Does the 21st Century Really Blow?

A link in a USG post to an article at, titled “Seven reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable,” contains some interesting germs of truth.  The general points of the essay include:

  1. We don’t have enough annoying strangers in our lives.
  2. We don’t have enough annoying friends, either.
  3. Texting is a shitty way to communicate.
  4. Online company only makes us lonelier.
  5. We don’t get criticized enough.
  6. We’re victims of the Outrage Machine.
  7. We feel worthless, because we actually are worth less.


The gist of the rant is that contemporary youth culture is so disconnected from meaningful, direct, physical relationships that people’s social competence is deteriorating markedly. 

The lack of “annoying strangers” strips us of the ability to build up a tolerance for routine inconvenience — why risk a toddler kicking your seat in a movie theater when you can rent the nearly new release from Netflix and watch it at home?  Thus, we become hypersensitive to irritation, which reinforces the tendency to withdraw.

The lack of “annoying friends” is the flip side to the coin.  The wired generation’s ability to find “friends” in a virtual environment, most of whom are marked by their commonality, means they have less of an imperative to deal with incompatible people.  They are losing the ability to cooperate with people with opposing tastes and conflicting personalities.  As the writer put it: 

“It turns out, apparently, that after you get over that first irritation, after you shed your shell of ‘they listen to different music because they wouldn’t understand mine’ superiority, there’s a sort of comfort in needing other people and being needed on a level beyond common interests. It turns out humans are social animals after all. And that ability to suffer fools, to tolerate annoyance, that’s literally the one single thing that allows you to function in a world populated by other people who aren’t you. Otherwise, you turn emo.”

Of course, when you are isolated from irritation and have only like-minded friends, you can rely on electronic communication and usually get away with it.  Yet the statistic (which, I’m told, comes from “them”) is that people misunderstand 40 percent of e-mail content.  When your social circle is heavily dependent on electronic communication, like e-mails and IMs and text messages, how much is getting lost in translation?

That brings the writer to his fourth point — online company reinforces a person’s loneliness and isolation.  Why?  Because studies suggest (he asserts) that 93 percent of meaning is captured in body language and tone of voice.  Only seven percent is captured in words.  Thus, communication in this mode is not a two-way exchange of ideas and personalities, it’s rather a mere skeleton upon which we hang our own assumptions and prejudices; we supply our own emotional content to online communication instead of relying on the content provided by one’s interlocutor.

And what’s a logical consequence of having few friends, and relying on non-personal communication?  We don’t have deeply meaningful relationships that provide us with genuine, self-improving criticism.  The original author’s comments are worth re-posting at length:

“Tragically, there are now a whole lot of people who never have those conversations. The interventions, the brutal honesty, the, ‘you know, everybody’s pissed off because of what you said last night, but nobody wants to say anything because they’re afraid of you,’ sort of conversations. Those horrible, awkward, wrenchingly uncomfortable sessions that you can only have with someone who sees right to the center of you.

“E-mail and texting are awesome tools for avoiding that level of honesty. With text, you can respond when you feel like it. You can measure your words. You can pick and choose which questions to answer. The person on the other end can’t see your face, can’t see you get nervous, can’t detect when you’re lying. You have almost total control and as a result that other person never sees past your armor, never sees you at your worst, never knows the embarrassing little things about yourself that you can’t control. Gone are the common quirks, humiliations and vulnerabilities that real friendships are built on.”

Without meaningful criticism, we have no gut-check to help us to put things into proper context.  In the larger social sense, our increasing disconnection on an interpersonal level is mirrored on a social level; merely from a mass-media perspective, there is no uniform presentation of fact and interpretation, so that our perception of the world is not grounded in shared understanding.  The original poster focused on larger issues:  “There effectively is no ‘mass media’ any more so, where before we disagreed because we saw the same news and interpreted it differently, now we disagree because we’re seeing completely different freaking news. When we can’t even agree on the basic facts, the differences become irreconcilable. That constant feeling of being at bitter odds with the rest of the world brings with it a tension that just builds and builds.” 

Although this is probably true in its way, I think it applies even more strongly on a granular level.  The “outrage machine” is the natural consequence of not being challenged to see the world from a diversity of perspective.  When we have few meaningful friendships, when our communication is colored by the self-imposed template of ego implied by electronic discourse, when we self-select our friends based on our own preferences — what do you expect?  Anything that diverges from base desire is not only inconvenient, it is also bad.  Those things which we dislike, because our ability to manage irritation has atrophied, are elevated to a moral level totally disproportionate to the subject-matter.  Hence the phenomenon of college students who cannot locate Iraq on a map to within 1,000 miles, but are capable of deeply felt bumper-sticker vitriol against Bush/Cheney for being “capitalist warmongers.”

The seventh point — that “we feel worthless, because we actually are worth less” — emphasizes the social disconnect attendant to living in a wired world.  Although we get to minimize our irritation by self-selecting compatible friends, those friends are doing the same things to us.  Our interpersonal bonds are tenuous, and we are usually quite OK with that.  But the original poster suggests (with merit) that humans are hard-wired “to need to do things for people” — its what makes the whole being-a-social-species thing work.  When you have no one to do for, you have fewer opportunities to do those esteem-building things that make you likeable or give you social worth.   Yet we need the feeling of worth.  What to do?  Hence the popularity of emo.

In fairness, is not exactly a locus of deep intellectual thought.  Yet I read the post and was quite intrigued by it.  I am reminded of a comment I once heard, to the extent that humans have had the fermented grape for more than 3,000 years, and we still haven’t quite mastered its impact on the social environment.  The Internet has been popular for perhaps a decade or so, and it’s a much, much bigger deal than alcohol.  What does this mean for the human species?

It worries me, in a vague sense, that humans have built a civilization that is beyond the competence of its members to comprehend holistically.  Even as recently as a half-century ago, it was possible for an educated person to grasp the rhythms of society — its infrastructures, its mass movements, its dominating discourses.  But today?  Fragmentation rules; we’re more connected than ever, but this connection is technical and not interpersonal.  The core question, then, is whether (or to what degree) the instinctive human social needs will be met in a world more connected yet more atomized than ever.  How will we adapt?  What will our culture look like a century hence?

This is the turning point in human evolution.  We have reached the point where the systems and the structures that have shaped our development for millennia cannot keep pace with the speed of technological innovation. 

Do we advance — perhaps beyond our little blue marble, three rocks from the sun?  Do we have a neo-Luddite revolution?  Do the machines take over?  Do we find an accommodation that works in the long run?

This is a fascinating time to be alive.

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  1. I take issue with a couple of your points:
    1. Hence the phenomenon of college students who cannot locate Iraq on a map to within 1,000 miles, but are capable of deeply felt bumper-sticker vitriol against Bush/Cheney for being “capitalist warmongers.”
    Show me a phenomenon-sized amount of people in whom both characteristics are present. I’ll grant you that there are both college students who can’t locate Iraq on a map and people who have bumper-sticker vitriol against the “President”, but I have a very hard time believing that they are one and the same.

    2. Even as recently as a half-century ago, it was possible for an educated person to grasp the rhythms of society — its infrastructures, its mass movements, its dominating discourses.
    No it wasn’t. We’ve only identified and defined those discourses well after the fact and retrofitted a consensus narrative (Tom Brokaw-izing, if you will) upon them. The times back then were as fragmented and confusing as they are now. Nil Novi Sub Sole, man.

    3. The gist of the rant is that contemporary youth culture is so disconnected from meaningful, direct, physical relationships that people’s social competence is deteriorating markedly. Again, when has this not been the case? When? When has “youth culture” ever been meaningful and direct and physical? What the hell do you mean by “youth culture”? Richie Rich comic books? Beverly Hills 90210?

    It seems I read this before. When you were writing under the pseudonym “David Brooks.”

  2. Point 1: I can give Frankie 15,000 examples of this:

    The University of Oregon

    Point 2: Hindsight is 20/20. Therefore, Jason’s presumption is not wrong.

    Point 3: Youth Culture has been direct and physical. But more meaningless than anything. Having been on a college campus, you see this. David Brooks has nothing on any of this, though if you did read his discourses on racial groupings, it may put things into perspective.

  3. The premise of the “wired” generation “self-selecting compatible friends” is not a cause and effect relationship, and the idea that we avoid “annoying friends” is preposterous.

    Humans are by nature social creatures, and therefore naturally identify and pursue like-minded people with whom to build friendships. Self-selection is as old as… humanity.

    Although, all social-beings self-select friends–that includes humans and pack animals like dogs.

    I can choose what dog park to let my dog play, but I can’t force her to play with one over the other. She chooses who to socialize with just as humans do.

    The expanse of the Internets only allows humans to aggregate the quantity of like-minded people–so now our network of “friends” isn’t limited by geography. Again, this behavior is NOT new–it’s basic interpersonal and organizational communication.

    In many ways these online “friends” are not really friends at all. There’s no substance to the relationship aside from, “you’re way into peanut butter, ME TOO! Let’s be friends.” But it’s not new to have acquaintences like these. If I go an Econ Club meeting, chances are I’ll find other people that share the same opinions as me, and I’m more likely to gravitate to those people, but not have substantial relationships with them. Once again, the Internets amplifies my opportunties for more acquaintences, it hasn’t changed my behavior.

    In terms of “annoying friends,” that doesn’t even make sense. People disassociate from others they find annoying in favor of like-minded people. Its not a characteristic of the “wired” generation.

  4. Hail, Jazz Age?

    As if that was not enough evidence, hail, Fifties? The time in American history when juvenile delinquency was at unprecendented numbers?

    Hail, Sixties? Can you say and repeat back to yourself “counterculture” and “social revolution”?

    Hail, Eighties? Drugs became a huge issue in the United States among the youth culture.

    Hail, Nineties? If anything, the 90s were relatively calm compared to the aforementioned decades. Although body modification became a prevalent practice, there was no major cultural backlash.

    And you have the gall to sit on your side of the anonymous Internet and pretend as if you are any better than those you do not know?

    Every generation of youth adds something else to our lives. Every new development affects the culture somehow. Embracing the development of mass communication in the palms of our hands is somehow worse than wide-spread delinquency, drugs, and open social revolution?

    Do realize that your children, should you have any, will be the harbingers of whatever cultural movement is going in the youth. Every pre-college graduation age person I know is in some way affected by texting, by MySpace, by whatever else you wish to denounce about our “wired world.”

    The world is so much smaller because of our constant connection. I can carry on conversations with people in San Diego, California, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, all at the same time. And I am somehow closed off?

    I think your argument that people will not meet their social needs is answered in your own questions, yet you fail to realize it because you have this need to, for some reason, be confrontational, to be somehow viewed as a sort of educated thinker. Yet, you do not take the stance of an educated person. You do not view both sides. Like somebody already said, youth is never connected with the “real world,” because they do not have to be. They are, for the most part, just kids. And their social needs will be met because they are needs! Nobody can get by with talking to somebody on a computer. They will eventually seek fulfillment. Believe that.

    It would probably suit you better to cease viewing questions from one side. The arrogance you seem to have is unfounded. I see no reason to believe your rhetoric anymore than the next person should. Pretentiousness will get you nowhere — write that down!

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