The New Generation Gap: An Exploratory Conversation with John Carlin

When aging baby boomers get together, talk often turns to how 60 is the new 50, and 50 the new 40. But when John Carlinpresident of Funny Garbage, a studio known for developing animations, websites and TV shows for Gen X, Y and Z'ers—got together with Steven Heller— editor of VOICE and a recovering adolescent—the question inevitably came up: is there a new generation gap? Recent trends in social networking and the digital revolution have widened the perceived differences between generations in ways we haven't seen in decades. Or have they? 

Life magazine, May 17, 1968 issue.

Heller: When I was a teenager the term “generation gap” made it to the cover of Life magazine, and there seemed to be a truly profound schism between what the pre-World War II adults believed and practiced and how we baby boomers acted. Our aesthetics, tastes and styles were totally different and so foreign to our parents—indeed, downright alien. Now the generations seem to blend together. Our music is similar to the next generation's music; our tastes in film, literature, art and design are almost indistinguishable, save for the personalities behind them. Sure, there are codes and languages that are unique to this or that age group, but for the longest time I have not heard the term “generation gap.” Recently you said we've entered the first such gap in decades. Please explain. 

Carlin: In the late '90s I became disappointed that there wasn't a gap between the generations older and younger than mine. All the conditions seemed to be there: the emergence of a ubiquitous new technology (digital reproduction replacing mechanical reproduction); an emerging shift in global context; a rise in social consciousness regarding the environment and human rights (at least for certain groups); and a robust economy (at least on the coasts of the United States). I was frustrated for the reasons you mention; there didn't seem to be a discernible difference in how people looked or what kinds of music or movies they enjoyed based upon age. Yikes, they were still playing a lot of the same music on the radio as when I was in high school!

Heller: Has there been a recent, radical shift? 

BusinessWeek, December 12, 2005.

Carlin: Actually, yes. In short, this change is happening online. But it is more than just emphasizing the “you” in youth in places like YouTube, MySpace and Flickr, or in the ubiquity of text messaging. It is a transformation in the way people think and construct their social identities.

If you look back to the Life magazine generation gap of the '60s, it was the product of a countercultural movement that began a few decades earlier, notably in the Beat Generation and its adoption of the style and spirit of bebop jazz. This produced an underground that quickly became mainstream style in late 20th-century America.

But there is no underground anymore. Everything is on the surface—America survives by absorbing rather than rejecting. This is also why the new generation is so hard to see and also why it is so profound. It takes place in a new social arena that only certain people, notably those who grew up with computers, are aware of. It's like that high-pitch sound that people over a certain age can't hear anymore.

Heller: The divide also seems to happen in unexpected places—at least compared to the '60s model. For example, there is a faith-based generation gap that separates not only red from blue, but in some cases parent from child. The funny thing is, the kids have appropriated much of the same music, fashion and other stylistic media. It's kind of like when long hair—a symbol of the sex, drugs and rock n' roll generation—evolved into mullets. Is the current generation gap a kind of co-opting of the older rebellions or a totally new visual and verbal language that is manifest in new morals and mores? 

A Philadelphia church seeks to connect (photo: cass-d).

Carlin: That question reminds me of why it is so hard to see and understand this new generation gap. I don't think it cuts into the categories of moral or political values in the way you suggest. I think that was my point: it is invisible and involves different kinds of connections between people than those made in physical space, where we can use the kind of bio-social perceptions that have guided humans for thousands of years. Or perhaps another way to look at it is to see the '60s generation gap from the perspective of the older generation—conditioned by the Depression, World War and the industrial age. The gap is more about what an older generation can't see or value than in what a younger generation creates.

Heller: I'm more comfortable simply accepting that there is a gap because, frankly, there is always going to be one between generations, if for no other reason than it is in the best interest of the marketers and advertisers to perpetuate that gap as a commodity. Without one, business would lose half its raison d'etre. Am I just being obtuse or even blind? 

Carlin: In this first decade of the 21st century, my business—building interactive applications, websites and entertainment for large media companies—has led me to believe that the older generation truly cannot see what is happening all around us. My clients want to cling to a 20th-century model of mass culture and simply see the internet as a format shift, where I believe it represents a paradigm shift. For example, YouTube is not cable TV in short chunks—although many people use it to access content from cable TV, until the copyright owners object. It adds new categories of search, data and user interaction, not just submission, to older notions of entertainment. I believe that's why the founders of YouTube thought Google would make a better strategic partner than Viacom or Fox.

I don't think social networking is the equivalent of the summer of love, Woodstock or Altamont. That is precisely the difference. These are the children of the information age who will gladly form virtual communities in which their physical beings are not at stake. The communication is “viral,” but no one's body gets sick—just their minds.

Heller: I buy that it is not just the change in media but what the next generation does with the media that contributes to the “new.” It is also so clear that a profound gap exists between, say, my parents and my 18-year-old child. As much as they want to understand the new modes of socialization, they can barely work email. I'd like to think I'm more in touch—at least after a bit of tutoring—with what the viral world has to offer. So, other than being cynical about the benefits of YouTube and Facebook, is there something I'm missing? 

Carlin: I think we are always missing something. Isn't that what the Greek philosophers, Socrates and the pre-Socratites, were trying to teach? In fact, that is what I find so interesting about life—its mystery and apparent newness in the face of repetition and industrialization. And that is why I see the gap as more than a marketing tool to get people to buy things in herds.

Heller: Convince me.  

Thomas Edison as wizard, The New York Daily Graphic, July 1878.

Carlin: One hundred years ago there was also a paradigm shift in technology where engineers seemed to be in the forefront of innovation. Thomas Edison, the Bill Gates of his time, is a great example of someone who perfected things going on around him from an engineering perspective—but moreover used marketing and intellectual property law to dominate the early 20th century. I think it's perfect that the man who developed the recording industry was mostly deaf (legend has it he had to bite the phonograph to feel the deep notes) and never understood how content would eventually change technology.

But of course that is why creative people do more than decorate. The creativity of early filmmakers such as D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin formulated a new language for creative expression by taking advantage of new technology and, to a large degree, forcing it to change in order to keep up with them. Before Griffith most film was basically recorded theater. Griffith brought close-ups, cross cutting, moving cameras and many other innovative formal devices to the language of film. In his writing he eschewed theater as his model and cited Dickens as his inspiration.

Today engineering wonders dominate the scene to the degree that novelty and convenience almost seem enough—but it never is. New technology always precipitates new forms of content, and that is what we are just beginning to see. It's not that you can actually “see” that in Facebook, YouTube or any of a hundred new forms of expression just starting to sprout. It is in-between the lines—literally in the code.

Heller: So where is the innovation? 

Carlin: Data and search, that's what fascinates me right now. To me, “search” is a new form of entertainment. New tools will emerge to make channel surfing seem like an old-fashioned precursor—as Dickens was to The Birth of Nation. Data is now something mostly consumed by people addicted to sports or finance—one is called fantasy and the other investment. But I believe dataflow will be as important to the 21st century as electricity was to the 20th.

Heller: Everyone seems to be doing research almost as a spectator sport now. I still research the old-fashioned way—I go to primary sources to root out information, or data, that tells a story or supports a theory. So perhaps the gap we are talking about is semantic. What I call research you call search; what kids think is research is just “click, cut 'n' paste.” Standards change with new technologies—and often for the better. And those of us who are happy with the old ways are going to either ignore the new or dismiss it as less effective. 

But speaking of dataflow (which makes me think of lava flow), I worry that this mass of unedited data is going to numb our senses and intellects. Would you say this statement is endemic to the gap? 

Carlin: The semantic term I have used to describe this particular shift is from vertical to horizontal knowledge. In the pre-digital information age, research tended to dig deep into particular topics, which is what libraries and book are best for. You hone in on a subject and find all the details to tell the story or support the theory, as you said. In the digital information age it is actually very hard to dig deep, but amazingly easy to spread wide. Horizontal knowledge has exploded in a way never seen before. And this is something just at its infancy. Ever-improving search tools along with the rapid digitization of text, pictures, video, audio, etc., have made it shockingly easy to find something, but also to fall into the trap of thinking that something is true just because it is repeated in many places.

On the other hand, it is even harder to find “the long tail.” Less than 10 percent of people using Google ever go past the first page, much less use the advanced search features. It's harder to find nuggets of particular knowledge online than in a good library—not just using search engines, but also trying to harness all the great knowledge buried in blogs and various Wiki-like entries. For the moment it is one of the great frustrations of the online world.

Heller: And this is old news now, but what's presented online cannot be entirely trusted (even though it can be continually revised). Moreover, the links that take you along the horizontal path may be skewed. I recently went looking for an article to prove a point I was trying to make and ended up with exactly what I was looking for, but it was on a “hate site.” Still, there is also a lot of valuable information that is more easily accessible than at any other time in history. 

Could the iPod be a Trojan horse?

Carlin: The idea of dataflow remains a powerful and accelerating notion, even if the tools to harness it are in their infancy. Imagine discussing electricity a hundred years ago. It would clearly be something important and integral to both everyday life and how it would change in the 20th century. But in 1907 it would be very hard to see exactly where and how it would lead to the electronic age. I think we are in a similar position with data; it seems like information mushed around in novel, sometimes useful, ways, but it doesn't seem as radical as it might well become.

Here, in the beginning of the 21st century, we are using new technology mostly to market and distribute old forms of content—mechanical reproduction. Aren't MP3s just old wine in new bottles? We use our computers mostly as music and video players or sophisticated typewriters. Yet we know there is something else there and participate in it through email and browsing or searching the Web. This is where I would speculate that Steve Jobs is up to something, and the iPod is the Trojan horse of the digital age. It seems to me that he is not just interested in turning the computer into a tape deck, but in habituating a generation of people into gradually thinking of media as files in a processing environment rather than as fixed objects that record a performance or transpose performance into the means of production—the recording studio.

Heller: I guess this is the definition of visionary—one who fills in the “gap.” Let's get back to this generation gap. We are both baby boomers. We speak basically in the same language, although you run a design and communications firm that creates products that cross generations. If you're not creative enough to figure out how this will be done, who is? And what's more, is it a gap of generations or a gap of vision? 

Carlin: I do think it's a generation gap, similar in meaning to the term used almost a half-century ago. It gets back to what I said earlier about looking for what's missing. You know how everybody these days says they have attention deficit disorder? Maybe that's the norm rather than some form of cognitive dysfunction. In the pre-electronic world, people lived in communities in which events, relationships and information transformed very slowly. Now we live in “society,” where things are so abstracted and permanently accelerated that the blur has become the landscape. So our perceptions are shifting to pattern recognition, the bias toward horizontal knowledge, which I described earlier.

I think this is why it's important to bandy around terms like “generation gap.” Not as a marketing tool but as a demarcation of how things are changing in the lives around us. It is hard for us freaky geezers to feel healthy and adjusted in the imperfectly fabricated world we live in. It is hard to find equilibrium in a constantly changing, perpetually accelerating environment made up more of information than feelings. So, if the younger generation sees patterns rather than things, hopefully they will use this new sense of reality to fashion new and exciting forms of expression. I can't wait.