There was a nice piece up recently called The New New Left Is Coming discussing the hopes for a resurgence of progressive values from the maturing of Millennials into political life. There are definitely reasons to hope, but being on the inside generational boundary of that group, I want to add some notes of caution to those sentiments and describe the other side of the coin. Unfortunately, the vulnerabilities and disadvantages of the ascending generation are far more significant than the vague promise of somewhat more liberal (but considerably idler and more easily-distracted) political opinions.
Even when we internally account for the "Get off my lawn!" phenomenon in ourselves (that affects everyone past about 29, no matter how open-minded), there are valid concerns that suggest a much more complicated and potentially dangerous set of deficits in Millennial culture than are typically understood. And it isn't just their culture, but rather the trajectory of culture in general, which is usually reinforced by generational transitions since the new have been raised by it while the older still possess some vestiges of earlier paradigms.
Consider this: When you hear the term multi-tasking, how often is it spoken of glowingly, as an ideal goal to be sought with near-religious fervor, vs. being spoken of as the inherent compromise it actually is? Personally, I've never seen it referred to negatively, as something that was hindering the achievement of any desirable goal. And frankly, that fact makes me think that some amazingly effective cultural brainwashing has occurred. Everyone is brought to believe that "multi-tasking" means something akin to "two for the price of one" rather than being what it really is - 1.5 for the price of two, 2 for the price of 4, or 3 for the price of 9, etc. "We're going to force you to do so many things at once that you won't have the necessary attention or energy left to make effective plans, understand what you're doing, or make any sensible moral judgments about it."
It's the new form of making workers too tired to attend labor union meetings: Make them too distracted and intellectually occupied to form coherent subversive thoughts and effectively implement them into action. This strategy also has the benefit of dissipating passion so that even if subversive thoughts are formed, they won't have the emotional will to translate them into political changes. What we saw in the Arab Spring was what happens when you suddenly introduce social media to a tightly-wound and long-oppressed society with few outlets - then its potential for positive change can be activated before authorities have time to do anything about it. But cultures that arise from social media, and are pervaded by it, don't appear to have that potential. They evolve in an already diffusive, low-energy state.
Hence the oft-commented-upon irony of the country that spawned social media and that was by far its largest adopter, the United States, being relatively incapable of leveraging it for large-scale change while ultra-late-adopters were being in some cases literally lit on fire by it. And why? Because the thing foremost on these long-oppressed people's minds was finally being able to express themselves and connect with other people politically. That was the thing previously denied to them, and now suddenly available in spades. Whereas we, in our confident expectation of political freedom, rarely use it for anything beyond the silliest and most trivially self-involved expressions of discontent over superficial matters.
This is the paradox of wealth: The greater the possibilities of what you possess, the less likely you are to attempt to realize any of them. If every billionaire on planet Earth decided tomorrow that half of their money was going to be devoted to solving one particular problem, things would change very, very fast on this planet. But they don't. And it's not because all or even most of them are selfish pricks, but because what problem should they attack??? If they do something about climate change, why not cancer? If cancer, why not malaria? If malaria, why not hunger? So instead most of them give a lot less to a large number of charities - less to each issue, and also less to all combined because the division of their conscience also divides their attention and passion, yielding something less than the sum of its parts.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the handful of very rich people who've decided their fortunes will be devoted to one or a very few problems, and they're kicking ass in most cases: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to use one example, is bringing about amazing progress on malaria, and Elon Musk's trifecta of future-building companies (SpaceX, Tesla Motors, and Solar City) are changing the world. Compare that to the far more modest achievements of institutional advocacy groups, with their piecemeal donations and volunteer work of crowds, and you start to understand why the multi-tasking, crowdsourcing paradigm is so flawed. Someone with a mind, a will, and the command of resources has to sit down and think about these things and chart a focused course to make anything but shallow, incremental things happen.
And that's true at every level, whether you're a billionaire or a janitor. Groups are only intelligent when they work in concert with thoughtful, focused, responsible members who take it upon themselves to think about things deeply, patiently, and cultivate their own individual visions while also cultivating passionate motivation. When they are just passive agglomerations of people all waiting around to be led, or responding to the shallowest of superficial social cues and mechanistic functions, nothing happens. It's a Rube Goldberg contraption that exists simply to spin its own wheels.
Millennials have grown up in an environment of extreme group interaction, where they interact on some level with hundreds, thousands, even millions of people on an hourly basis, if not minute-to-minute. Their sense of identity and even personhood is more diffuse, distributed among far more activities and shallower connections, with deeper ones increasingly treated as the distractions rather than being the more important things that are distracted from. Growing up with the early versions of the internet, I'm personally aware of this phenomenon in myself, but it was incomplete enough in my childhood that I can see it. They can't. They have no conception of their vulnerability no matter how frequently it's demonstrated to them, and that worries me.
They believe everything they hear, unless what they hear is not to believe something else they hear, in which case they believe both simultaneously and make no decision regardless of the preponderance of evidence and reason. Let me emphasize that: They make no decisions. The very concept of a decision is foreign to a distributed, distracted mind because it requires the existence of a unified, point-source individual will that is able to act arbitrarily without all the infinitely varied social cues that are possible in large groups. They passively absorb their environment, and are more confident in something the more prevalently it's told to them on the web. Internally-originated responses are the exception. Most of the time it's just blind, entropic meme-flow through the system, of which their brains are only one node and rarely contribute anything.
Millennials are certainly not dumber than previous generations, but they developed in an environment where focus and critical thinking was anathema - a kind of sin or blasphemy. And that's totally reasonable for that to be the case for most of what the internet is used for: Critical thinking and focused reflection aren't really useful when telling someone where you are, looking at a map on your phone, playing short-play games, watching porn, looking for sex hookups available in your area, binging on Netflix shows, and trying to win accolades for your hipster wit with some meme. Constructive, serious political activity is one of the smallest of niche functions of this system, and by far the easiest to disrupt. And yet this is where Millennials live.
They live here, in this world where politics is the tiniest of islands in an ocean of utter trivia and impulse-gratification, and where well-thought-out politics is a single grain of sand on the beach of that island - the rest of which is shallow political theater endorsed by the elites, random conspiracy theories by idiots who don't know how to deal with the falseness of the former, bigotries by people who can't articulate the reasons for their dissatisfaction in life, and general dumb people repeating shit they heard. Moon hoaxers, 9/11 Truthers, Holocaust deniers, people who believe History Channel programming, idiots and trolls of all stripes flourish because the people in this environment know they can't trust what they hear, so instead they treat all information as having equally low value. Which has exactly the same effect as believing it all.
Sufficiently large swaths of the internet are concerned with this type of pathology that you can live your entire life surrounded by false information and irrational thinking, and never encounter reality except in the form of dissenters who you are conditioned to view as the ones who are crazy or dishonest. The inmates have taken over the asylum and put the doctors in straitjackets for not believing that sparrows are spies from Satan planning to fly up your butt and lay the egg that will bear the Antichrist. But the terrifying thing is that these "closed epistemic bubbles" - which are basically miniature mass-psychoses - are just the horrors that occur organically as a result of the inherent nature of this connected world. We haven't even begun to plumb the depths of what is possible when institutions become adept at manufacturing such bubbles of lies via these systems.
Phenomena like this can't exist when people take intellectual responsibility - when they step back from the noise, see it for what it is, and use their minds as independent sensory organs rather than frictionless conduits for someone else's claims and values. But when your mind developed inside an environment where the latter defines the overwhelming majority of social interactions, if not the entirety, where is this independent capacity supposed to come from? You're rewarded only for being a drop of water in the ocean who passively moves with the currents, not for being the uncouth jerk who insists on charting your own course.
Here is the danger: The entire foundation of Millennial culture is a technological infrastructure totally surveilled and potentially falsified by political and economic elites. The capacity for induced mass-psychosis leading to politically convenient astroturf behavior, at the extreme up to acts of genocide, is just mind-boggling. Nothing I have seen of the passively liberal attitudes of this techno-mediated culture convinces me that it would be capable of even recognizing, let alone resisting the deliberate cultivation of a mass-psychosis by elites. I've argued with too many young Paulites to believe that young people are anything less than wide open to brainwashing - and only the brainwashed seem passionate. The reasonable seem too distracted by pragmatic considerations to form coherent movements for change.
The Paulites, though, are just the half-assed head cold compared to the Plague of what is clearly possible when the banks and the nation-states they control decide they need to get more hands-on in proactively shaping beliefs. You may have noticed the shocking proliferation of market cultist attitudes and beliefs even in liberal forums like Daily Kos - e.g., I once argued that public transit should actually be a public sector service (free to the user), and that somehow inspired incredulity and even a little anger.
Foundational, common-sense liberal progressive thought is now radical in liberal progressive forums, and treated as kindred to the silliest of fringe politics elsewhere. Not dismissed, mind you, just given identical respect to someone saying the Moon landings were a hoax - "Well, you're entitled to your strange opinions." Common sense is not persecuted in this Brave New World, it's just treated as idiosyncratic and vaguely disreputable, and as something that self-respecting members of the web community shouldn't be associated with.
In the classic science fiction novel A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge imagined a terrifying form of ultra-evolved computer virus called The Blight that was so physically expansive and so adaptable that it could mimic entire civilizations in order to infect real ones. Try to imagine such a concept in our world today: Imagine finding out that an entire country you've been reading about for years doesn't really exist, but was actually a massive simulation designed to manipulate world events. It's the stuff of paranoid nightmares, and it's not physically possible if any significant number of people have to be in on it - hence the utter impossibility of things like Moon Hoaxerism and 9/11 Trutherism.
But now try to realize the entirety of civilization is moving toward being mediated on the second-by-second level to electronic communications. Very little of what other people say to you is said to you in person now; very little of what is reported is ever verified by third parties, and to the extent anything is, verification usually takes the form of simply seeking other electronic-based sources for the same claims. Further, try to realize that the generations which are growing up within these environments don't understand that they're not inherently real. It's real "because the web tells me so," like the religious people who believe things "because the Bible tells me so."
But even today we've seen instances where stories propagated to practically every corner of the web, being repeated uncritically by worldwide news organizations, turned out to have originated nowhere: Someone misspoke, or misstyped, or it was some jerk who simply posted a false claim on a web forum, or it was a game of Telephone where the story just mutated with the telling into something that was more likely to propagate, and it turned into The Record because it was repeated without reflection or examination. In other words, rumor-mongering. "Word on the street." That's what even the most trustworthy sources on the internet increasingly boil down to: Nothing whatsoever.
And that's just left to its own devices. There is no reason that astroturf will not continue to evolve way beyond the creation of front groups, the staging of protests, and Fox News making shit up. Why even invest that level of resources when you could - theoretically, and as time goes on, increasingly practically - fabricate the entire information process? You don't need to actually found a front group with all the irritating tax paperwork, just create a fake web page and social media accounts for one. You own the web provider, so if anyone asks it about who runs the page, you can lie and tell them all about this organization. Or maybe you don't own the web provider - maybe you just own the email services used to contact the web provider, and direct all inquiries regarding this fake group to yourself to answer as you choose.
If we imagine a sufficiently patient malefactor with significant resources, they can create fake people out of thin air in the electronic world, complete with fake lives, fake social media updates, everything about them fabricated in real time. If they're patient enough, they don't even have to create it all at the same time and put false dates on it - they can just introduce their fake people to the web as kids doing kid things, and then as years pass, show them doing what adults do. And then when the "crop" comes time to harvest, these fake people can all pile on to praise and support the fake organization, shout down its critics, Freep polls, fill comments to everything with their memes and propaganda, and take over their own opposition with subtle trolling.
Soon, of course, this attracts real people who think they're joining a massively popular organization and reflecting a wave of "purifying" change or whatever rhetoric right-wing assholes usually use, and the lie has become truth. Power achieved. The only time you could verify that it was a lie is in the transition between pure fabrication and social conformity arising from belief in the lie, and the only way you could do that if the orchestrators own the electronic infrastructure is to try to physically verify what the Web is saying. How often does that happen? People are reported to already drive into lakes and off roads if their GPS tells them to keep going. What's right in front of their face doesn't exist to them as much as the information of the network, and the former will be less and less available with time.
We've already seen it happen to some extent. The Tea Party was largely a fabrication by a health insurance industry trying to stop Obamacare, and it's still fighting it, but now it's real imbeciles with real agendas based on what their masters tell them. And that was a bunch of inept hacks doing laughably transparent astroturf, who have nonetheless leveraged their lies into putting a bunch of their people into Congress. What do you think is going to happen when the cipherpunks and cryptoanalysts and other people who read Vernor Vinge and thought The Blight was an awesome idea are motivated to enter the astroturf game - when their employers (like the NSA, the Pentagon, the banks, and foreign governments) are run by people who grew up late enough to recognize the potential?
We've all been assailed at some point or another by sufficiently stupid, stereotypical comments that it must have occurred to one at some point whether there was actually anyone on the other end of the argument, or if someone had written an especially good troll bot script. Well, rest assured, with the power of Google Analytics, that's inevitable. As premature as such predictions were when they first appeared in science fiction, it is inevitable that fake people will be created and real people erased by control of the electronic infrastructure, in ways that would put MiniTrue to shame. There will be places where the maps lie, not because they suck, but because the people who own them have an interest in falsifying them.
You will converse with nonexistent people who seem bound and determined to use every troll trick in the book to distract, demonize, and otherwise silence you, and the number and sophistication of those AI trolls will increase with time. They will exhaust your emotional resources because your will as a human being to argue the truth and support ideas in the face of fabricated social disapproval is a lot scarcer than the available electricity of a server farm. And you will watch as your children, growing up in the environment of such phenomena, are shaped by them into believing whatever the Web tells them is appropriate to believe. Eventually, the nightmare is that you will live in a fake country that exists only in the information you are fed, and that the consequences of seeing reality would be severe. We've seen that theme in dystopian science fiction, and it's not for nothing - it's a real possibility.
Now, it's true that similar fears were voiced in earlier generations about the effect of television on society, but let me just blow your mind: Those fears were legitimate, and they came true. That's right, you and I are products of the fact that those prophecies of doom totally came to fruition. We grew up in television, and our minds are warped because of it in exactly the ways predicted by satires like Network. The Reagan era would not have been possible without that cultural process having reached maturity, and the Bush era would not have possible without it becoming universal as the people who were adults before TV started to leave the scene. And I don't just mean their supporters: I mean their opponents were weakened by it, and continue to be increasingly weakened by it.
We are weaker than the people who made the New Deal and Civil Rights happen, not because we don't have the inherent capacity for what they did, but because we exist in an environment where we can't even comprehend it. It does not compute. Of course people will be less tolerant of racism in the future, when the visceral reaction of fear to the Other is removed and interactions are purely aesthetic and cynical. But that's not what MLK was talking about. He was talking about human communities that exist on an organic and moral level, and about a deepening of the human spirit. The irony is that we're achieving the superficial aspects of his Dream by utterly eviscerating the substance of them.
Racial profiling isn't motivated by racism - it's motivated by depraved pragmatism that looks at a stats sheet on the background of perpetrators and decides that it's better to give the majority safer streets by making even free life into a prison for minorities. It's decision-making removed from morality and human connection to the consequences. A personality diffused into numbers and abstractions has a decreasing ability to connect to the moral consequences of their actions and understand them.
So think about that fact in deciding the relative advantages and disadvantages the "New New Left" is going to bring to the table: Extremely vulnerable to electronic-mediated social conditioning and irrational memes that are aesthetically pleasing and self-vindicating to egos, less capable of compassionate restraint because of the abstraction of relationships, and permitted an ever-diminishing share of time and attention to devote to figuring out what is right and doing it rather than letting some tiny fraction of themselves make political decisions on pure impulse and social cues.
The failure of the Occupy movement was the first indication that something is wrong with where we're going in this century, and it was basically a perfect representation of what I'm talking about: As long as the ego-trip and the aesthetic pretenses were in line with being an effective movement with broad appeal, that's how it proceeded. But when it was faced with actual choices, when it needed someone to know what the hell was going on and make intelligent decisions on that basis, instead it collapsed into a black hole of self-involved fringe politics and issues that only the people right there were affected by rather than staying focused on the 99%. Any significant contingent could have carried that torch forward if they had stayed focused on that central, unifying issue, regardless of how distracted anyone else became, but it didn't happen.
"The Moment" had passed. The attention span had run out. Fickle minds found other games to play, and self-righteous narcissists kept obsessing on their petty little agendas while manufacturing a self-vindicating narrative about how it was the police that destroyed Occupy simply by rousting the camps. No, it was the Occupiers that ended Occupy - that didn't want to do hard things, didn't want to try to set up practical, effective direct democracy institutions with solid, broad-based community roots. That wanted it all to be about them rather than everyone else.
The people at the center of it (whether they admitted it or not, they were the ones who the impetus, without which it fell apart) just didn't see themselves as performing that function - a lot of them seemed to see themselves in terms of that Che Guevara t-shirt photograph (i.e., a pure fantasy unsullied by real world context) rather than as founders of an institution (since so many of them were anarchists, that would be anathema) - so no one took responsibility to make it happen, and surprise, it didn't happen. Instead we got some pretty pictures, some inspiring sentiments expressed abstractly, some assholes beating drums for no reason, then some self-righteous outrage at being smacked by The Man, then back to total indifference and distraction. It was an instance of the internet intruding into physical space. And despite being spontaneous, sincere, and supported by a huge number of people, it was far less effective at changing things than the Tea Party fabrication.
If the "New New Left" is going to be of any use to our future, Millennials will have to learn something that this electronic culture is failing to teach them: Self-awareness. I don't mean selfishness, or self-involvement, or solipsism, or idiocy, or any of the other numerous counterfeits for self-awareness that proliferate on the internet. I mean taking responsibility for setting the boundaries of your own relationships and actions, and learning how to focus on a single thing in depth for an extended period of time. In other words, learning how to exist as a human being with independent sensory organs, the ability to reflect on what they tell you, and the ability to draw independent moral and intellectual conclusions based on that that are not dictated by social consensus. In other words, critical thinking and independent will.
Every human being has had to learn these things in every generation, but the power of countervailing influences is increasing and accelerating via the media through which we communicate. How do you not become Borg if a million voices are chattering their disapproval in your head every time you have an independent thought? How do you not turn into a mindless factotum of manufactured consent if your entire conception of yourself is as a set of networked functions rather than as a point-source being who can arbitrarily choose to change something? If the bonds of a paper bureaucracy created the suffocating environments of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, what the hell kind of nightmares are going to be dreamed up in the crushing, sub-oceanic depths of an electronic hivemind puppeteered by a handful of corporate Morlocks? (Don't complain to me about mixed metaphors - I have never and will never concede that there is anything wrong with them)
And if we have to rely on the courage, focus, and commitment of a bunch of Tom Haverford-like app-head flibbertigibbets who don't have the balls to be without constant, 24/7 social approval, we're pretty well fucked. So I don't see much inherent in the upcoming generation to inspire wild optimism, but that doesn't mean it isn't there to be found. Sometimes the reaction to a trend is more useful than the trend itself, and maybe there are people among the Millennials who are becoming immune to electronic mind-fucking and don't allow themselves to be dictated to by their own tools. Who use technology as ways to make something happen rather than allowing themselves to be brainwashed into perpetual consumer froth for some new gadget that does 0.0000000001% more than the last one. But one should never count on exceptions.
Instead, we have to actively promote beneficial exceptions. We have to reward people for continuous critical thinking, and not be dissuaded from it ourselves because a bunch of idiots can't read anything longer than a Tweet without getting antsy and resentful. "Tl;dr" is basically the anthem of the inconsequential - people wearing a great big name tag saying "Tool." I'm sorry, you don't have time to read this? Well then, you don't have time to think about it either, and if that's the case, you don't have anything meaningful to say about it. I.e., I don't give a fuck what you think if you're not thinking at all. If you don't have time to think, that's not my problem. That's your problem. And contrary to what you believe (because the web tells you so), the world is not going to protect you from the consequences of that - it's just going to exploit it until there's nothing left of you.
It will do more and more for you until, eventually, it won't even give you the option of doing it yourself. And then it'll stop doing it for you at all, and just do it for the people who own it. The people who actually matter: The great-grandchildren of the people who dared to think and try. Which is unfair, since they bear none of the merits of their ancestors, but what are you going to do about it? Challenge them to a rap battle? Play Angry Birds until your skill at it is so advanced that it magically affects political change somehow?
Sure, you might start a politics-based Facebook group, but you're not about to neglect all your other oh-so-important obligations, like the Instagram/vlog where you show everyone the delightful shenanigans of your cat, and your several thousand pop culture fan-based Facebook groups, are you? What kind of antisocial, single-minded jerk would keep talking about one thing consistently and in depth? Are you going for some kind of doctorate with that level of thinking? No? Just trying to actually make something happen? "Happen"? What's "happen"? I need to look this word up.
Wait, what was I saying? I dnt rmber. 2 mny txts 2 lisn. tl;dr.