Sunday, April 20, 2014

On teen escapism - or empowerment

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?