From a generational perspective, I have a bit of a strange family. My parents are older baby boomers, but I have a millennial brother. My child, on the other hand, is a post-millennial or generation Z. Therefore, most of the time I feel like a mediator of the generational and cultural gaps existing in my immediate family.
Even before I turned half-a-century, my child would always comment on how dull and boring my life must have been without the benefit of the internet. But contrary to his firmly-held belief, I feel privileged to have experienced both analogue and digital aspects to my life. I had a childhood where I played hopscotch, throwing pebbles and marbles. But I also played a version of pong, one of the first primitive video games on a black and white TV, and wrote simple BASIC code on an early programmable calculator.
My mother gets easily flustered by technology. She only reads physical books, and keeps all her phone numbers in a notebook. My brother, almost exclusively reads eBooks on his phone, and my child only reads Wikipedia articles and is more interested in YouTube and social media than he is in any kind of publication.
I might be the only one in this tight family group who is comfortable navigating between both mediums. For my cooking, I have handwritten recipes, magazine cutouts, and cookbooks (both printed and digital). However, I sometimes still do a quick search on my phone when I get an ingredient I have not worked with before. I do yoga classes online, but I still have my illustrated books. I make shopping lists on paper just like my mom, but I type the things I need to pack for a trip on my notes app. I journal both on paper and on an online multi-platform app.
I am far from being a digital native like my child. On many occasions, I have consulted that pre-teen on a hidden smartphone setting. And I am quick to cry for help when I suddenly see a split keyboard on my tablet, which I never intended to create, and do not know how to return to normal. I probably use about 20% of all the features on my phone camera, while my child knows most of them. But I am clearly more comfortable than my mother with the device. After all, I can do my own updates. New technology does not petrify me. I learn to handle it, albeit slowly. But I do not feel pressured to get the fastest phone, and I can manage for a day or so without internet connection. My child hasn’t learned this essential survival skill yet.
Digital did make my life easier on many counts. Given my poor sense of direction, I am grateful that I do not need to carry city maps in my car. When I drove in Cape Town, I never went anywhere without consulting my city map first. But even my diligent study did not help, and I often got lost. Then, I had to hunt for a safe place to stop and regroup, find myself on the map, and finally re-route the car back to my destination. My google maps helper does this for me seamlessly now. I do not miss the time I spent checking city map quadrants for an unknown street address. But I keep my city maps, just in case. I also have an Africa road atlas. I use it for my imaginary travels. Something about seeing the thin road lines and landmarks on paper and flipping through its pages, gives a more direct feel of the distance. I have a better perception of miles traced with a finger, or pages flipped than those just scrolled through.
Perhaps it is just me, or maybe it is something that I share with some of my contemporaries of Gen-X. Those of us who still hold on to some analogue and approximate perceptions of life, rather than the strict digital hyper-realism of technology. I am more content to look at my watch and register that it is a little after ten to seven, rather than find out that it is exactly 18:51:29.3. I am happy to live with the intangible less exacting, unless I am waiting for the precise time to say Happy New Year to my loved ones. And even this moment is never fixed since we might be in different time zones.
In trying to assimilate all new technology, I sometimes feel like a novice who had stepped outside of a heavy cultural tradition. I am pleased to have adopted a new easier way of life, yet still attached to some of my familiar symbols. Some aspects of technology, I have adopted wholeheartedly. But others I am still reluctant to embrace or accept fully. It is not entirely clear to me whether I have logical reasons for this, or whether I am only reacting to anecdotal observations mixed with sentimentality and superstition.
Technology has given us a lot, but I think we sacrificed small pieces of our imagination for all the things we received. Some of the magic has been lost. When we travel, my child looks at photos of the city we are visiting and checks out such details such as what the room looks like, and the view that we would see from our window. I am more happy to leave much of this as a surprise to experience on arrival. If I arrive there having seen everything, then what would be the point of taking the trip?
On the surface it seems as if the digital age has allowed for more freedom and democratised creativity. But true creative power has become more difficult to find within a crowded world, where each person is a content producer. Truth has also suffered, since everyone is now capable of expressing immutable beliefs, and getting likes for them. Fallacies sometimes get more support than the humble truth. So while it is easier than ever to find and produce stuff, it is more difficult to find quality and truth.
Collectively perhaps we now read more on the internet than we ever read in the past on paper. But in the past we had time to read longer books rather than bite-sized, and mostly irrelevant, status updates. I once read the entire Sunday newspaper, but now I rarely look at print media. I sometimes look at online headlines or read one or two stories from reputable news outlets, but I am reluctant to pay for a digital subscriptions when I know I will not have the time to take advantage of it. There is no such thing as buying a digital newspaper copy, when you feel like it. You are always pressured for a subscription deal.
We are bombarded with information, and have little time to digest and process. We are confused, and less likely to make a carefully reasoned decision on anything. The closest thing to online shopping I experienced while growing up was shopping by mail order. But instead of scrolling through endless suggestions of things that are not quite what we wanted, we only went through one big (but finite) mail-order catalogue. We studied it closely for weeks. We lived in the pictures and imagined what it would be like to own that dress, that toy or that kitchen device. The choices were many, even then, but the static catalogue was always there, and we could examine it for months if we needed. So we took our time, and consulted the colourful pages together as a family, or dreamed about the items individually. Now shopping is more complicated, with more variety, more decisions required, and more pressure to buy NOW. I am not sure this is all an improvement.
For my post-millennial child, this is just his old mother missing her childhood. The truth is more complicated than that. By being a generation X-er I straddle the digital fault line, and I can still remember what has gone missing. The new humans born today are unburdened by this memory, and will therefore proceed fearlessly wherever this digital age takes them. Sometimes I fear that this culture of technology will be detrimental to the way the human race will develop, that it will damage our aspiration to evolve in spirit. At other times I read some ancient text where a person who had died centuries ago, asks the same questions we are asking ourselves now. And I am then reassured of the essence of human spirit. Perhaps, the more we change, the more we will stay the same.
For more insight into the digital age, and how the internet changed the way we think, I recommend the following book: The Shallows: How The Internet Is Changing The Way We Think, Read And Remember by Nicholas Carr.