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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