When the Divergent movie
adaptation came out a couple of weeks ago, New
Statesman put out an article with an appropriately ominous article: “No wonder teens love stories about dystopias – they
feel like they’re in one.” So what is the true dystopia teens feel they
inhabit? According to Laurie Penny, who wrote the piece, the young are now hemmed
in by environmental doom and capitalist précarité– so they seek virtual escape through fantasies of teen empowerment.
But why would such existential treats be reduced to some sort of grotesque
totalitarianism, which itself is reduced pervasive adult sadism? It does not
become quite clear, so Penny may have done something we all do – project her
own anxieties upon the teen fans she ostensibly writes about.
If someone wants to see the true dystopia these
fanatics may inhabit, Douglas Rushkoff’s documentary Generation Like would be a better place to start. Curiously, the
teen proles shown there who labor day and night to create value for major and
minor companies do not feel oppressed. On the contrary, they feel exhilarated,
even empowered within their decentralized dystopia, cannot imagine any
alternative, and seek no escape.
It’s an impressive piece of long-form reporting,
though Rushkoff has perhaps taken one wrong term. Early on, he states that he
has changed his mind – instead of focusing on the impact of digital technology,
he is now concerned about what corporations do to millions of eager kids
through that technology. This is perhaps a legitimate worry, but as he makes
clear everybody’s business plan now is premised on keeping teens hooked to glittering
screens. And it’s the neurosomatic adaptations this milieu must demand
(including multiple epigenetic adjustments) that will likely have the strongest
effects on teens as they “develop” in all directions. This is surely the
biggest (not entirely) natural experiment in human history – what will 10,000
hours of deep digital practice do to a young brain and body?