December 05, 2011
Digital native is a term coined by writer Marc Prensky, one I discovered, along with its counterpart, digital immigrant, in New York Times tech reporter Nick Bilton’s excellent book about media and technology, I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works. According to Wikipedia, “A digital native is a person who was born during or after the general introduction of digital technology, and through interacting with digital technology from an early age, has a greater understanding of its concepts,” while “A digital immigrant is an individual who was born before the existence of digital technology and adopted it to some extent later in life.” According to my understanding, a digital native is someone for whom the use of digital technology is innate and natural, who never had a moment when they learned, say, what the internet was. Not so for me; I’m pure digital immigrant.
My induction happened in two stages; one when I got my first email address, [email protected], when I was 17 (a nod to my favorite band at the time, 10,000 Maniacs), and about a year later when I first started surfing the internet. It’s hard to even picture that time period, before email, before conducting almost all of my work on the internet. The moment comes for Emma and Josh, the protagonists of Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler’s excellent new novel The Future of Us, when Josh hands Emma one of those AOL CD-ROMs that seemed to fill everyone’s mailboxes incessantly in the early 90′s. Yet when Emma slips it into her computer, she gains not only an AOL account, but also access to a mysterious website called Facebook. She has no idea what it is or if it’s real, and she and Josh puzzle over whether it’s a prank and what it could mean. Why are they writing things like “Contemplating highlights” and “Mac and cheese. Desperately need comfort food?” Josh has an answer. “Obviously it’s supposed to be from the future…Maybe it means you’re famous.” How could they know that in that future, we’d all be famous, if not for fifteen minutes, then for however long it takes to build an audience to indulge our inner exhibitionist? Emma is awed to log on one day and have 406 friends, quite a high number for your average early 90′s high school student.
It’s not surprising that the book had a 500,000 first printing, or that Warner Brothers bought the film rights back in May. It’s a fast read, so fast it’s easy to forget that the plot only takes place over the course of a week. In Asher and Mackler’s universe, not only does Facebook exist, but the future Emma and Josh, in their early thirties, are at the mercy of teenage Emma and Josh. The most minute changes they make at 16 impact their jobs, their spouses, their children, and where they live. No pressure or anything.
The Future of Us speaks to the concept of what the future means to us, whether it’s something we actively envision, work toward, desire, or whether it’s a nebulous concept, or an actively avoided one. Is carefully considering what we do in the present a necessary step toward planning for a better future? Do our daily actions, even the most minute ones, predict—and dictate—what our futures will look like? If so, that is pretty much the power trip to end all power trips. Will this soda or cigarette or date or job change the course of our lives? It’s enough to paralyze a person, and I wonder if, like Emma and Josh, we could see, in real time, how each present action played out fifteen years down the road (or even fifteen minutes down the road), we’d want to know. While the concept that the pair can see the results of any current action within minutes simply by logging on is pure fiction, the authors beg the question of whether every action we take today affects who our future selves will be, and whether we should care. That’s an existential question that goes far beyond the realm of technology, though surely those living in a purely digital era, when so many of our actions are proudly tracked and broadcasted, perhaps forever, means that erasing our past is a lot more challenging now than it was even in the late 90′s.
I’ve been pondering whether I’m the sort of person who would or wouldn’t want to know what my future holds since I read the book, and I still haven’t come to a decisive conclusion, though I’m leaning toward the latter. The idea of a “bad” future is scary, perhaps scarier than a bad present; for me, the future represents a hope, grandiose and unrealistic though it may be, that something better is around the corner. According to Wired‘s GeekDad blogger, Jonathan Liu, “Asher says that he thinks his current life would look great to his teenage self, so he’d probably be nervous about messing it up. Mackler said as a teen she stressed out about boys and heartbreak, and maybe a glimpse at her future would have helped her past some of the rejection.” The Los Angeles Times declares, “There’s a Dickensian aspect to The Future of Us. More specifically, the story unfolds in a manner similar to A Christmas Carol, in which the main characters are shown glimpses of their future that affect their present-day actions.” Clearly, this is not strictly a modern question, though it will probably always be one we grapple with (unless someone really does invent a way to see into the future).
The only audience for whom I fear parts of The Future of Us will fly right over their heads is the audience it’s being marketed to: teenagers. Billed as a young adult novel by publisher by Razorbill, it certainly is, but today’s young adults have probably been online since they could type, if not talk, with social networking an inherent part of their socialization process. For them, I imagine that dial-up is a mystery and the idea of “discovering” that something like Facebook exists sounds as foreign and exotic as the most fantastic of science fiction. Certainly, they will have to travel just as great of a mental leap as Emma and Josh do, except in reverse. Instead of trying to imagine a very different future, they will have to picture (or ask their parents about) the not-so-ancient past, pre-cell phone, pre-Facebook, pre-everything you want to know at the touch of your fingertips.
Thinking about the future in a “how can I own it” way also gives us free reign to reimagine other parts of our lives, for if our future is malleable, so is our present and, perhaps, our past. In an excellent blog post about being a creative badass and the productive uses of narcissism, author Justine Musk writes, “Facts are facts, but story is what gives them meaning. Story acts as a unifying thread that links your past to your future. Why not reverse-engineer it? Think of the future that you would like to have, then ‘re-truth your past’: think of a way to re-tell your past so that it sets you up to achieve that future.”
If the message of The Future of Us is to fully live in the moment, rather than worrying incessantly and trying to change the future, Musk’s advice is the flipside: by looking backward at our past, our raw story, we can reconsider what that past means, learn from it, and use it to fuel our self-presentation. Both are parts of the same puzzle, and force us to make sense of our present, as a way to make peace with, and own, our past, as well as direct what may feel like a directionless future. The book ends on a hopeful note with what I see as a message that no matter how much we may want to, we can’t control our future, and that, even if we could, we wouldn’t necessarily be any happier, but would simply have one more thing to obsess over. If you’re in your thirties, it will give you not only a hit of pop culture nostalgia, but also a snapshot of the moment when the literally worldwide web opened up all sorts of possibilities…and make you rethink your next Facebook status update.