A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 21, 2016

What It Means To Be Part of the Generation That Doesnt Remember Life Before Smartphones

Future expectations are based on past experiences. JL

Jacqueline Detwiler reports in Popular Mechanics:

Maybe his brain is a little scrambled, as the test results claim. Or maybe, from the moment he was born, he's been existing under an unremitting squall of technology, living twice the life in half the time, trying to make the best decisions he can with the tools he's got. How on earth would he know the difference?
Down a locker-lined hallway at Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis, Zac Felli, a junior, walks to his first class of the day. He wears tortoiseshell glasses and is built like he could hit a ball hard. He has enviable skin for a teenager, smooth as a suede jacket. Over one shoulder he carries a slim forest-green and tan messenger bag that would have been social suicide in 1997. But 1997 was the year Zac was born, so he wouldn't know anything about that.
A squat, taupe monolith flanked by parking lots, Lawrence Central smells like old brick and floor polish and grass. Its gleaming floors squeak if you move your foot a certain way. The school has existed on precisely this spot of land since 1963: maroon block letters over the door, tang of chlorine from the indoor pool. None of that has changed. Here's what has: After Zac turns the doorknob of Room 113 and takes his seat in Japanese III, he reaches into his shoulder bag, pushes aside his black iPhone 5S and Nintendo 3DS XL, and pulls out his Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet with purple detachable keyboard, which he props up on his desk using its kickstand. By touching a white and purple icon on his screen, he opens Microsoft OneNote, a program in which each of his classes is separated into digital journals and then into digital color-coded tabs for greater specificity. And then, without a piece of paper in sight and before an adult has said a word, he begins to learn.
How does all that change the monotony and joy and pain and wonder and turmoil that is the average teenager's life?
Zac probably started developing memories around 1999, the year Napster upended the music industry by turning songs into sharable files that nobody owned. Or maybe in 2000, the year Google became Google. Regardless, he is part of the first generation of human beings who never really lived before the whole world was connected by pocket-sized electronic devices. These kids might never read a map or stop at a gas station to ask directions, nor have they ever seen their parents do so. They will never need to remember anyone's phone number. Their late-night dorm-room arguments over whether Peyton or Eli Manning won more Super Bowl MVPs will never go unsettled for more than a few seconds. They may never have to buy a flashlight. Zac is one of the first teenagers in the history of teenagers whose adult personality will be shaped by which apps he uses, how frequently he texts, and whether he's on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or Snapchat. Or whatever comes after Snapchat. Clicking like, clicking download, clicking buy, clicking send—each is an infinitesimal decision in the course of the modern American teenager's life. They do this, collectively, millions of times a minute. But together these tiny decisions make up an alarming percentage of their lives. This generation is the first for whom the freedom to express every impulse to the entire world is as easy as it used to be to open your mouth and talk to a friend.
How does all that change the monotony and joy and pain and wonder and turmoil that is the average teenager's life? What is it like?
Like many of the other 2,350 students at Lawrence Central, Zac knows computers better than even last year's graduating class did. The students here use them constantly—up to two and a half hours a day, according to Lawrence Central's principal, Rocco Valadez. This year is the first that Lawrence Central is one-to-one, which in educational speak means that every student on campus has been provided with a leased Chromebook laptop computer. Valadez considers Zac one of his beta testers, one of ten or so students the administration turns to for reports and opinions on how the technology is working. Zac, incidentally, asked if he could use his own Surface instead of a Chromebook. Because Zac is a high-level user, Valadez obliged. ("I'm a Surface guy," Zac says.)
You hear two opinions from experts on the topic of what happens when kids are perpetually exposed to technology. One: Constant multitasking makes teens work harder, reduces their focus, and screws up their sleep. Two: Using technology as a youth helps students adapt to a changing world in a way that will benefit them when they eventually have to live and work in it. Either of these might be true. More likely, they both are. But it is certainly the case that these kids are different—fundamentally and permanently different—from previous generations in ways that are sometimes surreal, as if you'd walked into a room where everyone is eating with his feet.
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An example: It's the penultimate week of classes at Lawrence Central, and the pressure has been released from campus like a football gone flat. The instructor of Japanese III, at the moment ensconced behind a computer monitor that is reflected in his glasses, switches on the announcements. The American tradition in this situation—end of school, little work to do, teacher preoccupied—is that the students would be passing notes, flirting, gossiping, roughhousing. Needing to be shushed. Instead, a boy to Zac's left watches anime. A girl in the front row clicks on YouTube. Zac is clearing space on his computer's hard drive, using a program called WinDirStat that looks like a boring version of Candy Crush—deftly, quietly, he moves small colored squares around to clean up the drive. Green, red, blue, purple. (When he types, he types evenly—none of that hinky freeze-pause-backspace thing that every adult with a hint of self-consciousness does when typing in front of anyone else.) Above a ziggurat of loaner Chromebooks at the front of the classroom hangs what's called a Promethean board, a panel that looks like a digital tablet the size of a Shetland pony. On the Promethean board, the day's announcements play, including a news segment on a London School of Economics study. The anchor begins: "Test scores increase by more than 6 percent at schools that ban smartphones …" At this the students in Japanese III—absorbed in private computational fiddling, phones out on their desks like pencil cases—let forth a chorus of snorts.
Otherwise, Room 113 is eerily quiet.


Leah Arenz, on the right, looks at One Direction photos on Tumblr.
"The primary motive that teenagers have when they're screwing around online is to connect with somebody else," says Larry Rosen, former psychology chair at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of Rewired, a book about how technology has changed the lives of the next generation. Lawrence Central senior Leah Arenz does this every day. Also every night. Sometimes even when she ought to be sleeping.
Leah, hair slicked back under a headband, is editor in chief of the school newspaper, often staying in the journalism classroom until midnight to close an issue. She's eighth in her class. When she speaks to you, she makes quick eye contact, and then just as quickly breaks it. Unless you ask her about the band One Direction. Then she becomes someone different altogether.
Leah has a secret Tumblr page she posts to twenty-five to fifty times a day. It's how she
interacts with what she calls the Fandom, some 25 million acolytes of One Direction who repost, rehash, and relive the band's activities like a swarm of unpaid TMZ employees. Her friends at school do not know the address of her page—they don't even know about this other life at all. "I don't think they would understand or appreciate it the way people in the Fandom do," she says.
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When Leah talks about the Fandom, she engages like a drivetrain, leans forward—almost out of her chair—and speaks so quickly you'd swear she was on some new drug. She cracks jokes. Her eyes meet yours. When she blogs, at her dual-screen laptop-monitor setup under a green-shuttered window, she holds her face inches away from her monitor, tabbing between Web pages so quickly she must be selecting photos using only some primordial subconscious boy sense. You get the idea, talking to her, that her Tumblr is more than a hobby. More like an Internet breathing tube. A silicon lung. "I'm weird," she says. "I like 1D. But there are millions of people online who like 1D like me."
For someone like Leah, who built her first website at fifteen and seems uninterested in climbing the capricious social hierarchy that exists in every high school, the community of the One Direction Fandom offers an entirely alternate social structure. It is a universe in which her skills at iMovie, GIF creation, and news collection, paired with the scope and anonymity inherent to the Web, render her an authority on teenage problems both minor and major. "A girl recently contacted me and said that her friend was dealing with social anxiety. She didn't know how to talk to her about it. Later tonight I'm going to think out a carefully worded answer," Leah says.
"I like 1D. But there are millions of people online who like 1D like me."
In this universe, she has great power. Having dinner with her father in an Applebee's near her home, Leah describes how, a few weeks ago, the Fandom was infuriated when one of its favorite One Direction songs, "No Control," had not been chosen as a single by the record label. The Fandom loved the song and was frustrated they weren't being heard, a familiar refrain among teenagers. And so Leah, along with thousands of other Directioners, as they're called, campaigned radio stations to demand airplay. Leah herself tweeted and blogged and reblogged incessantly, staying up at her computer until the stars emerged and receded over her home's suburban lawn. At 2 a.m., she and many, many others favorited tweets to a radio station in New Zealand until finally it played the forgotten song eleven times in a row.
By the time the band began the American leg of its tour, One Direction was playing "No Control" at every show, and Louis Tomlinson, Leah's favorite band member, thanked the teens for their input onstage. It's as if Beatlemania junkies in 1966 had had the ability to demand "Rain" be given as much radio time as "Paperback Writer," and John Lennon thought to tell everyone what a good idea that was. The fan–celebrity relationship has been so radically transformed that even sending reams of obsessive fan mail seems impersonal. Leah's mom, in fact, was one of the original devotees of X-Files fan fiction in the 1990s, but she never had the opportunity to achieve the kind of connection her daughter can. As David Weinberger, senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, explains, "You're not simply a consumer anymore. By connecting with other people, you become a participant in the life of the band."

In the Applebee's, Mark Arenz is shocked enough by Leah's story to take a fatherly feint at her sleep habits. "Is that what you were doing that late?" he says, then immediately relents. How much of an argument can a parent level against a teenage girl with a 4.7 GPA whose worst offense is staying up late to crush on a boy she'll never meet?
"Imagine what you guys could do in the Middle East," he says.


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