Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami recently wrote in the New Yorker, “All we can do is breathe the air of the period we live, carry with us the special burdens of our time, and grow up within those confines. That’s just how things are.”
His words set me thinking about today’s adolescents, the first full-fledged generation born and raised in a digital world, and how his words applied with a pertinent severity to them. Their lives are so locked into the world technology created for them, and I use the phrase “locked into” advisedly. In many ways, technology has built a cage around them—one from which they have yet to find an escape.
By now, those of us of earlier generations have become well aware of Gen Zers’ compulsive allegiance to cellphones, their reliance on text messages rather than the telephone as a means of communication, their abandonment of TV and film and literature in favor of YouTube. These are, one might say, the outer walls of their prison. But there are inner walls, too, within which they are even further confined.
To backtrack a bit, one might argue that peer influence began its ascendancy after WWII, with the baby boomer generation. And the value of peer influence has grown steadily ever since, culminating—to my way of thinking—with the present generation of adolescents. Technology has boosted the value of peer influence to the max. Video games, dating apps, and Instagram have defined and limited the way—to return to Murakami’s more general observation of mankind—they see the world and themselves. At one point in time, peer pressure came from one’s group of friends. Now it comes 24/7 from every corner of the globe.
My focus here, though, is specifically on social interactions (or lack thereof): the codes of behavior by which adolescents live, codes reinforced by the technology they use. Because I teach 18-year-olds, I have the opportunity to witness this on a daily basis. They are continuously conscious of what others, friends and enemies alike, are posting about them on the web. They seem to rise and fall on the number of likes they receive for any given effort. In short, they’ve succumbed to a new, multidimensional kind of peer-engineered conformity.
In a world where dating has been replaced by hook-ups, where courtship has been replaced by swiping left or right, where sex often comes before any meaningful contact has been established between two people, it’s necessary for them to understand that this wasn’t always the case, nor does it have to be the case. One of my students recently told me she wouldn’t dare take the initiative of talking to a boy at a party for fear he would assume she was interested in hooking up with him. “Everything,” she said, “especially the mating process, happens at the speed of light. Girls have to resign themselves to that, or risk being left out in the cold.”
How do we set them free from that cage of a mind-set?
Certainly there is no easy solution, but in writing my latest novel, If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues, a coming-of-age novel set in 1960, I began to see the relevance of historical fiction in a new light—in particular, how such fiction allows adolescent readers a chance to see the landscape of love and romance in a way that offers an alternative to what they now experience. Whether the period is the Middle Ages, the Renaissance or Victorian era, or, as in If Anyone Asks, the 1960s, an alternative is presented; at the very least, it provides a basis for discussion.
Lectures and sermons have little effect. They’ve heard their parents’ and teachers’ dictums and warnings too often for them to give them much credence. Another kind of delivery method is needed. I submit that reading about a different time period—absorbing its different attitudes and perceptions, and the different ways historical characters go about their search for love—is one such way of breaking down the walls of the digital cage. The message is delivered as entertainment, the medicine dissolved in apple sauce, in the form of a story. And we all know the power of a vivid and compelling story, the effects of which can last for days or weeks or even years.
Philip Cioffari’s latest novel is 'If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues' (Livingston, Feb. 2020). He is a professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey.