I think Ryan and I must be on a similar wavelength lately as I too was thinking the exact same thing as him: I am thankful to not have come of age in an era where the internet’s depthless hard drives could store my equally depthless teenage narcissism or youthful folly for-ever. You can read Ryan’s take here.
As an early (may I say that?) adopter in the general populace (1994, dial up Unix shell on a SCO-V UNIX) of the Internet, I didn’t get off scot-free. Thanks to BBS' and Usenet, I managed to write some pretty inane things (e.g. “Are you excited about Mike Modano and the Dallas Stars?”) and various comments of the form “Gillian Anderson is the most beautiful woman in the world!”). Thankfully these comments were widely spread, private (in the case of BBS'), and untraceable (in the case of Usenet).
Unlike what faces modern youth, my revelations of crushes, breakups, or photographs of humiliating pass-outs are not recorded, displayed, and / or, as in the case of particularly recirculation-worthy errors, spread globally with witty, degrading commentary added in sans-serif fonts. It seems that the internet has forgotten the essential truth of being young: as youths we fuck up. For a taste (possibly not-safe for work), consider Late Night Mistakes.
To say “fuck up” may seem a discordant note in an otherwise slightly-more-highly-minded essay, but I think “fucking up” is exactly what youths do. It’s not that the young “err,” implying a sense of understanding cause and the full length of effect and they do the wrong thing. No, rather they fuck up. They leave mowers in the rain, crash cars, text and drive1, and run out of gas.
When you ask them why they did (or did not do) what ought have been done, they often have no answer because, research shows, their brain is not fully wired up yet; in case you missed that, they literally do not know. It’s all the free will of an adult without the experience to see final consequences all while being divorced from the motivation. It’s asking for chess, a game of evaluating predicted long-term outcomes, from a Candy Land player (“I go to the green square now!”).2 This implies to me not that they chose to do the wrong thing, but that they simply fucked up. Incidentally, to me this seems the game of parenting: molding kids by providing rote maxims while hoping your kids don’t fuck up unto death before they can start making sense of the world as an adult.
When young the brain is not fully developed, the risk-evaluation cortices are immature and fucking-up occurs. Surely at the age of 25 everyone wishes the option to have a wipe-out, a quashing on mention of the fuck-ups in the previous 25 years. To remember the moments of burning humiliation, despair, isolation, and cruelty are the moments that forge our characters, but it’s nice to know they live back there away from quotidian existence. To feel that bitter flush in our temples and ears when the memories come back too clearly is our private boon, a spur to the right, or a sword-wielding, flaming angel warning off from the wrong path. Is it fair that my private character-forming experiences may be commandeered for sport, or that my lessons sans context are found later? In my generation that was not possible, for today’s it may be impossible to avoid. You know your errors will be documented by a dozen cell-phones, be spread like spilled quicksilver, and will live forever.
For me there is another concern. Not only does the burn of shame endure from moment of fuck-up unto the end of the electronic society, but knowing of the deathlessness of modern error, there will be a chilling effect on the healthy experimentation befitting to this time of life. To be clear, there are fuck-ups, but there are also experiments. Admittedly, sometimes that line is fuzzy, I grant. But if one is afraid to attempt an experiment for fear of it it being wrong and then having it recorded and disseminated as a fuck-up, then some wonderful people will not realize their full, true identity. It’s a pre-emptive shove to keep your exploration about your identity in the closet against the master paradigm. And note, I’m not strictly talking sexual identity, I’m talking about loving cello, being devout Muslim, being an atheist, struggling to be a poet. There’s a chilling effect as we see how deathless media can haunt you forever.
…High on hormones and ill-gained vodka, in a music-thrumming bedroom where the room spins red as her lips careen into her best friend’s… hours later her friend crushes her heart and her weeks of angst by publicly blabbing about the “lez shit” that her friend pulled….3
…The humiliating break-up from something you might work…hours later you have to endure a grilling via dozens of text messages…
…That Goth phase….
To remember and laugh, to move on, to accept is a blessing of aging, but to have it indelibly etched in so many 1’s and 0’s for eternal sport and to know that this is the case could make anyone run from seeing something as a folly of youth or an experiment and turn it into something, quite possibly, not worth living through and past.
The time is, sadly, inevitably coming (has already come?) where the Internet’s perfect, inhuman, and inhumane memory will drive a beautiful life to end itself. Perhaps I can take a page from Dan Savage in preëmption: “For those who have embarrassed themselves on the Internet, it gets better. No matter how bad it gets, we’re born naked, we die with little control over our bodies, you will do well sometimes and poorly others, you will rue and relish alike, and everyone is a fool in love. Try to be honest, nice, and respectful to others, especially those you share your secrets and bodies with. And lastly cut yourself and everyone else a little slack. Be that voice of conscience that doesn’t relish the safe, mean blanket of schadenfreude over the beautiful quilt of friendship.”
Whatever evidence is left, you are more than the sum of your experiences and their record.
- I’d almost rather give a teen a beer than a phone before putting him/her on the road
- Obviously this varies by individual, so yes, there will be some teens who know more about electrical engineering by 16 than I ever will.
- Times being what they are, this situation may now be a bragging point.