Nostalgia for pre-digital age no map for youth
Net Results: Adults are way off mark if we think we can prescribe way forward for modern teenagers
'We constantly forget that a younger generation now has known nothing but a life in which the virtual is not separate to real life, but IS real life.'
I can’t imagine what it is like to be a teenager in these days of digital saturation. Nor can most adults, and that’s a big problem.
Of course, a slow detachment from adolescence occurs for every generation as it passes through the post-teen sequences of the dreaded birthdays ending in 0.
There is a stretch, after teenagerhood, where most of us still feel close to that world, and still able to parse its ideas, its pop culture, its worries, its hopes, its realities.
Then one day, you are standing in front of a rack of jeans and have no idea, absolutely not one vague insight, into which pairs are The Ones to Buy and which are considered an embarrassment to own. Once upon a time, you absolutely knew.
On a less flippant point, the same holds true for the digital and online life of people under 20. We think we get it, but we don’t. Whether it be the constant movement towards new communications tools and social media, or new apps, or new games, or any of the myriad other new digital ways of sharing and talking and playing and learning . . . we don’t get it.
We don’t fully appreciate all that children and teens love about this world. Nor do we adequately understand the darker side – the pressure within those virtual worlds to conform or perhaps, damagingly, not to. What’s the struggle like, to figure out who you are – so central to teenage years – when the online world is one of endless self-fictionalisation?
Adults are right to be concerned about that life, not least because our generations created that world and unleashed it, with all its potential, and its drawbacks and dangers.
Virtual now real
Yet we constantly forget that a younger generation now has known nothing but a life in which the virtual is not separate to real life, but IS real life. Not an occasionally visited annex.
Oh, we write and pontificate about it all, especially at the worst moments, after some dark revelation, or a devastating tragedy. We propose and make laws and regulations, we insist this or that must change. Sometimes we even talk to children and teens, or better yet, actually listen to them.
Adults cannot use the yardstick of a pre-digital childhood as a template for how tomorrow’s world should be
But we still don’t get it, and as a result, we place young people in an impossible conundrum. Because for the most part, what we seem to want and expect is to somehow retrieve them from a digitally saturated world that is their norm, that they experience differently from those who are older. We cannot just magic them into some other, yearned-for reality. Meaning, we cannot export them back to our own vision of our childhood and our teen years, when many of us had none or only a simple few of these technologies and hence none of these complex concerns.
Artist Jennifer Cunningham has an exhibit of paintings, video and models in the Galway International Arts Festival’s gallery that gets, uncomfortably and eerily, at this issue, in the way artists and storytellers of all sorts can often touch on difficult truths by coming at them slantwise.
She depicts (mostly) unpeopled spaces, the playlands or nurturing spaces of other generations –Leisureland, funfairs, gardens and greenhouses – that now appear overgrown and abandoned. Sometimes, dreamlike children stand in the landscapes.
Called After the Future, the exhibition prompts viewers with this question: “While it seems the world around us in ‘this’ present may be revelling in a political restorative nostalgia far out of reach for younger generations, it is pertinent to ask if hope lies in the past where does that leave these children but in the ruins of the world we think once was?”
In short, this kind of nostalgia “stubbornly wants to return to a past that never was without realising it can never be again”.
Of course there’s no prescriptive interpretation for this set of works. But for me – having come fresh from moderating a panel in Galway, on the ways in which the notion of “home” is perturbed yet also revisioned by digital technologies – Cunningham’s vision also probed at the consistently troubling way in which adults frame concerns about, and try to control, digital reality for today’s youth, tomorrow’s adults.
It’s not that today’s adults shouldn’t have responsibilities towards protecting the vulnerable – children – and therefore, also shaping their future. But Cunningham’s works made me consider how so much of “what should we do” comes in the context (usually, unacknowledged) of adult nostalgia for childhoods that were free of the complexity – or, if we’d just calm down a bit, opportunity – of the digital and the virtual.
I don’t have any definitive answer for how we might ameliorate the more damaging effects on a younger generation of an ever-morphing digital world.
But adults also cannot use the yardstick of a pre-digital childhood (which, lest we forget, had its own dangers and miseries) as a nostalgic template for how tomorrow’s world should be. We need to be more open, generous, enabling – and willing to let go of our generational biases – than this.