The future of youth

Been stalling a while wondering which Y to pick (yellow was my previous target) but my mind was made last night when I watched a news interview about young people’s behavior. The article contrasted the increasingly exciting lives of the elderly with the increasingly lonely lives of the young. It made very sad listening. Youth should be a time of joy, exploration and experimentation, reaching out, stretching boundaries, living life to its full. It’s always had plenty of problems to deal with too, but we’re adding to all the natural stresses of growing up.

The main thrust was that young people are lonely, because they don’t have enough cash to socialize properly so make do with staying in their room and using social media. That is a big enough problem, but a different one caught my attention this time.

The bit that worried me was the interview with a couple of people hoping to start off in professional careers. One pointed out that she had once got drunk and pictures had been uploaded onto social media so now she doesn’t dare drink any more because she doesn’t want pictures or anything else on social media damaging her career prospects. She is effectively living a censored life to protect her career, feeling that she is living her life in camera all the time.

Celebrities are well used to that, but celebrities usually have the compensations of a good income and guaranteed social life so they don’t have to worry about buying a home or seeing other people. Young people are now suffering the constant supervision without the benefits. We’ve had ‘friends with benefits’, now we’re seeing ‘celebs without benefits’ as people are thrust for all the wrong reasons into the spotlight and their lives wrecked, or constantly self-censoring to avoid that happening to them.

This trend will worsen a lot as cameras become even more ubiquitously tied in to social media, via Google Glass and other visors, button cams, necklace cams and a wide range of other lifestyle cameras and lifestyle blogging devices as well as all the smartphones and tablets and smart TV cameras. Everyone must then assume that everything they do and say in company (physical or online) may be recorded.

There are two main reactions to total privacy loss, and both make some sense.

A: Nobody is perfect so everyone will have some embarrassing things about them out there somewhere, so it doesn’t matter much if you do too.

B: The capture of embarrassing situations is subject to pretty random forces so is not equally distributed. You may do something you’d really regret but nobody records it, so you get away with it. Or you may do something less embarrassing but it is recorded, uploaded and widely shared and it may be a permanent blemish on your CV.

Both of these approaches make some sense. If you think you will be in an ordinary job you may not feel it matters very much if there is some dirt on you because nobody will bother to look for it and in any case it won’t be much worse than the people sitting beside you so it won’t put you at any significant disadvantage. But the more high profile the career you want, the more prominent the second analysis becomes. People will be more likely to look for dirt as you rise up the ladder and more likely to use it against you. The professional girl being interviewed on the news was in the second category and understood that the only way to be sure you don’t suffer blemishes and damaged career prospects is to abstain from many activities previously seen as fun.

That is a very sad position and was never intended. The web was invented to make our lives better, making it easier to find and share scientific documents or other knowledge. It wasn’t intended to lock people in their rooms or make them avoid having fun. The devices and services we use on the internet and on mobile networks were also invented to make our lives richer and more fulfilled, to put us more in touch with others and to reduce isolation and loneliness. In some cases they are doing the opposite. Unintended consequences, but consequences nonetheless.

I don’t want to overstate this concern. I have managed to live a very happy life without ever having taken drugs, never having been chained naked to a lamppost, never gone to any dubious clubs and only once or twice getting drunk in public. There are some embarrassing things on the web, but not many. I have had many interesting online exchanges with people I have never met, got involved in many projects I’d never have been involved with otherwise, and on balance the web has made my life better, not worse. I’m very introvert and tend to enjoy activities that don’t involve doing wild things with lots of other people pointing cameras at me. I don’t need much external stimulation and I won’t get bored sitting doing nothing but thinking. I can get excited just writing up a new idea or reading about one. I do self-censor my writing and talks though I’d rather not have to, but other than that I don’t feel I need to alter my activity in case someone is watching. There are pluses and minuses, but more pluses for me.

On the other hand, people who are more extrovert may find it a bigger burden having to avoid exciting situations and suffer a bigger drop in quality of life.

Certainly younger people want to try new things, they want to share exciting situations with other people, many want to get drunk occasionally, some might want to experiment with drugs, and some want to take part in political demonstrations.  and would suffer more than older ones who have already done so. It is a sad consequence of new technology if they feel they can’t in case it destroys their career prospects.

The only ways to recover an atmosphere of casual unpunished experimentation would be either to prevent sharing of photos or videos or chat, basically to ban most of what social networks do, and even the people affected probably don’t want to do that, or to make it possible and easy to have any photos or records of your activity removed. That would be better but still leaves problems. There is no obvious easy solution.

If we can’t, and we almost certainly won’t, then many of our brightest young people will feel shackled, oppressed, unable to let their hair down properly, unable to experience the joy of life that all preceding generations took for granted. It’s an aspect of the privacy debate that needs aired much more. Is it a price worth paying to get the cheap short-lived thrill of laughing at someone else’s embarrassment? I’m not sure it is.

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