Thursday, May 06, 2004

Long-Winded Ramblings About Age and Technology

I am 32 years old. In a couple of months, I'll be 33. A third of a century. Yikes.

I find myself being reminded of my age more and more often these days. I look into a mirror and see something that looks disconcertingly like my mother's face looking back. Well, no, that's not quite accurate: my mother's hair is still mostly dark, and my own is already visibly flecked with silver. (Thanks a lot, Dad genes!) A few days ago, a friend I went to college with called me up and reminded me that the 10th anniversary of our graduation is coming up very shortly. It caught me flat-footed, even though it really shouldn't have. I mean, it's not like I hadn't looked at a calendar in the past ten years. Still...

And, yeah, yeah, I know that I'm not yet old. 32, or, heck, even 33, is hardly doddering senescence. But it's increasingly being brought home to me that I'm no longer exactly young, either.

You know what else brings it home to me? The internet. The internet, and the progress of technology. As I surf around blogs and livejournals (especially LJs, as they generally seem to serve a much younger demographic), I'm brought up short every time I see someone off-handedly remark that they got their first e-mail address in the sixth grade, or that they send text messages to their friends in study hall, or that they have fond memories of long chats via instant messenger after school.

When I was seven years old, I made the profound observation that most adults seemed not to understand children at all, and I concluded that that was because they'd entirely forgotten what it was like to be one. I promised myself I'd never make that mistake, and, although it's grown harder and harder as the memories of childhood have faded, I've at least tried to keep that promise. But I suddenly see a problem with that: even if I remember perfectly, what I remember is what it was like to be a kid two decades ago. How completely different is it now? Have I perhaps discovered the other reason adults never seem to understand children, which is that we all regard our own childhoods as normative and are incapable of imagining that the experience is ever different for anybody else?

I honestly can't imagine what it would be like growing up today, in the Age of the Internet. What would it have been like for me if we'd had the kind of instant community that the WWW provides back in my junior high school days? Because, of course, I was your typical lonely, isolated geek. I knew that there were people out there who were interested in the things I was interested in -- science fiction, science, books -- but they certainly didn't go to my school, and I could never actually interact with them. I went to a few Star Trek conventions, and whatever other geek-attracting events I could get to, and those were wonderful, but in the long run they only increased the sense of isolation. Because I was too shy and socially awkward to easily form connections in person, and because in an hour or a weekend it was all over, anyway, and I was back to feeling all alone in my geeky teenage angst. Pen pals helped, and I had a couple, but a letter once a month isn't much in the way of social interaction.

Now, of course, two clicks of the mouse and I'm in happy communication with people all over the world who are actually interested in talking to me about the stuff nobody ever wanted to talk to me about when I was thirteen. So, yeah, I can't help but wonder just how different it is for all the nerdy, socially awkward thirteen-year-olds living now. I find that I'm actually deeply jealous of them for having, at least potentially, what I didn't have. Would adolescence have been less painful for me if I could have posted on a bulletin board somewhere and found people (other than my long-suffering family) to discuss the latest Star Trek movie with? Would I have grown up a healthier, better-adjusted person if I could have found some SF-reader my own age to trade e-mails with? I can't help but suspect that I would have.

On the other hand, if the web had existed back then, I almost certainly would have posted my horrible, horrible teenage Star Trek fan poetry to the internet for the entire world to see, and that would have just been far too awful a thing to contemplate. Especially if it still existed in an archival cache somewhere now. *shudder* Yeah, I hate to say it, but years of teenage angst might very well have been a small enough price to pay...

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