pneumatic tube could transport physical objects--which still can’t be transported on-line--by computer control, and make the distances within a normal city within two or three minutes. If your son is willing to wait the thirty minutes that you are, he could order pizza from as far as a hundred miles away or more. Of course, he’ll be more impatient than that.
  2. Zinberg and Robertson, Drugs and the Public .
  3. Oregon legislator quoted in R.J. Bonnie and C.H. Whitebread, The Marihuana Conviction, p. 14.
  4. California’s Missionary Educator Movement, quoted in J. Helmer, Drugs and Minority Oppression, p. 63
  5. Dungeons and Dragons, perhaps, started this. D&D dissects heroes into “statistics”. There are six “statistics” that describe each hero: strength, dexterity, constitution, wisdom, intelligence, and charisma. These statistics are orthogonal. That is, they are completely unrelated to each other. Thus, a hero can be strong, without being healthy; agile, but not necessarily strong. And wise without being intelligent. They’ve even divided magic between ‘wise’ magic and ‘intelligent’ magic. Wizards require knowledge to cast their spells: that is, they must have a high intelligence. Priests, on the other hand, require faith, or the benefice of a god, and this is wisdom. Faith is the mental opposite of knowledge in this game, and wisdom the mental opposite of intelligence. The old man may not be smart, but he’s been around. Fat lot of good that does him on the infobahn.
  6. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. vii.
  7. Pascal Zachary, Marketplace with David Brancatio, Public Radio International, January 23, 1995. Zachary is the author of Showstopper, a book about the development of Microsoft Corp.’s Windows NT computer software.
  1. You’re Paying For It, Sucker
  2. The Kinder Gap
  3. The Pinball Wizard