One week ago Penny-Arcade–a webcomic better known for crass humor and controversy–ran a strip that tugged at my heart strings.
Something that really stands out about this comic is that it’s not just a about the pain of watching children grow. That anguish is as old as human experience, but this comic depicts the particular incarnation of that fear for parents of my generation. Jerry Holkins, the writer at Penny-Arcade, described the conflicted feelings of the geek and gamer parents who are forced to reconsider their own historical narratives when they consider their children following in their footsteps:
I’m horrified when I think about the shit I got up to online, as young as thirteen. My mother let me do things I’d never let my son do in a million fucking years, but those things were deeply formative, so I honestly don’t know who is in the right. My “peer group” then consisted largely of childless adult proto-nerds, real Mark-I models, the almost exclusively male cloister that would eventually pass the mantle to us.
They were in every way sorcerer-equivalent, and their metaphorical van had something profoundly more enticing than candy: videogames. Thousands and thousands of them, in an era where transfer speeds made piracy a largely social endeavor. It only occurs to me now the kind of incredible danger I was in; what some of the things that happened actually meant.
Jerry and Mike Krahulik (PA’s illustrator) are in the early 30s, married, and have kids. Just like me. We shared a lot of the same experiences growing up een though they lived on the West Coast, but I didn’t know they existed until I was 25. There’s something ironic in the fact that I had to wait this long for the media ecosystem around me–books, comics, movies, and TV–to catch up with the chasm that seemed to have opened up around me as a teenager. It wasn’t any source of particularly acute angst, but I felt both generationally and culturally estranged from my own culture, and in my younger years that tension was never resolved. I just stopped caring.
This got especially easy when I started my family. A family with young kids is like a universe unto itself. Between the highs of watching first steps or having a tiny person say “I love you” and the lows of extreme sleep deprivation and health-related scares, you lose the desire and the capacity to care very much about what happens outside the walls of your home. And so I’ve actually been quit startled to look around me and find that after I’d given up on looking for it, my generation and culture have reached ascendency. As it turns out: a fringe benefit of growing up is that your peers will develop their careers and talents to the point where they can start speaking for the cohort to the mainstream.
Part of this, as I mentioned is purely generational. People my age are starting to settle into their careers. But the shift has also been cultural. I grew up when glasses were still a sign of weakness, “geek” was entirely pejorative, and whenever some nerd claimed that the jocks would work for him one day, there was more desperation and defiance than innevitability. While I got older geeks went mainstream. The aging thing was inevitable. The geek thing was luck.
Now I look around me and a guy like Randall Munroe who grew up in my hometown (Richmond) is famous for making inscrutable comics about stick figures, science, and love. XKCD is particularly meaningful to me because I stumbled across it before he got famous, back when he had enough time that I could just drop him an email and get a reply. (Turns out, he’s a nice guy.) His comics are the epitome of geek culture, including the ones that I don’t understand at first.
Jokes with obscure punchlines epitomize geek culture. If you get the joke without having to Google, you feel that much more special. But if you have to Google it, then you’ve learned something. If there’s one thing that defines being a geek, it’s a thirst to know more stuff.
There’s another aspect of xkcd that is really evident of the geek origins, and that’s the fact that if you hover your mouse over the image, you always get a sort of secondary joke. Since this was never announced and had to be found on your own, it was a lot like easter eggs hidden in classic games (which, themselves, are another expression of the geek philosphy towards knowledge-seeking). And, since the “feature” was implemented by hijacking a web-feature not originally intended for that purpose (it was supposed to be for providing image titles, not secondary punchlines), it’s a great example of authentic hacking.
I can’t help but take a moment, here, to pick out the one truly timeless work of pop culture from my childhood that preceeded my generation: Calvin and Hobbes. I love the comics as much as I ever did, but in a way even they have changed. These days the character that resonates with me most deeply isn’t Calvin, and it isn’t Hobbes. It’s Calvins’ dad, winter bike rides and all.
But most of what I watched and read as a kid didn’t have this masterful timelessness, not even the sci-fi or fantasy that got swept along with the rising tide of geek ascendence. As great as the legends were–from Star Trek to Heinlein and Asimov–they were foreigners compared to the current crop. This group–even though it contains a lot of folks about 10 years older than me–feels like my generation. (I’m thinking of John Scalzi, Jim Butcher, Cory Doctorow, Whil Wheaton, and Joss Whedon, for exmaple.) Some of the concerns we share include:
- How to prepare our kids for an information overload that we were able to acclimate ourselves to gradually, but which has now become an all-engulfing, multi-media onslaught. After all, lots of us were nearly swept away before broadband and Web 2.0.
- How to navigate the deceptive perception of closeness and maintain authentic connections when your friends are simultaneously just a profile click away and hundreds of miles beyond our ability to reach out and touch.
- How to deal with pain and loss in an age of unreliable miracles. Technology has relegated some ailments to mere memory while others kill as viciously as always, flaunting the futility of science and passion alike.
- How to balance or even justify our jealous concern for friends and family with an ever-expanding global awareness.
Maybe every generation wants to believe they are special, but I’m not actually sure mine is. It’s possible that we occupy the unique position of bridging two distinct ages: the Industrial and the Information. People of my generation can usually remember life before the Internet, life before email, life before cell phones and computers, but for the most part we’re pretty fluent in technology. The prior generations (with exceptions, obviously) are not. The following generations will be at least as fluent, of course, but not bilingual. On the other hand, maybe we’re nothing special. Maybe all this talk of Information vs. Industrial Ages is just self-congratulatory navel-gazing. Or maybe there really are two ages, but we’re just in the Information Age like all the generations that will come after us. My greatest fear is that that last possibility. Maybe we’ve entered an age where the pace of change wis so rapid that every geneation will live alongside the next one in total alienation. We’ll inhabit the same geo-temporal location, but not the same world. With parents getting older and birthrates falling, will our children are going to be red-shifted beyond recognition or recovery?
One thing that gives me some hope is that as I get older I feel I understand the generations who went before me better. When you’re a teenager every introduction into high-stakes adulthood is a first. Your first love, your first broken heart, your first friendships that you decide yourself: teenagers get overwhelmed by this. Then they look around at adults, and they don’t see any perceptible signs of similar struggles. So they conclude that adults must not experience life as viscerally and extremely as teenagers do.
If my personal experience is any judge, however, the opposite is true. In high school someone’s world is always ending, and I don’t just mean funny, trivial stuff. I had friends who were raped, friends who were forced into abortions against their will, friends who were drowning themselves in drugs, and friends who were fighting for the lives against cancer or other killers. One really close friend–a kid I’d known since middle school–hung himself in his closet. That’s the kind of experiences that I think are pretty typical of a sheltered, upper-middle class suburban life. (Or maybe people just liked to talk to me.) And yet, with that as the background, I’ve definitely known higher highs and lowers lows as an adult.
The difference is that I’ve got context now. When you get hit with a tragedy for the first time and it seems like it will swallow you whole, you panic. When it’s the third or fourth time then–even if it’s worse then ever before–you have a grim and not always comforting awareness that the world’s gonna keep on spinning, regardless. I think this is why teenagers are always pushing the envelopes in their entertainment: they need something that mirrors their confusion and fear. An adult, however, doesn’t necessarily need some excessive external expression of pain and anguish: they already have that inside. All they have to do is remember.
All of this means that I look at people older than me with something approaching awe. I don’t think I can understand them, but at least now I know that I can’t. There are so many experiences–common to most of humanity–that I haven’t experienced first or even second hand. There’s only but so much a toddler can do to break your heart, but when my kids are 14? 18? 22? I’m going to live through all that, the highs and the lows, and none of it will be out of the ordinary. I see a completely mundane 50 year old now, and I think “Damn… what has your heart lived through?” I look at our neighbor, an old guy pushing 100, and I try to imagine all the different ways that he has seen the world. My wife’s grandfather–a man who stormed the beaches of Normandy and left most of his friends buried in Europe–still can’t talk about his experiences after nearly three-quarters of a century. I asked him about it once, respectfully, and he couldn’t talk about much without pushing himself to the verge of tears. What’s just history or movies to me is still carried in his heart, as real as the day it happened. How many of my generation who fought and bled and watched friends die in Iraq or Afghanistan are going to carry that burden for the next 6 decades, or more?
Even though our culture is fairly youth-obsessed and our celebrities all have to look like teenagers, at 31 years old my cohort is on the ascendencey. For the next ten or twenty years I expect to see more and more media that is tailored to me and my generation. It only makes sense: the art follows the money. I already know, however, that there’s going to come a time when a fresh crop of young artists and executives are going to start coming up through the ranks, dismissing a lot of what I cherish and bringing with them a fresh set of concerns that seem weird or irrelevant to me. They will have weird gadgets, indecipherable slang, and inscrutable motivations. A generation waxes; a generation wanes. That will be bittersweet, of course, since along with my own fading relevance it will be my kids who are starting to have their time in the sun.
For now I’ll enjoy the comics of Penny-Arcade and folks like Randall Munroe. One day we’ll be old and irrelevant, and maybe lonely as we have a hard time reaching out beyond our increasingly small cohort, but along the way I imagine that we’ll be growing in wisdom, and maybe even be growing closer to the generations who have gone before.
An awful lot of what it means to be a human seems to change form from year to year, but I can’t help think that deep down we’re just relearning the same lessons. Maybe, if I can learn to look beyond the whitecaps on the surface to the quiet, deep currents below, I’ll find a timeless wisdom that crosses generational and cultural divides. I feel like I might have brushed close by it once or twice, and so it’s with a measure of hope that I keep on looking.