If you type “why are millennials—” into the Google Search bar, the first few suggestions Google makes are 'important', 'so dumb', 'so lazy', 'so boring', and 'so anxious'. Millennials, the current generation of young people to which most Cambridge students belong, never do seem to get an especially fair, accurate, or in any way flattering portrayal in politics or the the media. I am setting out to answer that first question — why millennials are so important — across the course of this column.
In order to make sense of the millennial, there is no better place to start than technology. We are a generation who once probably owned a tape player and Home Alone on video, yet now live in a world on the cusp of virtual reality, robots doing our jobs, and Amazon delivering our weekly shopping by drone. At this point, then, it might seem natural either to proclaim technology’s rapid expansion to be this century’s Enlightenment or explain why Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — but, not only have you heard it all before (and are likely aware that, like most things in life other than Van of Life vs. Uncle Frank’s it is not either benevolent or demonic) it is happening whether we like it or not. And you could always just watch Black Mirror.
A more interesting area to explore is, therefore, how technology affects the millennial and vice versa. What I find perhaps most fascinating is the fact that social media has made each of us a historian, documenting and preserving pieces of our lives and personalities on Timelines in a far more thorough and scrupulous effort than the creation of the Domesday Book. We’re obsessed with publishing our social lives and doing research projects into others', begging the age-old question that if a tree falls in forest and no-one is around to Instagram it, did it ever really happen?
The digital biography we have each inadvertently created from around age twelve does, of course, have its major drawbacks: private companies have decades’ worth of dirt on us (and so do friends when they scroll back and drag up your old Facebook statuses) and can trigger major FOMO and even isolation. And, although social media is brilliant for promoting things you care about and sharing ideas, there’s a danger of homogenisation in millennial culture — because we can see what everyone else is doing — tied into the whole depressing number of likes = popularity = self-worth thing.
Snapchat is interesting because it contradicts my above point about our constant need to make moments tangible and permanent: every video and photo posted on there is, if you think about it, an admission of our own ephemerality and the transience of our memories. Or something. It’s also interesting because the moments captured are often more authentic than on other forms of media — yes, the dog filter is hardly a realistic portrayal of the human form, but unlike Facebook or Instagram photos, we don’t pretend to be permanently living in some hazy, edgy filter-world with fairy lights in the background.
That same authenticity is what I love about the videos on Vine and Youtube: one thing I think millennials can be properly proud of is how well we do comedy. BME people dominate Vine, or at least did (RIP), whilst almost anyone can make Youtube videos, making technology a great equaliser in that respect. Whilst the BBC struggles to book its token panel-show woman each week, and Pointless has a primetime spot, millennials are already on at least post-post-post irony and taking comedy in new directions. This hit home for me especially in a recent Have I Got News For You episode when Ian Hislop made a rather tired joke about cultural appropriation meaning that you can’t eat spaghetti bolognese which is, to put it mildly, some seriously entry-level irony.
Perhaps the best thing about technology is the extent to which it’s aiding our political awareness and engagement (‘woke’ is now in the dictionary), however. Whilst many politicians are happy to turn a blind eye to the views of young people because there are few political repercussions for doing so (elections aren’t won on housing prices or tuition fees) social media offers platforms from which to discuss and debate ideas we wouldn’t otherwise come across. This does risk the simplification of ideas, the creation of echo chambers and — most crucially — the danger of political polarisation, but that can be addressed and is something I’ll be coming onto in a future column. In fact, technology as a whole is something I will be returning to throughout, being such a broad topic and defining our lives and identities to the enormous extent it does (I have such plans for memes and Tinder), so watch this space.