Millennial predictions, patterns and breaking through to the personal quest for certainty?
Our brains love certainty. We crave certainty in the same way we crave food, sex and other primary survival needs, because we have a primordial need to counter the fear of exposure and vulnerability. We even use the same brain networks to deliver both rewards and messages, maximising the efficiency of the “reducing pain” and “increasing pleasure” mechanisms. Information about certainty is rewarding because we need it to devise patterns and use those patterns to make predictions. Without pattern we rely on having to process moment to moment information, which is far more exhausting than if we have patterns (and so some certainty) about what will come next. Unfortunately, certainty and identity are increasingly unhappy bed-mates.
I’m not very certain about who I am, or how to really go about answering that question. It’s hardly a novel or unique sentiment and it’s not very shocking, or actually, that interesting. But what I do find quite interesting is how, and with whom, this uncertainty is shared, and how I am able document this phenomenon and with whom I am able share it with. As I see it, there’s a kind of shared loss of faith in how we can identify-and everyone’s feeling it. A lot of people are trying to digitally articulate that feeling and that’s contributing to the growth of an already existing information overload- a kind of identity equivalent of being trapped inside a giant flashing Megabowl-arcade nightmare, with loads of other people.
As a twenty something millennial I can assure you that traditional roles, social structures and paths are dissembling before my eyes: it’s generating a loss of faith in who I thought I was and who I consider myself able to be. I don’t have the luxury of copying the model of what my parents did with their lives and applying it to mine- and I am far from being alone in this observation- it is just simply not an option. Some of this disassembly resembles the care taken by an IKEA enthusiast, armed with an allen key and all the original packaging, meticulously dismantling their FLÄRDFULL bookshelves in their living room. But really most of it resembles a much more destructive approach, like setting fire to the FLÄRDFULL unit in your back garden or chucking it in the canal like a stolen shopping trolley. I don’t even have the choice of copying my parents, taking it safe and keeping on the straight and narrow; I am actively being forced to carve out a new role for myself in the world I live in- rocketing tuition fees, housing market, zero hour contracts are all things that didn’t invade the lives of my parents the way they do mine- and it’s contributing increasingly to a loss of faith in my identity.
Living in Korea and Indonesia has taught me that you don’t have to qualify as a millennial to see similar breakdowns of tradition, and experience similar uncertainty about your identity or even how it is formed. Every generation differs from its predecessor, but it seems that this time round its different- it’s more rapid, pervasive and transnational. Right now, traditional roles and opportunities in Western society are changing because, crudely, the baby boomers spent all the monies, had all the fun and told all the lies about how they were funding it. And it isn’t just Western twenty-somethings that are facing the impact of the post-war generations.
For a long time the end of the Second World War carried a primarily Euro-American narrative for me-I knew I came after the baby boomers and I learnt at school about how the War changed European society and the new ways people and nations identified themselves- including dealing with the uncertainty of how to cooperate after extensive and unequal destruction. But the end of the War also had a strong impact on Korea and Indonesia- it saw the division of Koreas and the end of Dutch and Japanese colonialism for Indonesia. People my age across the world face the same IKEA related struggles, The War having a shared significance. It is almost impossible to summarise the numerous conversations I’ve had with Koreans and Indonesians about the impact of past generations and the fading confidence of a fixed identity- but in both countries there was a rebuilding of a nation and economic prosperity. This prosperity and the “identity rebuild” these countries underwent is certainly not conducive to any sort of certainty for the generations that came after. The context has changed so dramatically, the total destruction-followed-by-total rebuild narrative has been lost. Notions of “tradition” are losing their footing in an increasingly interconnected world. I feel like I increasingly share narratives horizontally with my transnational 20-something peers, and increasingly less vertically, within our families and more traditional understanding of community. Conceptual loss of faith in identity seems to me to be growing steadily closer to something resembling a “universal value”.
The internet has provided an incredible space for sharing. Vast amounts of information, discussion and debate don’t necessarily encourage uncertainty about who you are, but it provides an opportunity for those thoughts and feelings generated by the loss of faith to be voiced in a much wider sphere. In the same way that it’s a space indifferent to the negative or the positive, it’s a space indifferent to certainty. The creation or selection of pattern is possible- but that choice in itself can only be rooted in impermanence, given the continually expanding nature of the beast. Increased capacity for volume and space does nothing for certainty.
Additionally, there’s the problem of the way we choose (or are expected) to access this information. We can access up-to-date everything, we don’t need to wait to be connected, to find out the news from any part of the world, to check what we might have been certain about yesterday is the same as what we can be certain about today. The amount of information we are used to processing every day isn’t very normal and the way we receive it isn’t either. Most phones flash if there’s a missed call or text, an email, an update, a notification; a retweet… the list is endless. Flashes used to be reserved for emergency vehicles and warning signals because communication was urgent in that moment- a warning to act: low oil, nuclear meltdown, medical emergency. Now we accept it as a blinking reminder that there is information urgently needing to be absorbed and processed- NOW, even though that information is rarely urgent. I don’t need a warning to act on those texts from my phone provider; nobody will stop breathing if I don’t respond to your message- even if you know I’ve “seen” it. When did we start accepting this kind of urgency and overload? Why do we think it’s okay to allow our mobiles to interrupt us (even as we sleep!) in a way that socially we would find unacceptable- imagine if someone knocked on your door as much as your phone flashes to deliver a post-it note with some bit of information. In the Victorian era the postman knocked twice only to deliver a telegram (because of the kind of attention it required), and now we’ve just got Instagram i.e instant camera+ telegram. It’s so much less urgent to see what’s trending on Instagram and yet we allow it into our lives as if it was a message from far away that someone had spent significant amounts of money on because the message was too urgent for a letter. What does this behaviour do to our need for pattern and certainty? It seems inductive to flashing, peeping chaos, not the development of patterns or the solidification of identity- at least in the traditional sense. We crave information, pattern and certainty. We can access and create this in our lives but it’s much harder to be sure we want or need these little bits of our personality- the luxury of choice is a total delusion- we are overloaded and uncertain. Dealing with our collective loss of faith is harder with more choice.
Amid this chaos I humbly present the simplest form of certainty – I am here, in this moment – and I’ve captured it on my smart phone and uploaded it to Facebook.
Millennials, and the young in general, get a lot of stick for the selfie – vanity, narcissism and banality are terms pejoratively bandied about. I think that’s unfair. The obsessive documentation of the present moment is far from the Buddhist value of the present moment but I suggest that is not solely the vain pursuit of Facebook “likes” either. It lies somewhere in between, in the face of almost unparalleled uncertainty about identity we seek certainty through the selfie- look! it cries, I am here, in this moment! I am sure! In a way the content is not particularly important- how the image is composed and manipulated is another part of the identity puzzle, but each selfie shares a moment of stillness and aims to share a snippet of physical certainty about that particular present moment. The action is what’s important here. When it feels like nobody is listening to your struggle over who you are there’s instantly an audience of followers who will see what you are doing, in that moment. At least in that you, and they, can be sure. The significance and meaning of the moment is something else entirely. Someone is listening to the articulation of your present moment, even if they won’t listen to why that moment is important, or what it means in the bigger struggle for identity, at least we have some sense of certainty in that moment- a nod towards a shared sense of narrative creation. There is certainly a sense of tragedy in being reduced to capturing and sharing the present moment on a smartphone because so much else is compromised in the quest for certainty on the journey of (identity)-discovery.
If we understand the selfie to be the immediate conversion of experience (present moment) into finished product (manipulated image, digitally shared via social media) the situation is even more tragic than we previously understood- at least from a Marxist point of view. Raymond Williams articulates the notion of a Structure of Feeling in opposition to fixed social forms. It’s easiest to think of these structures as building blocks of custard.
I once saw a TV show where they proved that you could run across a large body of custard because custard particles temporarily compact and harden upon impact, and so can temporarily support the weight of a human. Williams’ theory is that any expression that can escape the established (fixed) social forms (most likely, according to him, to be seen in certain types of art) is an articulation of presence. It is the “concern with meaning and value as they are actively lived and felt…” that creates the kind of custard-tension required to build blocks outside the existing social order; a fleeting tension- enough to create a living breathing structure but not enough to solidify the experience into social forms that restrict the recognition of human cultural activity. They are, he writes, social experience in solution.
There exists for Williams two distinct social forms; the known institutions, relationships, formations and positions, and the structures of feelings, which are an expression of the present. The former is crucial in generating tension which in turn incites and exerts pressure on the existing order as well as creating distance between the old order and the new feelings. The tension doesn’t exist if your present moment just feeds back into the existing system of prevailing ideologies and world views- it has to break away. Am I separating from the prevailing ideology concerning identity? If prevailing ideology is that you can go to a good university, leave and get a good job for life, then yes. But are we losing a sense of prevailing ideology in itself? In my mind the answer is very complicated with leanings towards the “probably not” camp. But there’s something in the selfie- desperation for some certainty by documenting the present moment.
If we are reduced to this form – forced to try and articulate the present because the “fixed” forms are falling away – it presents a lot of new questions for Williams’ theory. Is there a tension in these new sorts of structure of feelings and can it drive change? What happens if we focus on obsessively documenting the present to upload it into the existing order? Where does the existing order come from? Does it stink of generations past or have we created our own tragic impermanent and uncertain form? Will we see anything through rose tinted glasses after the “Nashville” filter is gone? Will our Structures of feelings have enough content to turn into the new social fixed forms? What if our structure of feeling is dominated by the documentation of the present moment, rather than the immersive experience of the moment itself ? Have we really been reduced to documentation as a desperate bit to hold onto each moment, to have something to connect to the deep well of uncertainty within us? To show others that we might not know what we can achieve tomorrow, but at least today we had a great #cocktail with the #besties! Will our articulation of the present solidify into new social forms? Forever to be remembered as the “uncertainty generation”? What will this look like?
I couldn’t tell you, I just couldn’t be sure.[fruitful_sep]