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Thursday, April 18, 2013

They are the Nisei of cyberspace—the first generation born into a world that has never not known digital life


Meet the First Digital Generation. Now Get Ready to Play by Their Rules
By Jerry Adler Photographs by Dan Winters

ANNA DANISZEWSKI, a sophomore at Bard College, takes a dozen or more cell phone pictures daily, usually around dusk or after dark—moody shots of found objects, bare branches against a gray sky, or lighted windows in the distance, evoking the way sensitive, artistic young men and women have always felt about life. You can totally imagine Goethe doing the same thing, preserving each precious instant of angst for the posterity that would someday recognize his genius. Except Daniszewski doesn’t preserve them all; some she sends out with Snapchat, so they appear on friends’ phones for around six seconds before vanishing irretrievably. In an era when everyone has the tools to be an artist and everything is recorded and stored—potentially forever—this counts as provocation. Daniszewski is embracing the ephemeral.
For Daniszewski’s cohort, the roughly 4 million Americans born in 1993 (she herself was born in the second week of 1994), such contradictions must constantly be negotiated: public versus private, virtual versus real, active versus passive. On one hand, millennials consume so much media they can’t concentrate, torn as they are between texting, posting on Facebook, and watching YouTube. And yet they also have an astonishing ability to focus on elaborate videogame play for six-hour stretches or to watch complex, multistranded television dramas in binge sessions that can swallow a weekend. They are experts in driving games like Gran Turismo 5, but they’re not that interested in actual driving. (When Americans born in 1978 turned 16 years old, 42 percent had driver’s licenses; the comparable figure for millennials is less than a third.)
They are the Nisei of cyberspace—the first generation born into a world that has never not known digital life and so never had to adjust to it as the rest of us settlers have. Like all Nisei, they understand the new world in ways their parents never will and speak its language with far more fluency. If you want to understand the past two decades, they are perhaps the perfect subjects. The drumbeat of disruption and technological advance that has defined the past 20 years is their natural rhythm.
I was born in 1949, so the first 20 years of my life spanned a similarly disruptive era. But the forces that molded my generation were political and cultural, not technological. Nothing in my use of vinyl records or radio or the telephone set me apart from people who were born in 1929 or 1909.
The digital Nisei are different: Technology has shaped not just how they navigate the world but how they see themselves. Each generation imagines itself as rebellious and iconoclastic. But none before has felt as free to call bullshit on conventional wisdom, backed by a trillion pages of information on the web and with the power of the Internet to broadcast their opinions. They have thrown off the shackles of received culture—compiling their own playlists, getting news from Twitter, decorating web pages with their own art.
But at the same time that technology has empowered the digital Nisei, it has also exerted control over them. The way they interact is influenced and mediated by the available tools. A Pew Internet survey from 2010 ranked the seven main ways teenagers communicated. Among then-17-year-olds, who are 20 now, in descending order these were text messaging, cell phone calls, landline calls, face- to-face, social networks, instant messaging, and—dead last—email. (Written letters didn’t even merit a footnote.) Teenage girls averaged 80 texts a day, Pew found. Boys, around 30.
Texting is perhaps the most efficient form of communication ever invented, stripping messages to a fine-grained, asynchronous channel. It is at once intimate, allowing communication on a level of informality that would be unthinkable in any other medium, and distant—replacing a commitment to a conversation with a series of one-sided communiquès. “Phone conversations make me anxious,” says Jennifer Lin, a freshman at Parsons the New School for Design. “I don’t like calling people and having them not answer. I don’t want people around me hearing what I’m saying. I don’t want to have to think about how to end the conversation—OK, bye, later, see you. I don’t want to talk to people. And it kills my batteries.”
Then again, texting—or DMing, or chatting on Facebook, or commenting on Instagram—comes with its own set of anxieties. Notes are worked over and polished to convey just the right balance of sincerity and indifference. And the lack of immediate feedback cuts both ways, psychologically. To be 20 is to wonder why you haven’t received a response to your latest message, to live in fear that your sarcasm was misunderstood. The younger the person, says Amanda di Bartolomeo, a Los Angeles psychologist, the more impatient they are for a reply. They devise elaborate theories involving lost phones, sudden term papers, and cool parties to which the sender wasn’t invited. Moreover, one of the great advantages of digital communication, the ability to present yourself in an ideal light, can be problematic: “I have friends who made boyfriends online and spend an inordinate amount of time composing emails to impress them,” says Maryam Mashayekhi, a 19-year-old from Washington, DC, taking a break from college for AmeriCorps. “What will they do when they meet in person and have to talk?”

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