Time’s article exhibits some of the stock bewilderment at the younger generation. However, most interesting was how the story of technology was woven into the story of my generation. The article focused nearly as much attention on the technologies that Millennials use as it did on Millennials themselves. The “generation gap,” it seemed to argue, is a technological gap as much as anything.
For example, the article quoted Scott Hess, a VP for a global youth research firm: "I think in many ways you're blaming millennials for the technology that happens to exist right now."
What are Millennials being blamed for? Selfishness, narcissicism, and lacking empathy. Analyzing these generational characteristics is one the main thrusts of the article: "Scores on tests of empathy similiarly fell sharply, starting in 2000, likely because of both a lack of face-to-face time and higher degrees of narcissism." The article links this decline back to technology: “Millennials are interacting all day but almost entirely through a screen.”
This link between increased technology and decreased empathy is supported by recent research too: “If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so” (link).
So how does technology affect our selfishness, empathy, and narcissism?
The Time article continues, "In the U.S., millennials are the children of baby boomers, who are also known as the Me Generation, who then produced the Me Me Me Generation, whose selfishness technology has only exacerbated." So technology is making these symptoms worse.
The article goes on to support Hess’s assertion that we shouldn’t be blaming Millennials: "None of these traits are new to millennials; they've been around at least since the Reformation, when Martin Luther told Christians they didn't need the church to talk to God, and became more pronounced at the end of the 18th century in the Romantic period, when artists stopped using their work to celebrate God and started using it to express themselves."
It’s a good point. And even these historic precedents had new technologies at work in their day: Gutenberg’s printing press, and the Industrial Revolution had radically changed the cultural environment.
Hess’s belief that we should blame technology deserves a look. "Millennials' self-involvement is more a continuation of a trend than a revolutionary break from previous generations. They're not a new species; they're just mutated to adapt to their environment."
If, as this article suggests, we blame technology, we need to, simultaneously, do two things. Let me explain them with a simple technological example: a mirror.
Today, we have mirrors everywhere. And mirrors have fundamentally changed our environment. Because we live in an environment that includes mirrors, we see ourselves from outside ourselves. And that has changed how we perceive and present ourselves. Because of mirrors, we have a clothing and fashion industry that are thriving.
It’s not that we weren’t self-conscious or self-aware or self-condemning before mirrors exists; we were. That was part of the Fall of man. Rather, mirrors made it easier for us to be self-conscious and all that. And they intensified our self-awareness. They convinced us that they offered a completely objective representation of ourselves. And we changed our habits and our clothing because of what they reflected.
When we look at Millennials and their technology, when Scott Hess tells us to blame technology, when Time magazine says that we’ve always been this way—we need to remember the mirror. Every technology works just like a mirror.
We need to remember once in a while to look at the mirror as a mirror. The mirror invites us to always look at its reflection, but we need to also look at it as an object. We need to not only look through Facebook, but at it. We need to see it apart from its reflection. If we do, we will see that it does reflect something about us, but not everything. Mirrors reflect a reversed image and are not the real thing. We are not our mirror image. That was the mistake the Narcissus made: He believed that he and his image were the same thing. They’re not.
We are not our technology, but our technology is a reflection of us. For this reason, we rightly blame technology for its inherent flaws, just like we blame a mirror for reversing our reflection. We are not our Facebook page, but it does reflect us. This is obvious once we step back from it.
Beyond its reflection, we must also consider ourselves, and see ourselves for the responsibility we do carry. If our technology is making us selfish, cold-hearted narcissists, we do not bear all the blame, but neither are we innocent. We have created our technology, and our technology is now shaping us. We have created our profiles, and now, because of what they reflect back, we are changing what we do and how we do it. When was the last time you chose to enjoy something without posting a photo of it or updating your status?
We do have a responsibility to understand the consequences of our technologies—the works of our hands. We must bear the burden of our creation (like Dr Frankenstein must for his monster), but we must also take technology to task for its consequences as well.
We must understand how our technology shapes our lives. To do that, we must see technology as it is. We must look at the mirror and see it as an object, flawed and biased. Until we do, technology will always holds us enraptured by its dazzling and deceptive reflection.