Politics & Media
Mar 10, 2008, 08:21AM

The Only Thing We Believe In

Voters are being wooed by messages of “change” and “progress,” but what happens to a generation that values change above all?

Andrew Carnegie had only recently immigrated from Scotland when he wrote that the “‘doing of a thing’ because our grandfathers did it … is not an ‘American Institution.’” No one can doubt that Americans’ love of progress has led to many social achievements, Carnegie’s among them, and that each new generation has added its own technological, medical, and social advances. But as time has passed and the rate of new discoveries has increased exponentially, the divide between generations has also widened proportionally. Because of these changes, living conditions have changed far more dramatically in the past 50 years than they did in the 50 years prior to that.

Our desire to break with the past is reflected in some of the generationally oriented rhetoric of the current presidential campaign, where “old” means “bad” and “new” means “good.” The message of change has been so readily adopted by the country’s youth, myself included, that I’m afraid we might not fully realize the ideological implications of living in a culture in which change always trumps experience.

This year’s presidential candidates are pandering to the MySpace/Facebook generation with a message of change, but we understand better than anyone that societal “progression” is not always an unambiguous triumph. We’ve grown up knowing that the same airplanes used to ferry food into Africa also allow children to leave parents behind as they seek their fortunes elsewhere, or for terrorists to use as weapons of mass destruction. Advances in nuclear physics have allowed us to understand our universe better than ever before, while also injecting our lives with a constant, low-level dose of “what if?” fear.

Another upshot of this widening cultural gap, especially for those of us who have never really known life without the Internet, is that we find it more difficult than ever to connect with older generations—our parents, and to a greater extent, our grandparents. Our elders do not need, nor have they ever needed, the type of constant technological upgrading that we have come to view as necessary. Who hasn’t paused before buying an iPhone, Xbox, or similar device, knowing that a newer model would arrive in months? Our grandparents did not abandon products so easily in favor of the new trendy item. They spent most of their lives without the commodities we young adults have come to view as staples. Their generation is simply not geared, as we are, for instant everything—instant information, communication and gratification.

But there are undoubtedly certain benefits to simplification and slowness. A hike through the woods is not enhanced by speed walking, nor do we make a canoe trip better by putting an engine on the back. And there is something quite different, and ultimately more pleasant, about camping in the quiet woods than driving on the interstate in an RV.

In our mad rush to embrace every new technology, we sometimes forget these non-technological pleasures. And by forgetting much of what previous generations enjoyed, we lose an important link between us and our past. This consequential: what, after all, happens to a society that is so ready, even eager, to dismiss its past?

All of this illuminates an age-old conundrum, but one that our society faces in a much more direct manner: how to bridge the gap between the old and the young without alienating either. The answer isn’t to cleave ourselves completely from the sentiments and rituals of the past and view all innovation as universally beneficial social progress. And it’s not to bind ourselves so tightly to the past that we are unable to step forward into the future.

We must not let the growing technological gap alienate us from the older generations—discarding technologies is quite different from discarding people. After all, the Information Revolution will only grow faster, and before too long we will find ourselves on the wrong end of the generational divide. We must find ways to link ourselves to what has come before, and use that link to guide us as we move forward.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a member of the Reagan Revolution who yearns for the “good old days.” I think that life is better now for more people than it was 50 years ago, but it is also somewhat more complicated. Many of the rules, traditions and rituals that were accepted in the mid-20th century—even in to the 1980s—don’t necessarily apply today. For that reason, it is imperative that we keep moving forward, but not so quickly as to disregard recent history.

Recognizing that stability is an attribute that all societies should share, we must be careful in embracing a political message of Change, Above All Else. Perhaps a more appropriate message, especially in the current political and social climate, would be Change, Based on Experience.


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