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  • Paul Cumbo

Flashlights and Cameras

Maybe the best thing about smartphones is that everyone has a flashlight. Maybe the worst is that everyone has a camera.

During a Socratic Seminar with 12th graders over the past couple days, we've been examining the burdens this generation of adolescents -- sometimes called "iGen" -- carries. The Seminar topic was inspired by Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, a simultaneously brutal and eloquent reflection on the author's Vietnam experience.

Clearly, the generation sitting in my class doesn't face the same challenges as O'Brien's in the late 60's and 70's. Unlike O'Brien and his fellow draftees, they don't carry a war. (God willing, it will remain that way.) But it would be simplistic to suggest this generation of kids doesn't carry burdens. We covered a lot of ground, but almost all of the discussion came back to the challenges that come with being digitally connected. Three recurring themes resonate with me above others.

First, that this is the first generation whose lives have been recorded, published, and distributed at a near constant pace since well before they could understand the implications. Everybody's got a camera. It's a heck of a lot harder to move on from things when those things are engraved in digital stone. Not to mention, often broadcast. The potential to induce anxiety is there.

Second, that this generation sees a quantity, frequency, and constancy of news, information, opinion, and imagery unknown--at the same developmental stages of life--to those who came before. Even if the individual bits of information are trivial, inconsequential, and hardly worthy of anxiety, the sheer quantity and constancy is remarkable. As one guy put it, it's an "unrelenting" barrage of stimulus. Often unfiltered, and often spontaneous, without due time or consideration for reflection.

Third, that a likewise unrelenting influx of opinion, judgment, quantification, comparison, measurement, and evaluation elicits a continuously heightened self-consciousness. The irony evident in so much of the discussion was striking: Here is a generation of which so many members will freely share so much online, yet so many of whom are manifestly uncomfortable sharing deep or personal things face-to-face.

During our discussion, I couldn't help coming back to the realization that for me, as a 38-year-old "x-ennial," (what they call those of us who bridge Gen-X and Millennials, apparently), so much of this was unknown to my own, pre-internet, pre-cellphone teenage years. Granted, well-respected statistics indicate my generation of teenagers proportionally engaged in more frequent dangerous behavior, with horrible results. But I have to say, I still think it was a simpler time to be a kid. Not necessarily easier, but simpler. (There's a difference.)

Of course, there are those who will dismiss this "iGen's" burdens as so much malarkey, because arguably this generation isn't facing the same challenges as past ones. That compared to fighting wars, for example, "kids these days" don't carry much at all. Such reductive thinking is simplistic. Acknowledging one era's challenges does not hinge on negating another's.

As for what my guys discussed, it leaves me even more convinced: A computer in everyone's pocket is a miracle and a burden; it's a blessing and a curse. The interconnectedness can be terribly isolating. But hey -- at least we all have flashlights when things get dark.


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