One Millennial's Conflicted Feelings About Plugging Into The Digital Revolution

Fresh from his college graduation, Fast Company intern Miles Kohrman questions the wisdom of always being turned on.

I was born in 1990, on the cusp of the digital age.

For the better part of my childhood, I grew up in a house with no cable television, Internet, or cell phones. On the weekends, my family might rent a movie (VHS, mind you), or I’d read a book, or listen to the Red Sox game on the radio.

By the time I arrived at high school in 2004, the world as I knew it was turned on its head. My classmates were running around with iPods (soon to be iPhones), and if you didn’t have your own computer and AIM account, you were as good as dead. In college some of us would have Facebook profiles, but that wouldn’t last, we thought—the cool kids were already on Myspace.

My generation was in a unique position. We experienced the transition into the digital world as members of the last unplugged American generation—something that has shaped mine, and (if you’re around my age or older) your outlook on life.

In Praise Of Boredom

I think we take that for granted. Future generations will certainly hear about our nostalgia for the past, but they will never understand its value. Things were simpler—okay, maybe not simpler—but we didn't rely on a digital crutch.

We grew up in a world of boredom. As children, we couldn’t stare at an iPad for hours of entertainment, but instead used our own imaginations as an antidote. If we wanted something, we did it ourselves, not with the computer. We made plans with friends that we had to keep, sometimes weeks down the line, where we would engage in real social interaction. There was no texting, Facebook, and certainly no tweeting.

Now, even TV, the holy grail of every 90’s kid’s childhood, seems to be on the way out. There is no more asking your parents to watch TV, you simply download an app on your iPhone, and you’re there.

Often, I catch myself overindulging or "behaving badly" in my digital engagements. I'll realize that I've spent all day at work staring at a screen, only to rush home and to do the exact same thing. My internal alarm will trigger: "Miles, it's time to go for a bike ride, or play with the cat." To the pre-digital generations, technology was introduced as a luxury—a compliment to everyday life. Our unplugged experiences have established boundaries in our digital lives. That’s no longer the case.

It’s strange, and worrying, that everyone college-aged and up has experienced unplugged life, but those born after my generation have not. Their lives aren’t shaped by the same interactions that we’ve all lived through—the digital world isn’t an accessory; it’s life.

Every generation could, hypothetically, argue this point. Most of us have heard a grandparent quip, "when I was your age," followed by a few words lamenting the cost of gasoline or our constant use of phones.

The Big Shift

But our shift was different. Drastically different. It wasn’t a small dent in the way we lived, or natural changing of the guard, it was a complete tilt in the world as we knew it—not just technologically, but socially and emotionally. Unlike today, we had to interact with other people face to face, because we couldn’t interact with them any other way.

Now, it’s possible to go through life with minimal human interaction. Besides leaving your house for food (actually, you could have it delivered), there’s nothing stopping a person from living a completely "normal" life behind society’s digital curtain. And this is troubling to me. Even though I only experienced a short period of my life unplugged, it still feels real— much more real than many of my interactions do today.

I don’t want to sound like an old man, but I feel there’s something to be said about the way things were. It’s undeniable that we of the pre-digital experience apply those things we learned and experienced (like playing in the woods or making a phone call instead of sending an email) to our now-digital lives. The danger is, I suppose, to those who come after us, who don’t—rather, can’t—have those forced experiences of genuine human interaction that shaped so many of us individuals.

Even now, here I am, writing on this typewriter. Every key stroke must be intentional. I can try to cover it up, but the fact remains that you’ll know I’ve messed up. So I’m always thinking about it. Since there’s no room for error, I’m much more deliberate about what I’m writing. There’s something to be said for the thought process behind the mechanics.

In the digital age, almost everything is dealt with in haste. If I’m writing an email, I burn through it. Boom. Done.

That’s not to say that modern technology hasn’t changed the world in amazing ways. It’s saved millions of lives, connected people, and taken every aspect of society to places we couldn’t imagine. I’m not calling for the destruction of all computers and the reinstatement of typewriters, perhaps just the acknowledgement that some things are worth saving.

A Signature Experience

I recently spoke with an older relative, a teacher at a public middle school, on the phone for his thoughts.

He has students that can’t sign their names. They’ve never learned how to write their own signatures, because, as he puts it, they’ve never had to. Technology has replaced its function. And while signatures may be completely replaced one day by the tap of a credit card or touch of a cell phone, think of the ramifications for the identity of those children.

Do you remember practicing your signature? It was the first real statement of your identity that was truly yours.

It’s a good idea to try and hold on to some of these things, I think, not because they’re more efficient or technologically better (I mean, I’m writing this on a damn typewriter), but because they keep us human.

As soon as I adapted to my surrounding as a young adult, everything I knew was thrown into flux. Perhaps that’s the reason I’m often called an old man by my peers. I’ll opt out of technology if it feels superfluous, and favor objects and customs that I grew up with.

At my home in New York City, I wander around the city on weekends, without the aid of a phone—if I have a question about a building or landmark, or want to learn more about a neighborhood, I'll ask someone. I favor vinyl records instead of downloads, because they force me to listen to an entire album, as it was meant to be heard. I use a typewriter or notebook when I'm having trouble writing something to improve my concentration.

My friends may poke fun at me, but it’s done in good humor—they’ve experienced the world before the Internet and understand the value of doing things the old-fashioned way. But future generations that haven't—that were born with Googlemaps, Spotify, and spell check at the ready, won't know the benefit of these exercises. They literally don't have to step outside, or talk with other people if they don't want to. And honestly, if they aren't told otherwise, why would would they?

[Switches: Damianvines via Shutterstock]

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  • Cassie

    I was born in 1983 and can't relate to the unplugged feelings this author is expressing. I've never used a typewriter, I've had a computer for as long as I could remember, and used internet when I was 10. There may haven't been Facebook or Twitter yet, but that hardly means social networking didn't exist (Facebook didn't start it all - Usenet was being utilized as an online discussion forum 11 years before this author was even born). I remember feeling frustrated when all my friends wanted to do was stay inside, play video games, and glue themselves to the computer. Girls in my junior high were starting to get cell phones of their own ala Clueless. I learned to type before I could write manually while students in a school I was student teaching at didn't have access to internet at home.

    Perhaps it's the environment in which you grow up but this article is painting with just as general as a brush as those who claim all Millennials grew up digital (which can't even be said of kids now).

  • Guest

    This is a biased article. When i see the author bio, i immediately notice that he likes old things. He's trying to 'aged' himself. Way from his actual age.
    I was born in the 80's...even I don't feel old like him. If this article was written by some one who's born in the 50's or 60's (the real #unplugged generation), this could have been a great one.

  • Tereza

    I can surely relate to the article! Such a difference between this decade and our previous one as 20 somethings.

  • Erin Burns

    Great perspective. I certainly agree that the "connected" word is yielding some new social repercussions and that analog is on the rise. A JWT study published earlier this year titled "Embracing Analog" showed that things like stationary and vinyl sales are up as backlash to our everything-is-tech world.
    But while reading, I couldn't help but think of the latest ATT U-verse ads (kids telling younger kids that "back in my day we couldn't watch TV wherever we wanted"). In reality, there's always going to be a new generation feeling like the cultural shift they experience is THE shift... and on top of this, we Millennials are known for having a very self-centered world view. So take this kind of thinking with a grain of salt.

  • niaesco

    Dear Miles, 
    I was born in the 90s too and I completely agree on the aproach you give to technology and these new generations that, even tho are very close to us, sometimes amaze us with how far they have adapted themselves to technology. For me it is both scary and interesting in a good way. 

    I'm currently working as a online transmedia editor and believe that I'm a bit of a digital native but sometimes hesitate. Do you feel this from time to time? Our work might be really good at where we are and where we're heading but those kids, those new constantly plugged generations will FOR SURE be better at what we do than us. It will come naturally. 

    Now regarding the real life, we'll have to see if the way we share with others also changes. Even we have changed, our parents and a few grandparents use Skype or Whatsapp. I'm eager to see how this new kids now obssesed with war games and zombies at their parent's iPads will grow. Will they be ingeneers, doctors, architects, digital painters or journalists like us? 

    I honestly hope we don't doome them just because they have grown in a different era.

  • Christopher Mast

    1990, eh?  I was born in 1967.  I remember 1990 very well as I was an adult. I got my first computer in 1993 and was online almost immediately (although at much more expense than now).  Windows 3 came out the year you were born.  Amazon started when you were five.  MP3s and Google came along when you were eight.  

    Internet aside, the 90s kids were the generation of Game Boy, Super Nintendo, Sega, Playstation, Portable CD players, Pogs, awesome RC cars, MTV, Commodore computers, Super Soakers... 

    Now if you were bored 'cause your parents locked you in a room with no friends, TV, or toys, that's one thing, but your "old school" generation certainly had no reason to be bored just for the absence of Facebook and Twitter and smartphones.

  • niaesco

    I'm asuming what he means, as a 90's myself too, is that children today would find themselves bored if they had the same lifestyle we had back in the day. I grew up in a farm and had a basic computer but never found it interesting enough to stay online all day until I had a Facebook account around 2007. 

    If we look back maybe we did have a boring life but we were not plugged in all day. At least I wasn´t. Kids today just can't stand a minute sitting without an iPad or a digital appliance in their hands or worse: do not know a life without them.

  • KPR

    That's just the way it is, Miles. And, quite frankly, it's the way it always has been. Everything is different but nothing has changed. Let's chat in 40 years. 

  • Johnmclachlan

    Thanks for this piece. It's a bit of calm in the screaming-fast "Internet" world we live in. I am an "old man" (well, I'm in my early 50s but to a 20 or 30-something that's "old") and I can say that I ran headlong into the whole digital and Internet lifestyle as it came on in the 1990s. Lately, however, I have begun to question a lot of things about it.

    I believe our First World society has swallowed all the new ways of doing things as if they are the best and only way and worse, inevitable way. I am pulling back some and trying to reclaim some of the calmness that came before social media and hyperlinks. 

    To me though, talking about this to those in the middle of it all is like trying to describe atheism to a believer. Impossible. In this case, they think you are a luddite or something which is simply not true.

    [ back to your "old man" comment ] - I think that a poor choice of words for I know many old men, much older than me who are much benefited by being "old" and who see the world with a lot more context than we give them credit for.

  • cvxxx

    It is very important to understand how different life is for millions of Americans.  How we relate to the outdoors for instance.   This is one of the ways that understanding different people is so important. 

  • Jay

    I'll be the first to admit, there are a lot of alluring things that scream for attention with the promise of novelty and entertainment. But with the large amount of choice, I'd like to think that it has made me choose where to spend my time, and with that, seeing the value in the personalities behind the interface. But instinctual seeking to overcome "boredom" is a pretty easy default to stay in.

  • trm382

    This article is incredibly poorly written. Let me first say that I do completely agree that the technological revolution of the past decade has been incredibly life changing. I work in it, I design apps in the healthcare space and every day I see something new that literally changes my outlook on life. I also agree that we as humans will struggle to deal with these changes, and that there's a certain sadness to knowing that some of our past traditions and ideals will be lost due to these changes. However...

    I have a serious issue with the authors choice of words. The article for some reason is trying to discredit all other generations advancements and changes. It flat out says "our shift was different. Drastically different. It wasn’t a small dent" As if the dawn of written word, the automobile, human flight, radio and television were somehow not as incredible and life-changing as the mighty internet. Only a millennial would be that dense as to think that the first mass communications where just "small dents." (and I'm a millennial too)...

    I love how every generation seems to think that the revolution they've experienced is the biggest and most profound one yet, and that the next generation is screwed because they've missed out on blah blah blah. I heard it a million times as a kid that television was ruining my generation. Bull. Parenting has always been, and will always be, the key to success. The author for some reason thinks that in previous generations kids were forced to be social and forced to learn on their own. Again just not true. The parent still had a role. "The danger is, I suppose, to those who come after us, who don’t--rather, can’t--have those forced experiences of genuine human interaction that shaped so many of us individuals." Well then parent your kids. Limit their time on the internet. Don't give a 5 year old an iPhone. Make them go outside. These are the same things my parents did. They had to regulate my video games, my TV, and my social awkwardness by forcing me to do things with other kids. You can't just let a kid do whatever they want. The internet hasn't changed that. The author says that kids can just download whatever they want, whenever they want, on their iPhones. Not if you don't give them one. Not if you lock down the app store. Not if you designate an amount of time for it's use. Just like my parents with video games and their parents with comic books and their parents with the radio and play time. This is nothing new. Well, maybe to you it is.

  • Brandthony

    Ironically, the phrase "incredibly poorly written" is poorly written...

    I do, however, agree with you for the most part. There is a bit of shortsightedness to the premise. While there are certainly kids who are addicted to iPads, they also are drawn to imaginary play because of the nature of youth. I have 3-year-old nephew that can open my phone, download an app, and play it. It's astounding. But there are times where he just loves to run around with a ball.

    Just because there is a flashier alternative doesn't mean that it will become the sole focus of a generation. I grew up during the video game era, and while I spent a lot time playing my games, I also spent a lot of time in the backyard with a basketball and on the living room carpet with my action figures. Based on the premise in the article, I should've ditched all of those activities in favor of my Super Nintendo...but I didn't. Was the SNES superior to my imagination? I suppose, but I still chose my imagination from time to time.

  • Guest

    I politely disagree with this comment. After reading the article, I did not get any of the impressions you did about the author claiming that this change we have experienced is in any way more important than any other shift that came before it. I am surprised that you took such great offense to what you thought he was saying.

    Being born in '88, I'm not sure if I "qualify" as being a millenial, but after all these comments I am hearing about that generation I don't think I want to be lumped into that stereotype... It's unfortunate that the term "millenial" comes with these egotistical, narrow-minded strings attached.

  • Guest

    Great article, Miles. As someone born in the late '80s, I relate completely with this. I send maybe three texts a day, deleted my Facebook two years ago, have never understood Twitter and only signed up for LinkedIn after being professionally-peer-pressured. I purchased a Kindle a few months ago and, while I love it, almost felt like I was betraying my childhood of reading "real" books and the treasured trips to the bookstore with my mother. While technology makes life easier in so many ways, at times, I resent the convenience and simplicity it offers us. As you wrote so eloquently, most interactions have lost all elements of depth.