May 2, 2001

Will the 'Net be remembered as a product of Generation X? Ha!

Author: JT Smith

- By Joab Jackson -

Cyberpunk -

Between the dot-com crash, the hobbling of Napster, and the end
of Bianca's Smut
, I guess we media pundits can all start crowing about the end of
the 'Net era, or at least the closing of the dot-com chapter. Which, admittedly, I haven't been worried about, not even after two
people forwarded me an essay published by the Orange County
Register (and reprinted in The Washington Post) on the very
subject (Taking stock of Gen X: It's fallen sharply ). But the author, Stephen
Lynch, did do something interesting while speculating on how history would
and should view the past five years: He fused Generation X with the
dot-com crowd.

It had never really occurred to me that Gen X, much derided as listless
slackers by the mainstream press in the early '90s, was largely
responsible for scaling up the Internet. The sweat needed to build this new
infrastructure came from the brows of the same generation that supposedly
wasn't enthused about much of anything. And why was this news hidden
from us? Why, it was those baby boomers, the ones who propagated the
slacker stereotype, blithely failing to correct the record as the
e-commerce ventures which Xers built were padding boomer retirement funds.

"Funny," the 28-year-old Lynch opines, "but no one rushed to correct
that stereotype when, four years later, companies founded mainly by
people in their twenties and early thirties jump-started the economy and
developed a whole new system for communication, education and commerce."

Could Lynch be right? Was Gen X the larval stage for the hyperactive
'Net generation to follow, and are we not getting the props we deserve?

I'm one of the 50 million folks born between 1963 and 1981, the
generally accepted Gen X brackets, and I'm here to tell you (sorry, Mr. Lynch)
that the slacker stereotype wasn't entirely off the mark. In 1992, I
was post-bachelor's and not the least bit interested in participating in
corporate America. I was halfheartedly churning through grad school,
only because it was the least uninteresting option available. I didn't
dress for success. More than once I found myself thinking, You want me
to do
what for 40 hours a week? I had plenty of the
"sarcastic, sardonic cynicism" Lynch characterized as the prevailing
generational attitude.

The problem with the world at the time, I now recall, was that
everything seemed so defined. There was little that anyone with even a
modicum of creativity could do that somehow didn't already fit into some
sort of predetermined pattern. Everything seemed handed down from the
boomers with horrible contracts of conformity -- like rock music, for
instance, which 10 years before had seemed to me to offer freedom itself.
If you wanted to rock out in the early '90s, your options were the
ready-made nostalgia of classic-rock stations and Hard Rock Cafés or the
mannered avenues of indie and grunge rock, in which a band's value was
gauged by its proximity to a Sub Pop or a Mammoth Records. Ditto with
literature, comedy, drugs, and art. All seemed so ossified.

I only really recognized this stiffening of culture after logging onto
the 'Net for the first time. Even with a text-only screen and a
9600-baud modem, I experienced a feeling I can liken only to free fall. Holy
I thought. There literally is no end to this stuff.
And that was in the pre-Web days when one got around by telnet and
gophers. It wasn't so much the amount of information but how it cut across
all sorts of boundaries. It leveled playing fields. It produced a void
with no set order, one that needed to be populated. It was a brave new
world, one that could be dangerous to existing orders.

So, as you can tell, by hopping on the 'Net, I blossomed from despondent
corporate outcast to cloying techno-babblist. And as such, I suppose I
understand why Lynch wants so badly for his peers to get the credit.
The Internet was something alive that seemed to be replacing much that
was dead. It was a feeling I'm sure many of my peers experienced.

But understanding why he wants the credit doesn't mean he -- or
we -- deserves it. The idea that the 'Net was even largely Gen X-grown is laughable.
The 'Net wasn't so much the result of any particular generation's labor
and creativity as it was a storm that simply blew the roof off the
whole theater of cultural continuity in the first place. Many of the early
movers and shakers I interviewed when I started writing about online
culture didn't fall largely into any age cohort. I talked to innovators
in their 50s and others in their early teens. The heavy infrastucture
work had been going on since the '60s of course, and even much of the
'Net's cultural sovereignty had been forged by radical-thinking fogies like
the Electronic Frontier Foundation's John Perry Barlow and Howard
Rheingold. Similarly, Open Source and free software gurus Eric Raymond and
Richard Stallman were too iconoclastic to be part of anyone's
generation, demographically or culturally. It just wasn't a generational thing.
You were simply on the bus or off the bus, as author Ken Kesey said of
an earlier time. It was just a different kind of bus.

Of course, a lot of work did come from those falling under the Gen X
rubric, I won't lie. I just part with Lynch when he claims that it showed
we were misunderstood from the get-go; I believe it shows we were
primed to leap onto something that offered a viable alternative. As my
friend Dave, who e-mailed me about the article, pointed out, "The people who
found the most utility in the 'Gen X' label were the marketers -- baffled
by the way they couldn't come up with strategies for selling things to
a generation that was already savvy to their stupid tricks. 'What a
baffling enigma,' the marketers would say. 'They are truly the mysterious
Generation X.' "

Maybe what marketers defined as cynicism was really pent-up energy
unusable in a world too set in its ways. It took something undefined, like
the 'Net, to harness such powers. But it harnassed the powers of a lot
of other people who were fed up with the status quo as well.

It's a theory for those writing the history books, anyway.


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