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Is the Millennials' dependence on smartphones dangerous?

25 years after the final high school exam, we had a reunion in the open-air museum in Chanovice, a village 40 miles South of Pilsen. The open-air museum (or "skanzen" as we call them in Czech) was built in recent decades and my classmates have been one of the key groups of workers that made it possible. Historical buildings from the rural Klatovy area (between Pilsen and the Bohemian/Bavarian forest) were accumulated in a village that had previously had a chateau, a church, a rather impressive granary, and now also has an observatory.

It was fun to meet them. 21 people – a clear majority of the class – has attended. I surely don't claim that such reunions that are much more than "a few hours in the pub" are rare at the global level but they're rare enough. We had fun, drank beer and ate sausages, visited the skanzen, chateau, observatory, and received some expert stories about the history of the rural buildings from a local guru and our classmate LK whose knowledge – and contributions to the place – was amazing. He was born in the countryside and knows a lot – theoretically and practically – about the rural life in the recent as well as distant past.

We would rarely talk about serious topics but e.g. U.S. politics couldn't be avoided when we talked to PS who has been the U.S. citizen for some time and works for CDC (epidemics) in Atlanta, GA. Well, he voted for Mickey Mouse and almost none of my classmates are really interested in politics. They may have better things to do. But I could talk about things such as electron-positron annihilation in medicine (PET/PAS) and the status of the theory of the photoelectric effect with a classmate – named Camille, an X-ray professional and physics enthusiast – too. ;-)

One of the societal changes that especially the female classmates complained about was the decreased ability to "interact in the real world" among the Millennials or younger generations. We could get drunk, we can keep the group for years. Millennials – kids of these classmates born in 1973-1974 and sometimes their students (some of them teach) – are looking into their smartphones even if they're sitting in front of one table. They don't know how to normally interact, how to play, how to behave as friends in the sense of our teenage years.

Well, yes, it looks like a valid description. It's valid across the West. Is the analysis correct and is the development really dangerous?

I must start by saying that I am in no way writing the analysis from the viewpoint of a glorious textbook example of the collective old-fashioned guy. Your humble correspondent undoubtedly belongs among the 5% of most individualist people in the world. I think that I've become able to behave like other people and sometimes even as the top 5% of the people who act as the "social glue" and it even seems possible that it has helped me to get hired in the U.S. etc.

But an unknown mixture of some special (tough) experience with my social environment; and genetics has turned me to what I am. While I am rather emotional, loving and caring, there's no doubt that my "need for friendship" is intrinsically well below the average and it has been claimed that it is a usual sign accompanying high intelligence which is a theory I take seriously, to be honest. In particular, I find it as an annoying waste of time when folks want me to spend too much time with things I consider mundane. Also, I generally don't find the sharing of some events in my life to be too much of a relief etc. And incidentally, yes, I am greatly annoyed when somebody is chewing – I can't help myself – and check what that means.

OK, so the analysis is obviously not supposed to be about me. It's a more general look at the whole population. Concerning the changes, I believe that one should try to distinguish

  1. changes of the basic underlying value system, character, skills of the people in generations
  2. changes that follow from (or are strongly correlated) with the technological developments
The former is profound, the latter is superficial. The latter shouldn't really be a reason for concern because older generations unavoidably misunderstand some things in the new world and my classmates are approximately turning from a young generation to an older one these days. So they – we – may be trying to prevent many things that aren't really dangerous and that are either positive or just unavoidable signs of positive changes.

At the end, while I am worried about many counterproductive changes in the education system etc., I don't believe that the fast changes are really about the quickly decreasing underlying IQ of the people or their totally basic ideas about the society. The fast counterproductive changes I can see boil down to some institutionalized changes of the political mood, the decreasing focus on the truthfulness and meritocracy. In the long run, the IQ is probably on a decreasing trend as the stupid people generally outf*ck the smart ones but my estimates of the speed of this trend suggest that the effect of the purely biological changes cannot be safely observable after one generation.

Forefathers of the Millennials' communication

When a bunch of teenagers sits in a room and they communicate through their smartphones, it looks rather boring to an outsider. The young people seem boring, bored, and unable to live normally. But much of this impression is due to the observer's not seeing or appreciating what's going on within the Internet packets. What's taking place online is often "equivalent" to the old-fashioned human communication and the modifications are due to purely technical developments of the information carriers.

You know, while a hot IT teacher at the high school disconnected me from any computer technology for 4 years, during... (imagine a scene from Young Sheldon at school) ...the very first lecture ;-), my arrival to the college in 1992 sort of changed that and I could become one of the pioneers of the Internet in Czechoslovakia. As soon as in 1992, I was using some e-mail, Gopher and telnet and FTP soon afterwards, and then the (graphical) web since 1994. We were doing the drilling to spread the Internet cables through our Prague-Troja student hostels, too.

Aside from reading the arXiv etc., I did lots of other things on that old – not yet commercialized – Internet. For example, we were chatting and doing similar things on the Liane BBS, a Bulletin Board Service, a telnet-based social network which existed since 1994, too. (I have probably been a member of a foreign BBS since 1993 but I don't remember the exact dates.) We were chatting in chatrooms, voting for moderators, posting on boards dedicated to various topics. Last and therefore least ;-), we also organized a real-world BBS session a few times. Some important folks were there. For example, I spent much of the hike to the Ještěd Hill in Northern Bohemia by chatting with I.L. who would soon become the founder of, a formidable Czech competitor of Google. In my opinion, the evolution from things like the Bulletin Board Service to the current Facebook was extremely modest. I simply disagree with Gene's statement that Facebook has changed the world. It's just a name that dominates the market of social networks that were evolving gradually and sort of adopted the changes of the technology (the switch from the text mode to windows with graphics was the first obvious one) in a straightforward way.

I think it's right to say that in average, the folks who were connecting to Liane BBS were rather representative of the society. The "nerds" were overrepresented there but not so much. Many rather "ordinary" folks – and girls – were using the BBSes in similar ways in which teenagers are using the Facebook today. Because of the underlying Internet, the average person whom you interact with is geographically further from you than if you interact with the people in more old-fashioned ways. But otherwise this Internet communication is similar to the "pen friends" which existed half a century ago – except that it's much faster, usually instantaneous, and therefore exciting.

For these reasons, I think that much of the older generations' opposition to the Internet communication is a matter of Ludditism, a sign of their general technophobia.

Android games vs toys of our childhood

I would say something rather similar about another part of the technology – younger children's playing games on tablets and phones. They're very good at it. A very high fraction of the five-year-olds can play rather nontrivial games on tablets and perhaps download new games in the app store, too. They can spend whole days with such things if you allow them to do so. And it looks very different from the real-world games of older generations, including my childhood.

Is that evolution a catastrophe in the making? I don't think so. You know, our parents played with some wooden toys and they were romantic. We feel some nostalgia about that history – it's the "default state" just like wild Nature. But look at those things a bit more critically. Most of the toys were immensely lame, boring, and the kids were completely wasting much of their time.

By playing the games on tablets, today's kids are moving a nontrivial part of their life, energy, and excitement to the virtual world. But that's unavoidable. And they're learning the "equivalents" of many things that kids were learning from "classical toys and games" decades ago – except that today's kids are doing much of it much more effectively. The life in the virtual world is something that is simply bound to grow more significant, relatively speaking, and this growth is not much different from the relative growth of the importance of cities in comparison with the villages a century or a few centuries ago, from the growth of TV relatively to books, and dozens of other examples of technological changes that have heavily influenced the people's lifestyle. Such long-term trends unavoidably exists and there is no reason to expect some "death" coming from these changes. The mankind has made many similar "almost qualitative" steps and it has survived those so far.

The older generations were often feeling alienated in the new or present world whose identity was increasingly determined by folks that are younger than them. And even those the folks who were born e.g. in 1973-1974 feel (and are) young and healthy, not like pensioners, the logic still works: they are already substantially older than some younger generations and much of their (my generation's) bitterness about the habits of the Millennials and the kids is qualitatively the same thing as the complaints of the pensioners during our childhood who were annoyed by many trends that were unstoppable.

Because I think that there are many things that a kid may do e.g. with a tablet – entertainment, learning, and things in between – I ultimately do think that it's a good investment and that's also why I got the parents' permission and recently bought a tablet for my 8-year-old quasi-nephew and niece (twins). Just to be sure, when I play with them, it's mostly offline.

There's another way to express my relative indifference to the kids' and teenagers' growing attachment to the virtual world. I think that if you made us or another older generation very young again, and if you placed us to a world with the technology that exists today, we would start to freely behave in a very similar way as the today's kids. So I am much more worried about the "technology-independent" trends such as the growing hypocrisy, superficial nature of knowledge, lowered expectations from the college graduates, and many related things. The young generations are not scared of the growing role of the electronic devices – and I think that they are right not to be afraid.

Organized individual life, collectives

I believe that many other changes partially influence the modified behavior of the contemporary high school students relatively to my generation. 21 classmates who meet 25 years after their high school is surely a sign of a tighter collective behavior than what you may observe with almost all the similar classes of teenagers nowadays. There are various reasons for the change and one of them is, whether we like to admit it or not, that our bond was partly engineered from outside and from above.

When we were between 5th and 8th graders, we had a highly active "pioneer organization" in our class, with a beloved supervisor and his son etc. The pioneer and the similar SSM – Socialist Youth Union which I declined to join at the high school (and that's why I have been to Chanovice for the first time now, as far as I remember) – were almost completely standardized and in some cases, they worked intensely. It looks like a good thing to have some proximity to a majority of your classmates. The bonds of the collectives (e.g. a class) aren't that emphasized these days – some of it was a part of the communist arrangement of the society whether someone admits it or not. (The contemporary political correctness oversells different and larger collectives, usually the whole mankind – the global level of collectivization is "hot" right now.) Voluntary work was a part of the vigorously promoted communist world view, too: although I think that selflessness is a virtue and hard work is a great lesson for a young person even if he or she doesn't get paid for it, I find it rather natural when today's teenagers find it "counterintuitive" when they're expected to work hard without a compensation. Fair compensations resulting from a truly consensual agreement of both sides is a part of the freedom and capitalism – and I do think that the freedom and capitalism trump communism and its philosophy including occasional forced labor.

But is it guaranteed that the teenagers are robbed of very important things when such bonds aren't working that intensely? Maybe but I am not sure. They are still creating bonds to various people – which are more likely to be further from their class than in our time. The world has shrunk and the geographic distance to the teenager's median friend has grown considerably. I think that much of this evolution is an unavoidable consequence of the greater freedom – and also the improved communication and transportation technologies that have made the world smaller.

Many of us are annoyed by many ongoing trends – the society starts to look different than what we were used to and what we sometimes imagine to be the "gold standard" – but many older people are fooling themselves when they're alarmist about most of these trends. Most of these trends will change the world (and the society) but the change of the world is something else than the collapse of the world (and the society).

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