Prisoners of the web
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Thu Mar 10 2011.
Let me share a recent experience that may illuminate the youth role in the coming elections. In a course I teach each spring on media in the Canadian Studies program at University College, U of T, I had Jesse Hirsh as a guest.
Jesse took the same course about 15 years ago. He was brash, brazenly anarchist, stringy-haired, and something of a star as the youngest member of the (now largely dormant) Marshall McLuhan Centre. He’s aged well; he’s married, in his 30s, has a decent haircut and wardrobe, two small consulting firms, a website and a weekly gig on tech for CBC radio. Yet he retains the air of a somehow savvy anarchist dreamer. He guested last year too.
He began by telling them to view what he did as a performance meant to provoke. I thought they’d be put off. Students are quick to detect pretense in their elders. But they loved his shtick. I think it had to do with a sympathy he expressed for their plight as the Internet generation (my clunky term, not his). They possess sophisticated skills, make fast connections, express themselves elegantly — yet have no clear way to ever earn enough from all that to move out of their parents’ basements unless they also go to law or business school.
This year he began by saying we’re all F.U.C.T., which he said stood for, Fully Under the Control of Technology. Meaning above all the Internet. He said it amounts to their religion; it surrounds their lives with meanings, as Catholicism did in the Middle Ages. It is their spiritual reality, which is a virtual one.
Yet nothing in the adult world, especially politically, reflects this as their source of connection and identity. There is no minister for the Internet, though smaller constituencies are served by government departments. In policy debates, there is no option for a free Internet; the cost will stay the same or rise. No wonder politics makes little sense to many of them, he said. They know other issues matter but the central reality of their own lives goes unrecognized.
It made me think of the late historian Tony Judt’s last book, Ill Fares the Land. Judt said that for most of history, politics was irrelevant to most people. It was the realm of the elite, foreign wars and high ritual or symbolism. Then for a brief remarkable period last century, between the 1930s and 1980s, it sought to enter and alter normal life: reducing inequality, generating decent jobs, housing, education — even making art and culture widely accessible.
Governments began to backtrack in the late 20th century, though, and younger generations now hardly understand how politics could matter. Even universal health care, in most cases, hasn’t affected them yet. So voting declines generally and especially among youth who see governments talk about cutting budgets and downgrading or eliminating what they already do far less of. It’s a perfect recipe for alienation from the political process. I could see heads nodding in class.
At the end, as I tried to rise from my seat (impeded, literally, by a bad leg) and offer de rigueur thanks, a student in the back row beat me to it, saying, “On behalf of the class I want to thank you for coming and talking to us.” I’ve never seen that. It was utterly spontaneous, as if he wanted to voice the collective mind. I’m not sure what it sprang from. Maybe he (and they) were grateful for Jesse’s understanding of their shaky economic status, or their “spiritual” base in virtual reality or the alienation they feel from the political process — but done in a way that was compassionate and non-judgmental — as if Jesse knew they regret the barriers that distance them from politics. It’s hard to say.
I felt like Mr. Jones. Something was happening, but I didn’t quite know what it was.
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