The Insider’s Guide to Life: Kids These Days

ColumnArmed with an iPad. And dangerous?

After a weekend in New York for eco fashion, it was off to Cape Cod with our managing editor, Amy DuFault, who makes her home here with her family: a musician-designer husband, two children and a cockapoo named Mick. They live in a classic New England cottage flanked by two ponds and woods. It’s April, but it’s still quite cold, and the winds whip through the bare trees and howl around the house. Inside, it’s warm and cozy, and Amy and I work on spring plans from the dining room instead of the office downstairs, where we can catch glimpses of house wrens and ospreys in the branches of the oaks and fat gray squirrels scurrying across the decks.

In between calls and ticking off to-do lists after dinner last night, Amy looked up from her laptop: “Sara? Let me just read you this email.” I know that tone of voice well. It’s the tone that comes with sharing a query from a hopeful writer wanting to cover the healing properties of crystals on a passionate case of eczema or the story about how slathering oneself in essential oil of Dalmation sage mixed with powdered placenta can cure the depression. It’s the tone that asks if we’d like to advertise cat psychics. Or perhaps we’d like to attend and cover the trade event in San Pedro about new 1.3763% more efficient copper conductors in industrial incinerators? It’s a dynamic industry.

This proposal was from one Clyle Reed, who suggested we introduce an eco-spirit section led (obviously) by him, and named for him. It was written in English, but appeared to have been improved upon by either a spambot or a drunk Scot. We really couldn’t decide. Topics would include his mother, his childhood, and his expertise in – among other gifts – spirit gathering.

We’ll blame the time of day; Amy responded. “Tell me more, Clyle.” This unleashed a flurry of emails from the Lord’s minion (his actual email address). We fell into an earnest – and loud – discussion about culture and psychology, or more accurately, online oddballs and insanity, forgetting that Amy’s young teenage son was nearby. As we read email after email from Clyle, aghast at what we’d semi-wittingly unleashed, her son ignored us, engrossed in whatever he was doing on his iPad. A few more minutes of our noisy analysis, and he sauntered into the kitchen. “Sometimes I really worry about what the world is coming to,” Amy said, shaking her head. And then we heard it. A snicker from the kitchen.

We looked at each other. We looked at the kitchen, graced by one immensely puffed up child, grinning ear to ear. He croaked “Clyle!” before collapsing into a fit of laughter as we shrunk in horror. The query, so strangely and brilliantly written. The succession of increasingly eerie ramblings, the insanity of which would have impressed John Updike; the perfectly crafted personal blog; the fresh gmail address. We’d been had by a thirteen-year-old, and he’d been audience to the entire progression of his macabre puppet show. Needless to say, he was thrilled by our total mortification. After we managed to make eye contact with him, we explained why the joke – while ingenious – was inappropriate. We sent him to bed post haste, so that we could laugh until we cried.

Kids these days. I remember rolling my eyes in frustration for months at trying to teach my mother how to use email (“You don’t use caps, Mom!”); this child had created an entire supporting ecosystem in mere minutes for his prank. He knew how, he accessed the services and tools, and he did it all in moments for a lark – for free. The internet is now home to one more blog which will never be used again, and Cape Cod is currently host to two embarrassed adults who, while fast themselves, are clearly no match for a seventh grade boy.

My own “kid” brother, who is 25, can text on his smartphone without looking at it. In fact most of the time it’s in his pocket. I’m not so much older than he is, but the rapid iteration of technology savvy – not just from generation to generation but between siblings and a year or few – is remarkable. He’d be an easy victim for Clyle, too.

The unreserved integration of technology by “the youth” scares many people, who fear for the innocence and safety of our children. I’m not one of them. While I don’t hole up in my house fervently watching for signs of the Singularity, I believe the fact that kids use technology without thinking about it – while we are still muttering and marveling over the details of the transition – is a positive thing.

Yes, there are predators on the internet, but there are predators IRL (that’s “in real life”), too, and what today’s kids intuitively grasp is that living online and off seamlessly is a productive, useful way to make life better because they can. They know this well enough to be wry about it, if last night’s missives from Clyle are any indication.

They’ll have to grapple with text thumb and their brains will be studied for changed learning patterns – consequences of change we are only beginning to understand and won’t be able to dismiss. But we should look at this cultural shift another way. One thing these children will not do is waste time. They will have grown up used to living in the present, all the time, and there will be little pause for regret, much less the gridlock and analysis paralysis of our social and political fabric. Jenny McCarthy’s inane babbling about indigo children has it all wrong; these are kids who simply have horse sense with no patience for horse shit. Their brains have been trained to look at reality and now, not myth and belief and maybe, and they’re used to witnessing the results of their actions in real time. We played Telephone with cans and strings and grew up to spin messaging with publicists. They’ve grown up with the iPhone and Android and Google cache, and they’re going to be kicking livid at what we’ve done.

So I doubt the results of this “tech stuff” will be anywhere near as apocalyptic as the cynics fear; I doubt things will even fray. Shame and love and altruism are still effective social motivators, and unless these suddenly evolve out of us thanks to “the Twitter,” will continue to be. Belonging is everything to humans, and our children will wonder why we cared so little about this, and why we did everything so stupidly. While we whine without ceasing about “their” infatuation with instant gratification – texting, Facebook, games – they’re soon going to ask what the kettle has to be so shrill about.

It’s a truly useless cynic who sees a dystopian future instead of a hopeful one. If we can manage to hand them the world without destroying it first, they may just be able to save it.

This is the latest installment in your editor’s column, The Insider’s Guide to Life, exploring topics such as media, culture, sex, politics, and anything else. Cheers and spellcheck!

Image: Zawezome