Generation Gap Inflation
As a kid I considered the "generation gap" to be unchanging law - a constant of the human condition. There's the famous Socrates rant about kids those days.
Through most of human history1 people lived lives quite similar to those of their parents, and then their children lived largely similar lives after that. The pace of technological progress was slow, or maybe there were small gains and losses that more or less evened out over the long run. Because technology changed little from generation to generation, there was little difference in the built environment and lived experience from one generation to the next. A negligible generation gap.
Eventually, some inventions (technical, political, philosophical) gained stronger footholds. They stuck around and began to compound on themselves. Better materials allowed for greater freedom in the design and fabrication of tools. Better social arrangements allowed for more effective division of labor, trading efficiencies, and increased leisure time. Better scientific foundations allowed for empiricism & hypothesis testing to team up with received wisdom and pragmatic experience.
Compounding, compounding, compounding. Each invention catalyses further inventions, each new discovery adds to a growing catalog. Knowledge, both theoretical & procedural, has powerful network effects. (They say that four facts are 16 times as powerful as one fact2.)
As the invention-infrastructure grew, the rate of invention grew. It became ordinary to bear witness to substantive changes in local infrastructure, policy, or commerce over the course of one's lifetime. Now, the built-environment and lived experience of each generation is substantively different than the one that precedes and follows it. The generation gap is born: in addition to the ever-present frictions that arise from dynamics between parents and children, old and young (see Socrates), there is now a real cultural gap between the generations, which hinders mutual understanding.
Compounding, compounding, compounding! Invention continues, and the average cultural gap between two people 30 years apart grows and grows. Maybe the differences between someone born in 1735 and 1765 were too slight for many people to notice or care about them. It looks like modern usage of generation gap was only invented in the 40s or 50s, caught on during the 60s, and peaked during the 70s. This coincides with the rise of mass-media and telecommunication technologies like radio, television, telephones. Also with the rise of home appliances like the electric washing machine. Also with the development of commercial flight.
Children living in this era did different chores than their parents had as children, socialized differently than their parents had as children, vacationed differently, and practically everything else. The lived-experience gap between persons born thirty years apart has become enormous compared to two hundred or two thousand years ago.
When I went to high school, Facebook didn't exist - spending time with computers was still a bit of a fringe activity (I was on that fringe). By the time I finished university all of the incoming students had been through high school in a post-social-networking universe.
The middle & high school years are pretty formative. Facebook, in its first wave, was outrageously popular. It's very easy to imagine that my lived experience of high school would have been markedly different had I attended just 3-5 years later. These next kids, just a few years younger than me, were effectively a different generation.
The same is true in the opposite direction: I had a very early home broadband connection while I was in high school, which did not exist even a few years earlier. I cannot guess what I might otherwise have done with the time I spent on Quake II, Starcraft, and Everquest. But it's immediately obvious to me that the difference would be substantial.
The progression from
dialup > broadband > social media represented three radically different media and communications infrastructures for successive cohorts of adolescents. Three radically different ways of interacting, socializing, being - all within a decade.
Since then, the landscape has shifted continuously. Instagram, snapchat, twitter, reddit, tiktok, probably others. Moreover, the platforms themselves are more and more capricious - the mood of "your" feed on any of them can shift unpredictably.
I recently filled out a health screening questionnaire for my 18-month old child. One of the questions under a socialization and problem-solving section was
My child will offer a toy to his or her reflection.
It was a multiple choice, with options not yet, sometimes, and yes. My child doesn't make such offers, but I'm pretty sure it's for the same reasons I wouldn't:
- she's a desperate resource guarding prick (this is beside the point, but I felt you should know)
- she understands that her reflection isn't a potential playmate
But how can this be? How did my baby go off the scale in this developmental checklist?
Babies are great litmus tests for the changing built environment. I expect today's 18-month-olds have probably seen 100 to 1000 times as many photos of themselves as the 18-month-olds who existed at the time this questionnaire item was developed. My own daughter has exposure to a digital photo frame that cycles through thousands of family photos, and as long as she's been able to babble she has pointed at individuals and named them. With help from others, she's also learned to recognize and name herself. Is it so surprising that she isn't tricked by her mirror image?
Let's make graphs
G(x,y) is the generation gap (in expectation) between persons born in years
y, then we expect the typical "human generation gap"
G = G(t, t-30) to be roughly exponential:3
Now fix the gap size at an arbitrary reference point - mine. With rounding, the gap between myself and my parents is
IF the average generation gap is growing as time progresses, then it's also true that the average age difference between persons as alienated from one another as I was from my parents is shrinking over time.
Here, I make the wild guess that in the long relative steady-state of human history, you could pluck two persons ~150 years apart and they'd be approximately as culturally removed from one another as I was from my parents.
In 1980, the age difference is 30. (If you are young, consult this artifact to understand this era of inter-generational alienation).
Past 1980, the average age difference continues to shrink. Where it his zero, the "generation" gap between persons of the exact same age is as large as the gap between my parents and I. Generation gap has become a misnomer in the midst of a continuous process. Further into the future, as the average age difference dips below zero, a literal interpretation is out of reach - but the general implication is that persons of the same age will be more and more alienated from one another in expectation.
This feels plausible in the immediate, given current polarization, partisanship, reality as a service, personalized AI generated content feeds, etc etc etc. But the longer term trend is in a way more unsettling. Does progress itself generate alienation? Where does that leave a technologist?
Not a historian. Backstory as likely as not to be apocryphal. All history in this post made up on the spot.↩
Probably sigmoidal, at least as long as we remain natural meaty humans living in a physical world. In any case, we're on the upswing of this sigmoid, so the right now consequences are the same.↩