There is probably no other word that would be as overused in the media discourse as ‘generation’. I once tried to count the ‘generations’ that have been proclaimed in the past ten years, since the well-known article about the so-called ‘Generation Nothing’; I believe there were as many as twelve. They all had one thing in common: they only existed on paper. Reality never provided us with a single tangible, meaningful, unforgettable impulse, the common experience of which would forever distinguish us from the previous generations. We had been looking for it, but instead the groundbreaking change came unnoticed, along with cable TV, mobile phones, and, most of all, Internet access. It is only today that we can fully comprehend how much has changed during the past fifteen years.
We, the Web kids; we, who have grown up with the Internet and on the Internet, are a generation who meet the criteria for the term in a somewhat subversive way. We did not experience an impulse from reality, but rather a metamorphosis of the reality itself. What unites us is not a common, limited cultural context, but the belief that the context is self-defined and an effect of free choice.
Writing this, I am aware that I am abusing the pronoun ‘we’, as our ‘we’ is fluctuating, discontinuous, blurred, according to old categories: temporary. When I say ‘we’, it means ‘many of us’ or ‘some of us’. When I say ‘we are’, it means ‘we often are’. I say ‘we’ only so as to be able to talk about us at all.
1. We grew up with the Internet and on the Internet. This is what makes us different; this is what makes the crucial, although surprising from your point of view, difference: we do not ‘surf’ and the internet to us is not a ‘place’ or ‘virtual space’. The Internet to us is not something external to reality but a part of it: an invisible yet constantly present layer intertwined with the physical environment. We do not use the Internet, we live on the Internet and along it. If we were to tell our bildnungsroman to you, the analog, we could say there was a natural Internet aspect to every single experience that has shaped us. We made friends and enemies online, we prepared cribs for tests online, we planned parties and studying sessions online, we fell in love and broke up online. The Web to us is not a technology which we had to learn and which we managed to get a grip of. The Web is a process, happening continuously and continuously transforming before our eyes; with us and through us. Technologies appear and then dissolve in the peripheries, websites are built, they bloom and then pass away, but the Web continues, because we are the Web; we, communicating with one another in a way that comes naturally to us, more intense and more efficient than ever before in the history of mankind.
Brought up on the Web we think differently. The ability to find information is to us something as basic, as the ability to find a railway station or a post office in an unknown city is to you. When we want to know something – the first symptoms of chickenpox, the reasons behind the sinking of ‘Estonia’, or whether the water bill is not suspiciously high – we take measures with the certainty of a driver in a SatNav-equipped car. We know that we are going to find the information we need in a lot of places, we know how to get to those places, we know how to assess their credibility. We have learned to accept that instead of one answer we find many different ones, and out of these we can abstract the most likely version, disregarding the ones which do not seem credible. We select, we filter, we remember, and we are ready to swap the learned information for a new, better one, when it comes along.
To us, the Web is a sort of shared external memory. We do not have to remember unnecessary details: dates, sums, formulas, clauses, street names, detailed definitions. It is enough for us to have an abstract, the essence that is needed to process the information and relate it to others. Should we need the details, we can look them up within seconds. Similarly, we do not have to be experts in everything, because we know where to find people who specialise in what we ourselves do not know, and whom we can trust. People who will share their expertise with us not for profit, but because of our shared belief that information exists in motion, that it wants to be free, that we all benefit from the exchange of information. Every day: studying, working, solving everyday issues, pursuing interests. We know how to compete and we like to do it, but our competition, our desire to be different, is built on knowledge, on the ability to interpret and process information, and not on monopolising it.
2. Participating in cultural life is not something out of ordinary to us: global culture is the fundamental building block of our identity, more important for defining ourselves than traditions, historical narratives, social status, ancestry, or even the language that we use. From the ocean of cultural events we pick the ones that suit us the most; we interact with them, we review them, we save our reviews on websites created for that purpose, which also give us suggestions of other albums, films or games that we might like. Some films, series or videos we watch together with colleagues or with friends from around the world; our appreciation of some is only shared by a small group of people that perhaps we will never meet face to face. This is why we feel that culture is becoming simultaneously global and individual. This is why we need free access to it.
This does not mean that we demand that all products of culture be available to us without charge, although when we create something, we usually just give it back for circulation. We understand that, despite the increasing accessibility of technologies which make the quality of movie or sound files so far reserved for professionals available to everyone, creativity requires effort and investment. We are prepared to pay, but the giant commission that distributors ask for seems to us to be obviously overestimated. Why should we pay for the distribution of information that can be easily and perfectly copied without any loss of the original quality? If we are only getting the information alone, we want the price to be proportional to it. We are willing to pay more, but then we expect to receive some added value: an interesting packaging, a gadget, a higher quality, the option of watching here and now, without waiting for the file to download. We are capable of showing appreciation and we do want to reward the artist (since money stopped being paper notes and became a string of numbers on the screen, paying has become a somewhat symbolic act of exchange that is supposed to benefit both parties), but the sales goals of corporations are of no interest to us whatsoever. It is not our fault that their business has ceased to make sense in its traditional form, and that instead of accepting the challenge and trying to reach us with something more than we can get for free they have decided to defend their obsolete ways.
One more thing: we do not want to pay for our memories. The films that remind us of our childhood, the music that accompanied us ten years ago: in the external memory network these are simply memories. Remembering them, exchanging them, and developing them is to us something as natural as the memory of ‘Casablanca’ is to you. We find online the films that we watched as children and we show them to our children, just as you told us the story about the Little Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks. Can you imagine that someone could accuse you of breaking the law in this way? We cannot, either.
3. We are used to our bills being paid automatically, as long as our account balance allows for it; we know that starting a bank account or changing the mobile network is just the question of filling in a single form online and signing an agreement delivered by a courier; that even a trip to the other side of Europe with a short sightseeing of another city on the way can be organised in two hours. Consequently, being the users of the state, we are increasingly annoyed by its archaic interface. We do not understand why tax act takes several forms to complete, the main of which has more than a hundred questions. We do not understand why we are required to formally confirm moving out of one permanent address to move in to another, as if councils could not communicate with each other without our intervention (not to mention that the necessity to have a permanent address is itself absurd enough.)
There is not a trace in us of that humble acceptance displayed by our parents, who were convinced that administrative issues were of utmost importance and who considered interaction with the state as something to be celebrated. We do not feel that respect, rooted in the distance between the lonely citizen and the majestic heights where the ruling class reside, barely visible through the clouds. Our view of the social structure is different from yours: society is a network, not a hierarchy. We are used to being able to start a dialogue with anyone, be it a professor or a pop star, and we do not need any special qualifications related to social status. The success of the interaction depends solely on whether the content of our message will be regarded as important and worthy of reply. And if, thanks to cooperation, continuous dispute, defending our arguments against critique, we have a feeling that our opinions on many matters are simply better, why would we not expect a serious dialogue with the government?
We do not feel a religious respect for ‘institutions of democracy’ in their current form, we do not believe in their axiomatic role, as do those who see ‘institutions of democracy’ as a monument for and by themselves. We do not need monuments. We need a system that will live up to our expectations, a system that is transparent and proficient. And we have learned that change is possible: that every uncomfortable system can be replaced and is replaced by a new one, one that is more efficient, better suited to our needs, giving more opportunities.
What we value the most is freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of access to information and to culture. We feel that it is thanks to freedom that the Web is what it is, and that it is our duty to protect that freedom. We owe that to next generations, just as much as we owe to protect the environment.
Perhaps we have not yet given it a name, perhaps we are not yet fully aware of it, but I guess what we want is real, genuine democracy. Democracy that, perhaps, is more than is dreamt of in your journalism.
This piece is published under CC-BY-SA 3.0. Originally published on February 11, 2012, in The Baltic Daily, a local Polish newspaper (Dziennik Bałtycki). Free to reproduce as long as the author is credited.
Translated into English by Marta Szreder.