The Decline of Intergenerational Communication

by Mark English

Prompted by some recent discussions on this site and elsewhere about generational divisions, I thought I would put together a few observations, personal thoughts and speculations on the general topic of intergenerational communication.

It’s well known that someone who grows up in a non-literate society is ‘wired’ very differently from someone who grows up with the written and printed word. Even their spoken language will be to some extent structurally different from the spoken language of a typical literate community.[1] More general social factors also come into play. The scope and perceived importance of privacy, for example, is generally far greater in literate societies.

Though it’s obvious that the invention of writing and the spread of literacy changed human cultural history quite dramatically, our understanding of the underlying psychology of these changes is incomplete. Nonetheless, we can reasonably assume that growing up in radically different linguistic and communicational environments produces radically different patterns of neuronal connections, and that these patterns affect behavior and have implications for interpersonal communication.

We are now in the midst of another such epochal change. Marshall McLuhan made much of the pre-digital electronic media, foreseeing a return to something approximating to a pre-literate world, a global village in which the image and the spoken word would again dominate. The digital revolution has accelerated some of these trends, but has also created whole new ecologies within which the printed word has been able to flourish (or at least proliferate).

McLuhan was right, I think, that we are very much inclined to be too narrowly focused on language and ‘content’ while ignoring the communicational significance of the broader (physical and social) dimensions of language use. The fact, for example, that the printed word has lost its prestige, its aura of authority, is hugely significant for the culture at large. It affects not just whether we read or what we read, but how we see other people, who we respect, who we trust. These sorts of perceptions (of value and authority, for instance) shape the way individuals relate to others.

Though this is a somewhat peripheral issue, it’s worth noting that perceptions of the hand-written word and its importance have also changed. There was a very funny party scene in an episode of Mad About You in which a stunning and brainy and professionally successful woman was trying to be self-deprecating and say that she had her flaws like everybody else, but when pressed to specify her weak areas she could only come up with penmanship. The humor, I think, derived not only from the fact that the quality of one’s handwriting is a trivial matter, but also from the perception that valuing handwriting is a very old-fashioned thing to do. There was a quaintness about the comment. Handwriting is emblematic of an earlier time – and we have moved on.[2]

But what I am particularly interested in here is the cumulative effect of all these subtle and not so subtle changes on the potential for deep and meaningful (if I can use this slightly clunky phrase) communication and understanding between individuals. The potential for this kind of communication is influenced to a significant degree (or so I am speculating) by broader aspects of the cultural environment, and not least those relating to technologies of language and communication.

It may be, of course, that the cynics who smile at the phrase are right and ‘deep and meaningful’ communication is not deep and meaningful at all, but something of an illusion. Even so, we have from time to time the very pleasant sense that something significant is being communicated; or, at the very least, a sense of being on the same wavelength as one’s interlocutor (or perhaps a writer or a filmmaker).

I was recently talking to a friend who was raised (as I was) in an informational world dominated by print media and television (and in which, by the way, more or less everybody could still write standard cursive script). He was claiming that when people like us encounter someone saying something we disagree with, we tend to question them, in order to figure out where they are coming from and/or try to refute them, whereas younger people are more likely to be dismissive and not engage at all. The classic line is: “I can’t believe you said that!”

Is there some truth in this observation? I’m not sure, but there has certainly been a lot of publicity lately concerning certain moral and social sensitivities and indications that these may be associated with a certain intellectual brittleness.

Characterizing these new patterns of behavior is always going to be contentious, but changes there have been; and they have coincided with the advent of digital technologies.

Have these technologies played a role in shaping the changes? Of course. Digital technologies have been tremendously disruptive of traditional patterns of authority, learning and communication, not only creating new ways for individuals to share ideas, etc. but also enabling new forms of grouping, assembly and identification.

There is also the psychological aspect. As I suggested above, it goes without saying that someone who spends a lot of time interacting with computers in his or her early years is going to have very different neuronal configurations etc. from someone whose early experiences (beyond the interpersonal) were predominantly with print-based materials. With the omnipresence, now, of computers and the merging of the digital and social spheres, you’re inevitably going to get a situation where younger people, on the whole, are going not just to think different things but to think and interact in very different ways from older people.

The details are up for grabs at the moment, but there are facts of the matter and research in various sciences is slowly revealing them.

I am not going jump the gun and claim that this or that subjectively desirable or undesirable psychological phenomenon or cultural trend is directly attributable to this or that type of exposure to or use of digital devices. A certain amount is known already, but most of the writing on these topics for a general audience is unhelpfully tendentious. In the writings of Susan Greenfield, for example, the scientific and the subjectively personal are often entangled.[3]

Precisely how all these changes will eventually play out we can’t be sure. And, of course, whether we judge the changes as good or bad depends on our individual value-systems which in turn are influenced and constrained (but not determined) by generational factors.

Those who were educated in a largely pen-and-paper and print-based world and as children were forced to sit quietly and concentrate for long periods in class or in church or school chapels, who read books and socialized largely in very small groups, within a context of school and family, are obviously going to have a different mindset from so-called digital natives.

The former were more deeply socialized into, and so dependent on, small, relatively stable and heterogeneous (certainly in terms of age) social networks than the latter, and so were forced to engage – more so than digital natives – with different age-groups in an ongoing person-to-person kind of way.

Children raised in pre-digital times were also more likely to feel a direct connection to traditional culture which, for all its faults, reserved a valuable space for the inner life: for stillness and patience and long consideration and (in the West at least) intellectual independence.

The cultural and intellectual tradition of the West – apart from the scientific revolution which it spawned – has played itself out. From my perspective at least, it’s finished. In a purely personal sense I continue to identify with it, and I love certain books and music and art-works and so on, but with fading conviction. What we are left with are scattered groups and individuals trying to connect as best they can. And, certainly, there is no longer any real sense of passing down a body of more or less culturally-specific lore to an indefinitely-extended future.

This is hardly a surprise if the lines of intergenerational communication have been disrupted. Not only does all cultural continuity depend on communication between the generations, the communication itself could be seen to be necessitated – and in a sense justified – by the imperative to transmit one’s culture into the future.

The logician and writer (as Lewis Carroll) of books for children, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, famously (and more or less innocently though I’m not so sure about the nude photographs, etc.) enjoyed the company of prepubescent girls, the daughters of his social circle. I certainly wouldn’t like his chances of organizing similar contacts today. The tragedy, however, is that opportunities for a whole range of perfectly ordinary (and proper) interactions between older and younger people are slowly but surely disappearing.

New technologies are playing a big role here. Apart from their influence on patterns of perception and cognition, etc., there is also the fact that digital media have produced a situation where information and entertainment is directly available and does not need to be sought so much from older people (parents, teachers, gentlemen logicians…). Everything you ever wanted to know about anything but were afraid to ask is now readily available, embarrassment-free, from documentary sources or from a hugely extended peer group; and we are drowning in entertainment options.

I’d like to think that the sort of deep intergenerational communication that used to be quite common will still be viable in the future, but I have serious doubts about this. It was a natural concomitant of certain informational dependencies and perceived cultural imperatives which arguably no longer apply.

Notes

  1. For example, the spoken language of a literate community will likely include subordinate clauses, whereas non-written languages often have coordination only.
  1. Handwriting compliments are often not compliments at all, as they constitute the faintest of faint praise. A journalist acquaintance of mine wrote a very fond (and revealing) obituary of her father in the course of which she referred to her mother once only – to praise her penmanship!
  1. Here is an account of her claims by a critical journalist (based on an interview with Greenfield).

Categories: Essay, Uncategorized

60 Comments »

  1. Well Mark, you’ve set up quite a minefield for some of us here. While Daniel Tippens has previously made it clear that he’s quite able to implicate his own kind, it will be interesting to see what our generally young stable of contributions have to say. For any dissenters, abstaining is surely the safest route, but what fun is that? I would hope for you to nevertheless make your views known, though diplomatically. I’ll do my best as well, but if I do fail, perhaps you will be able to learn from my mistakes.

    This essay has inferred that there are problems with the young given their technology, though I’ve struggled to see evidence of this, nor reasonable logic which implies such a problem. Perhaps I simply missed this, or perhaps it’s still to come.

    What I do know however, is that there’s every reason to believe that older generations do naturally disparage those that follow. Children will obviously grow up with newer tools at their disposal (and probably better ones) and so older critics will have the opportunity to claim “Back in my day…” to various themes. Furthermore we must not discount how influential the old can be. To this day mathematical calculators are admonished in our schools, which I think severely restricts this language’s penetration among the normal. If it weren’t for automatic spelling software, I personally would look like a fool every time I commented here (given that English syntax is a bastardized product of other languages that doesn’t quite fit into my head). Fortunately my dyslexic son is grudgingly permitted such software, though I think it’s to the detriment of all children that the old find it so difficult to accept the new.

    Let me thus submit with all due respect, that I do side with the young, and hope that they will end up being far more transformational than my own generation (mid 40s) ended up being.

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  2. Given that the young neither invented the technology nor marketed it and sold it to themselves, I don’t see how the observations involve blaming them for anything.

    Also, I am very proud of being a member of Generation X (the same generation to which you belong). I think we had a clarity and an anti-utopianism that both the boomers and the millennials lack (and could learn a lot from). In that sense, we are a lot like the Silent Generation. Joan Didion actually wrote quite a bit on this — I am thinking, in particular, of her essay, “On the Morning after the Sixties,” from her incredible collection, “The White Album.” It is part of the reason why Didion resonated so much with X-er writers like Bret Easton Ellis. I actually plan on doing an essay on this connection between X-er literature and Didion sometime soon. (Am currently working on an essay on Philip K. Dick’s, “A Scanner Darkly.”)

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  3. Hal Morris,

    I’m 69, almost 70.

    You’re right: getting angry with me was not the best therapy and it just increased the father-Franz Kafka relationship as well as my discomfort with social interaction.

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  4. Mark,

    Agree with others, a very well-written article.

    “The cultural and intellectual tradition of the West – apart from the scientific revolution which it spawned – has played itself out.”

    I came to the same conclusion by the late ’90s. First, it was obvious that, not only was public discussion of the tradition fading, but that what was left of the discussion was having pretty much no effect on any sphere of public life – not politics, not the arts, not even education.

    Secondly, it was also obvious that young people no longer had any interest in the tradition, what it could teach or what it could mean. Indeed an interest in anything historical (i.e., before they were born), was virtually non-existent. I discovered this teaching the Gettysburg Address as example of strong rhetoric in Composition courses. The initial difficulty the students had with the text was that – they didn’t know who Abraham Lincoln was! Part of the problem, obviously, was that the secondary schools were squeezing out students without proper preparation. But as the ’90s unfolded, it also became clear that young people were becoming culturally insular – ie., they wrapped themselves up in narrow cultural groups with well-defined practices that left them utterly unconnected to any larger or historically informed community.

    In the ’60s, American culture reverberated with certain themes played out by the majority. The best known of these – Civil rights, the Vietnam War, the Great Society – were also the most controversial. But there were also themes that united us and that fostered the illusion that we were, or could be, one nation; even “a people.”

    One such theme was the dignity, power, and collective unity of industrial labor. By 1970, this theme had become so institutionalized and glorified politically, that we all just took it for granted.

    But by the late ’70s, the corporations and their political cohorts determined that an industrial economy limited potential profits. By the end of the ’80s, the Reagan regime had deconstructed that economy, replacing it with a economy based on service and investment. The theme of industrial labor, once an inclusive cultural unifier, played its last notes on the margins, derided as divisive hold-over from the failed social experiment of the New Deal.

    But the Reagan Revolution failed to produce any positive collectively shared themes replace those it dismantled. Indeed, in order to foster profitable competition, Reaganites preferred generating themes fragmenting and isolating groups and individuals – greed and personal success, ethnic profiling and mutual distrust, mobile investment and disinvestment strategies, distrust of government, belittling of education. By the early ’90s, all the ‘national’ cultural themes had been redefined along these lines, or simply, like that of industrial labor, squelched. The only ‘national’ culture, the only American culture we share, is what we see on television; it is television itself.

    I sympathize with DanK’s desire to fight against the social conditions this history has left us with; but it is easier to break apart than pull together

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  5. Eric

    “This essay has inferred that there are problems with the young given their technology, though I’ve struggled to see evidence of this, nor reasonable logic which implies such a problem. Perhaps I simply missed this, or perhaps it’s still to come.”

    People like Susan Greenfield are certainly making the sorts of claims you allude to. They may be right. I criticized her for mixing science and subjective opinion and deliberately took a more cautious approach.

    “What I do know however, is that there’s every reason to believe that older generations do naturally disparage those that follow. Children will obviously grow up with newer tools at their disposal (and probably better ones) and so older critics will have the opportunity to claim “Back in my day…” to various themes.”

    Give me a break! I am not disparaging anybody and, given that I am talking about epochal change, I don’t think it’s fair to compare what I am saying to grandpappy’s “Back in my day…” !!

    Much of what I’m saying is – I hope – reasonably objective analysis of the situation. I am claiming there is this widening gulf, and I am speculating about the causes (and the future).

    Sure, there is a subjective element too. Cultural elements (and not just those from the relatively recent past) are being forgotten. Some of these I value.

    But my focus is not on specific cultural content so much as on certain social practices (as the title makes clear).

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  6. ejwinner

    Thanks. We agree about some things but not others.

    I was more or less with you until you said: “… by the late ’70s, the corporations and their political cohorts determined that an industrial economy limited potential profits. By the end of the ’80s, the Reagan regime had deconstructed that economy, replacing it with a economy based on service and investment.”

    And this: “… in order to foster profitable competition, Reaganites preferred generating themes fragmenting and isolating groups and individuals – greed and personal success, ethnic profiling and mutual distrust, mobile investment and disinvestment strategies, distrust of government, belittling of education.”

    Partly it’s the demonizing, and partly it’s the idea that these changes were consciously and effectively driven by the aforementioned demons (as in the typical conspiracy theory).

    No doubt there were people (whom you characterize rather vaguely as Reaganites) pushing some of these themes, based on who-knows-what motives. But who were these people exactly? How many of them were there? Were they really running things, or just reacting to circumstances? And what about those deep social, cultural, political, economic and technological forces grinding away beneath the surface?

    America was not so long ago a very prosperous and powerful and socially cohesive nation. It now appears to be in a period of (at least relative) economic decline. There are signs also of social fragmentation etc. But the thing is, there are any number of supposedly explanatory stories we could tell which might be seen to fit the facts.

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  7. Mark English,

    I plead guilty of rhetorical flourish at the end of my comment.

    A full defense would require greater research (for I feel confidant that the facts will bear out my reflections on experience). Here i can provide. as well-acknowledged evidence, the history of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp shenanigans and political chicanery.

    As ‘character witness,’ I also submit this article by Robert Reich: http://billmoyers.com/2014/01/10/why-conservatives-old-divide-and-conquer-strategy-%E2%80%94-setting-working-class-against-the-poor-%E2%80%94-is-backfiring/

    (Arguably, the strategy actually dates back to Nixon’s development of a ‘Southern strategy,’ which is well known.

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  8. Coincidentally, a post in OpEdNews today begins like this:
    “The real scourge of modern society is the effect of programming and algorithms on the structure of thought. To reduce reasoning to zeros and ones, yes or no, and black and white is to encourage perpetual ignorance and unforgiving idealism that has no compassion nor capability of distinguishing nuances that the real world encompasses.”
    http://bit.ly/1m5GSjw

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