Monday, April 14, 1997

Opinion: The rise of a digital nation

Published in the Mountainview

The April issue of Wired offers for your perusal its "Netizen" column, this month by Jon Katz, remarking upon the digital nature of the election of 1996, and continuing into an exploration of the impact of technology on the political and cultural systems of tomorrow.

Katz has fallen into what is becoming a cliched trap: an older person, ostensibly wiser than the "digital youth" under examination, generalizing about the type of person today's twentysornethings are and will become. Whether we are "Generation X," "digerati," or Katz's "Digital Nation," each of those commentaries has contained something very important and lacked something equally vital.

Katz's postpolitical world, a world in which traditional liberal and conservative values are conjoined in a mixture of individual responsibility and respect for the common good, is ripe with promise. He closes his column with the daunting sentence: "If they choose to develop a common value system, with a moral ideology and a humane agenda, they might even do the world some good." Katz has put himself, rightfully or not, in the role of mentor to what he calls the "digital young," an educated elite with technology at their fingertips around the clock.

It is in this role, and not the role of social observer, in which he fails miserably. A mentor's role is to see trends, possibilities, potential, and ramifications, and to advise upon a course of action. A protege's role is to listen to the mentor and decide what action to take.

The digital young are clearly the proteges in Katz's article, and yet he fails to give us any advice. Instead, we are left with the condescending hope that we do "something right" and end up being a benefit to our world.
In our own defense, this generation has traditionally rejected many norms and ignored not a few expectations (including, most notably, fear of the Soviet Union) in our time. It is ridiculous to suggest that we be expected to heed the advice of our elders; indeed even Katz remarks upon the individualized nature of youth today. However, as much as what we have ignored has benefited us, so too has it hurt us. We have lost the connection to tradition and to experience which has kept our species alive for many thousands, even millions of years.

It is precisely now, at this watershed time, when we need to hear all the voices speak; Katz lauds the Internet's ability to permit this to actually happen. We now need, more than ever, the wisdom of the years and the energy of youth to combine. Our elders are certain to give us som bad advice: we younger people are certain to make grave errors in judgment. It is now time to minimize the damage and learn and make what we can.

We may indeed be able to do the world some good, but we are certain to do more damage without leadership. That leadership must come not only from among our own, but from generations which have gone before, which remember a non-wired world, and which learned of the value of personal communication, and has experienced firsthand the impact technology has on a way of life.

Katz poses many questions: "How will this generation solve the world's problems?” is but one. Has he already given up the possibility that he may be part of the solution, if he chooses to work with us? Is he now becoming part of the problem, and passing the challenge off to other people who he claims are better equipped to handle it? Katz is an astute observer of social generalities, but he does not offer solutions, and seems unprepared to be part of them.

Perhaps historians will one day lament the leadership provided by the Baby Boomers to the Wired Generation; perhaps it will be the Baby Boomers about whom is said, "They could have done the world some good."