Kids These Days

by Christopher Richards

Originally printed in the Winter 2011 issue of Quest magazine under the name Christopher Richardson. 
Citation: Richardson, Christopher. "Kids These Days." Quest  99. 1 (Winter 2011): 10-14.

I don"t understand kids these days. What with their Nosebook and Tweeter and iBones and all those crazy interwebs. Back when I was a kid, which was last century, we didn't have all this crazy technology. Our video games had only two dimensions, and computers were still visible to the naked eye. Cell phones were for talking, not flying airplanes or elective surgery, and you sure as heck couldn't accidentally swallow one. Yes, folks, times sure were simpler last millennium.

If I really felt like this, I'd no doubt be in good company. My mom's, for instance. We were at a cafe when she uttered, without irony, the classic phrase "kids these days," followed by a short but exasperated litany of behaviors that clearly presaged the end times. If you"re burdened with enough knowledge of history, it's difficult to hear such prognostications without smiling. Not only have elders been shaking their heads at the younger generation for as long as humans have lived, such writings actually constitute their own genre. One early example, found on clay tablets, called "A Father and His Perverse Son," dates to 1700 bc, although it may have originally been composed centuries earlier. In it, a Sumerian father counsels his son to pay attention in school, respect his elders, and not to hang out in the streets. The son is rebuked for not following in his father's professional footsteps and for taking for granted how easy his life is. Any cursory search will yield similar treasures from Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures. One of my personal favorites from a more recent era complains that the abundance of entertainment options is making it impossible for "kids these days" to learn, or even properly think. This was written in 1915.

Theosophists are trained to think in terms of cycles. That, combined with a sense of temporality that dwarfs even geological time, should act as a bulwark against lapses into intergenerational paranoia. Instead, with an eye towards what is fundamentally human, we see perennial structures underlying, undergirding, and making understandable the patterns on the ever-changing surface.

Such cycles can present themselves like a glass containing contents that approximate half of its capacity—a simple Rorschach test for your attitude. Recognizing your experience as a variant of a larger pattern allows for a sense of either comfort or futility.

Years ago, while working at the Quest Book Shop at the National Center, I was cleaning out a storage area and came across an ancient and mysterious crate. Despite my delirious hopes, it did not turn out to be a long-lost cache of esoteric instructions ferreted away by the Masters to await their destined recipient. It was something both more mundane and more revelatory. It was filled with carbon copies of letters from the 1940s, written by Joy Mills when she was the head of the Young Theosophists. I had myself recently become the leader of the Young Theosophists and was struggling with a host of issues for which I had no guide. These letters revealed a young Joy Mills grappling with the very same issues. Which texts to study. How to balance the needs of visitors attending meetings for the first time with those of young people already advanced in their studies. How to integrate with the wider TSA, and whether even having a separate group was nurturing the next generation or segregating them. Joy is one of the Theosophists whom I revere. Her profoundly sharp mind and intellectual restlessness combined with a consistent warmth towards and embrace of young people elevated her to a unique position within the Young Theosophists of my generation; we held her up as a model to aspire towards. Reading her words from when she was my age, and receiving the consequent revelation of how long her path had been, provided me with a sense of place within a wider cycle.

While this wider view of time may protect us against rash judgments about kids these days, it does not mean that very real and profound changes don't occur. One generation of women was shocked and appalled when another generation began wearing pants. Such a move wasn't merely a shift in fashion. It was a sign of an irrevocable change in direction for women and their place in society. Many of today"s complaints focus on technology, and rightfully so. Today's cell phones are not just distracting new toys; they are instantiations of an entirely new and emergent consciousness, flashing beacons from a shore whose banks we are fast approaching. It is just as likely that we will arrive in a strange and foreign and promising new land as it is that we will be dashed upon the rocks or devoured by the inhabitants whose language we do not speak.

Marshall McLuhan argued that all media are extensions of human capacities. The bike and car extend the foot, the radio the mouth and ear. Each extension, however, results in a simultaneous amputation. With automated transportation comes a loss of neighborhoods and the other environments that walking creates. With any new technology, we have a responsibility to critically assess such extensions and amputations. To do so, we have to look past the content of any given medium to the ways in which the medium alters the form, scale, and speed of human relations and activities. Western culture has long been so hypnotized by the content of print that the effect of print is rarely questioned. Most of us know the story of Europe's emergence out of the Dark Ages. In this story, the printing press is the hero. With access to the Bible and increased literacy, people were no longer beholden to ecclesiastical authority. There is a straight line from Gutenberg through the French Revolution and on to both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin.

The ubiquity of print had another, invisible consequence. It led an entire civilization to fall under the spell of a medium that surreptitiously homogenized structures of consciousness. Whereas most of the population had been participating in a primarily oral culture, with was locally variegated and dynamic, print was visual, ordered, sequential, and static. As a result, the culture became inundated with these values. We became a typographical culture, one in which thinking equaled reading. A similar shift had occurred on a smaller scale in Greece almost two millennia earlier. The values of Homeric Greece, shaped by the oral tradition reflected in the Iliad, were replaced by those of Attic Greek culture. Socrates may have been skeptical of the written word, but Plato was already fully under its spell. The idea of the Ideas is unimaginable prior to the unchanging written word, and it is no accident that the Renaissance harks back to classical Greece.

Like a flash of lightning in the night sky, electricity dramatically reveals an entirely new vision, and, once harnessed, irrevocably changes every aspect of human existence. I live near Chicago, but am writing these words from a cafe in the mountains of Virginia. I have just had a video chat with a friend in Mexico and have received pictures from another in Prague. Experiences are now instantaneous, always accessible, field like phenomena. Just as the printing press accelerated and amplified its consequent consciousness, so the confluence of personal computers, smart phones, and the Internet are bringing to a mass scale the inevitable result of forays into new media.

One inevitable risk of such emergence is that just as one generation is reactively frightened by the extensions created by new media, another generation blindly embraces the amputation. Kids these days are the forward crest of a wave, but the effects of the technology are not age-specific. And again Theosophists seem, in general, more immune to generational cliches. Just as Joy Mills consistently shames me with the breadth of her studies, John Kern likewise consistently outpaces me with his embrace of technology. A short time ago I was discussing an open source database and constituent resource management platform with John when I suddenly realized that the man in front of me fought in World War II. I"ve met many older Theosophists who have no fear whatsoever of new technology, even if they are overwhelmed by the variety and pace of its developments. As such, we are in a good position to navigate the new environments created. Furthermore, as stewards of an ageless wisdom that must always find new timely expressions, we have a responsibility to examine which aspects of Theosophy are a result of the disappearing environment created by print, and which can made newly relevant in the emerging environment.

I have always felt that the Theosophical Society offers two things: information and community. If these are indeed our products, we have to recognize when the marketplace fundamentally shifts. Two general and two specifically Theosophical examples may serve as starting points for discussion: online dating, Web surfing, discipleship, and the seven bodies model.

The structure of intimate human partnerships are always governed by their social context. Marriage can serve any number of functions, from ensuring a continuity of property to cementing strategic alliances to providing the necessary foundation for emerging capitalist culture. Even within the modern understanding of marriage as a partnership based on love, the pool of potential partners has largely been dictated by geography and class. Internet dating is causing a radical upheaval in these structures. Information that previously may not have been learned until many years into a relationship is now broadcast before meeting. People are expected to know themselves and what they want and share what they know. With an overabundance of choice comes a need for filtering.

Only a context that ensures that marriages don't dissolve, whether through legality or simple communal shame, can allow partnerships to be based on general and simple criteria. Devoid of such structure, younger generations seek to avoid the complex psychological causes of their parents' separations by seeking sophisticated psychological compatibility and specific mutual interests from the outset. Whether this will reduce the divorce rate remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that the phenomenon indicates a fundamental shift in the nature of human partnering. (According to the online dating site E-harmony, one in five relationships now begin online, although this claim is unsubstantiated.)

Just as Internet dating reveals a change in the way community is formed, Web surfing exemplifies a new approach to information, made necessary by overabundance. One of the foundations of modern culture has been the relationship between knowledge and power. Authority has long depended upon information. What happens when a teenager in a small rural town has access to more information through her cell phone than an Oxford don has in the Bodleian? We don't know the answer yet, because the shift is just beginning, but we can already see that the need for information acquisition is being displaced by the need for pattern recognition. Surfing is the appropriate metaphor for navigating the Web. In order to get anywhere, the surfers needs to be able to quickly identify patterns in the water, to know when and where a wave is going to crest. Once on the wave, they have to remain always engaged, because the wave is a dynamic phenomenon. We"re truly in a pulsing ocean of information, and those who don't know how to catch the wave will be pounded by it.

Discipleship, as described in Theosophical literature, particularly the works of Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater, is consistent with the essential qualities of the outgoing typographical structure of consciousness. It is linear, sequential, ordered, uniform. As such, I would be skeptical of its continued relevance. This is not to say that discipleship doesn't occur, but rather that the way in which we understand it may no longer be accurate. It could be argued that the texts support the current view of discipleship, but a little research and reflection reveals that our understanding of Eastern sources is really the interpretation of nineteenth-century European scholars who projected their own conditioned structure of consciousness on to the seething variety of religious experiences of non-Western cultures.

Any clean, ordered description of phenomena should be suspect. This is precisely why the visionary thinker and author William Irwin Thompson, the true heir of Marshall McLuhan, is so dismissive of Ken Wilber. Although Wilber trumpets a new worldview, the highly linear maps of consciousness that illustrate his books only serve to reinforce the old one. To read Wilber is to court the danger of falling under the spell of a dying worldview. By contrast, if philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Jean Gebser are so difficult to read, it is in part because they"re provoking the mind to escape the bonds of the written word they are still forced to use.

On the other hand, the Theosophical concept of multiple, interpenetrating bodies is uncannily amenable to a new electric consciousness. If we look past the content of the Internet to its form, what do we behold? An always available, instantaneous means of accessing information, entertainment, and social networks, a field through which no path is given, a collapse of time and space. Is there anything about the Theosophical model of the human constitution that is put under threat by such a worldview? As incarnate beings, we encounter ourselves as multiplicities, as momentary convergences of dynamic fields, occupying physical, energetic, emotional, mental, and spiritual spaces simultaneously. There is no obvious hierarchy; effects cascade from one field to another. Our hormones shape our emotions, our attitudes inform our health. Each field, or window, accesses a given world with its own particular patterns, or types of karma.

On a macro scale, a similar shift in the perception of structures has long been documented. Ecology recognizes that the complexity of the natural world does not allow for linear, ordered explanations. Quantum physics" displacement of the Newtonian order may be an intellectual cliche, but with the advance of technology now apparently disrupting the structures of human relations, we can now expect to see this paradigm emerge into our everyday lives. Even the attempt to identify the structure of new media is fraught when we look with eyes trained by the old. The content of a book is simple to identify, but what is the content of Facebook? We need to constantly ask ourselves, how am I relating to others in a new way? What do I do now that I didn"t do before? Where do I see the consequences of such action? What do I no longer do? What am I now unable to do?

Personally, I"m a big fan of Twitter. This environment, which is accessible through the Internet or a smart phone, allows for broadcasting in short bursts to anyone listening. Unlike in Facebook, the identities involved are formed by these "tweets" rather than pictures or relationships to other entities. It is extraordinarily ephemeral, as each new utterance displaces previous ones. It does allow for conversation, but it"s more akin to walking through a crowded village square with very good ears. As such, it creates a village square where there was none. I live in a town called Oak Park, just outside of downtown Chicago. Through Twitter, I met other people who live in Oak Park. We all began listening to each other, sharing news and opinions, and eventually began getting together in person. We were already a geographic community, but other technological developments (such as rapid transportation and television) had effectively amputated the social community. This new medium renewed the social aspect but allowed it to structure itself around mutual interest rather than the necessity of commerce.

On the other hand, the technology excludes from the same social sphere those who are not participating in it. When my mom complains about kids always being on their cell phones, she"s not seeing that they're actually participating in a new social environment. She isn't complaining because she does not have access to that space. Rather, what she is suffering is the realization that the old environment, which existed before geographical and social community diverged, has been lost.

Kids these days do live in a new world. That world is created by the technology we all use, whether we"re conscious of it or not. That world is invisible to anyone who doesn"t reflect on it. In order for Theosophy to find a place in this new world, it will need people who can articulate it in the language of this new environment. These articulations may be profoundly unsettling to those attached to the old forms. Here a bit of faith may help. The cycle will continue, we"ll pass away, and in some future lifetime we will again be the "kids these days."


Christopher Richardson holds a degree in philosophy from Shimer College, has studied in Kyoto and Oxford, and is former national coordinator of the Young Theosophists. Having served two terms on the Theosophical Society in America"s board of directors and lecturing and leading workshops at several Theosophical centers, Chris currently manages the contemporary music ensemble Eighth Blackbird and is president of New Music Chicago.


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