Imagine being born in the 1870s — before New York City had a subway system — and dying around the time a human first set foot on the moon.
You would have seen the birth of almost every single element of the modern physical world: the car was invented and mass produced, skyscrapers shot up into the air and the Wright brothers flew for the first time. That generation saw life both before and after the popularization of the phonograph, cinema, sneakers and Coca-Cola.
Now he says there's a new generation in town that straddles the before-and-after of rapid technological change: millennials. They spent much of their early lives without smartphones and social media but have been using them for so long they'd be considered natives.
He tells Here & Now there are parallels to be drawn between these "in-between generations."
On the rapid metamorphoses of communications technology in the last three decades
"You have cordless phones that don't really even catch on till the 1990s. But then in a decade they're overtaken by AIM chat, then cellphones and texting, and then smartphones and social media apps. One follows the next. You have MySpace followed by Facebook and then Instagram and then Snapchat. It seems like every single year for a certain period in the early 21st century there was a new way for young people to talk. And so I think that what we're going through, at least what we've witnessed as young adults, is something that's never really happened before in human history: a rolling series of communications technology revolutions."
On what people who lived through massive technological upheaval in the late 19th and early 20th centuries thought
"It made them insanely anxious, in part because they were caught I think between this childhood memory of the place and habits of the Old World and the speed of a New World. One of my favorite books on this topic is called 'The Vertigo Years' it's a history of 1900 to 1914 especially in Europe. And there's this … about the invention of the car and the car's insinuation into the modern urban landscape by Octave Mirbeau, 1910. He says, 'Automobilism is a disease, a mental illness. This illness has a pretty name: speed. Man can no longer stand still. He shivers, his nerves tense like springs, impatient to get going once he has arrived somewhere because it is not somewhere else, somewhere else, somewhere else.' And I think about that line.
"What we're going through, at least what we've witnessed as young adults, is something that's never really happened before in human history: a rolling series of communications technology revolutions."Derek Thompson
"It's kind of an amazing description of social media, too, and the internet. The internet is not only a machine that seems to accelerate our lives but it's also a kind of teleporter that always makes us aware of the somewhere else. We're aware of other people's lives, other people's accomplishments on LinkedIn, other people's vacations on Instagram. So just as doctors in the late 19th century were diagnosing a new medical idea called neurasthenia, a new general anxiety of the late 19th century, we're dealing with that same thing, same growing anxiety about the increasing speed of the modern world."
On whether members of Generation Z appreciate the period before Facebook and the internet
"I don't think they do. But I also don't think that we do either. I think that Americans in general, particularly in the last 30 to 40 years, have in a way forgotten how to do leisure, like even when we talk about vacations we often talk about vacations as opportunities to recharge so that we're more productive for work. But it's so interesting that the thing at the right side of that equation is again workplace productivity. It's not about our soul. It's not about our free time. It's not about our happiness. It's about being the most productive worker that you can be. So I do think that in general Generation Z, Generation Y, the millennials, we all share this misunderstanding that our lives should be focused on social media, focused on the internet, focused on building our brands and doing our work, that we've forgotten how to essentially dislocate from all of those technologies and appreciate how to be still separate from them."
On the implications of today's inventions
"It took us several decades to fully understand the implications of the technologies that were invented [in the late 19th and early 20th centuries]. We didn't understand when we put an internal combustion engine in a stage coach how cars would transform the world. We didn't understand how airplanes would transform tourism and therefore transform globalization. We didn't understand how, say, cheap cameras also invented in the 1880s would transform art. That art went from representational art in the 1880s to abstract art in the 1910s because photography essentially was doing the work of paintings. So it takes a few decades to recognize the implications of new technologies. And I think that we're just in the opening innings of recognizing those very things. … I think what's happening is that history isn't repeating so much as it's rhyming. That first you invent the technology. Then people have to grapple with the negative implications of it. And then you develop a vocabulary for talking about the downsides of the technology that is 10, 15, 20 years old."
This article was originally published on June 17, 2019.
This segment aired on June 17, 2019.