Gen Z, Explained:
The Art of Living in a Digital Age
by roberta katz, sarah ogilvie, jane shaw, and linda woodhead
university of chicago press, 280 pages, $22.50
According to Egyptian myth, when the inventor Theus created the medium of writing, he told King Thamus that it would increase the memory and wisdom of his people. Thamus responded that it would do the opposite: “Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful. As for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality.”
Plato recorded this discussion between Socrates and his student Phaedrus around 370 B.C., and we’ve continued their conversation about each new medium for the last 2,392 years. In the 2022 iteration, we rip out our hair and ask ourselves: Will the digital age birth the intelligent man-gods we predicted, or the soulless man-bots we fear?
In Gen Z, Explained: The Art of Living in a Digital Age, university professors Katz, Ogilvie, Shaw, and Woodhead (hereafter KOS&W) try to understand the digital medium by studying the first generation—mine—never to know life without the internet.
Less alarmist than Socrates, KOS&W have an obvious soft spot for the digital world and its attendant beliefs. They claim, for example, that, statistically, eating a potato every day is worse for the brain than social media, despite a plethora of studies concluding that social media impairs social and emotional intelligence and increases anxiety and depression. One new longitudinal study tracked young people using social media over the course of three years, finding that each additional hour spent on social media sparked a 1 percent increase in anxiety “severity” as they measured it.
In brief, KOS&W characterize Gen Z—those born since 1995—as the most inclusive, diverse, respectful, sensitive, collaborative, and empathetic of generations. Suffering from the moral and environmental sins of their fathers, they have “much to teach” to their less-enlightened elders, who can only hope to “join them as they work together to build a better digital age future.” Between their fawning tone, lack of humor at Gen Z’s more ridiculous notions, and fixation on turning “OK Boomer” from a taunting meme into a “term of collegiality” (a goal they repeat multiple times), one has to wonder if these four women simply fear being left behind.
Their research includes 120 self-selecting interviews with college students from Stanford University, Foothill Community College in Northeastern California, and Lancaster University in the U.K. The book primarily relies on these interviews, with a supplementary internet survey of 1000 people. This is a limited sample size, but KOS&W do certainly pinpoint the trend that influences every aspect of Gen Z life, from relationships to religion to politics: identity fixation. KOS&W explain that digital identities are “fine-grained,” “intricate individual mixes of attributes, the result of careful and ongoing discovery.” They can constantly shift as Gen Zers move through life. Almost every student across all three campuses articulated searching for some kind of hyper-defined identity, and the golden rule they all follow is to always respect others’ identities. KOS&W, of course, see identity questing as a positive.
For example, Marcus is a gay Christian man, whose parents moved from China to the U.K. when he was young. Through the internet, he discovered others who shared his sexual orientation, he discovered some who shared his strong faith, he discovered many of Asian descent. All of these niche groups encouraged him to accept one part of his identity. Practicing something KOS&W call “unbundling,” he separated the individual parts of his identity. His Christian friends could not accept his sexually active gay lifestyle in which he flouted the Christian sexual ethic while also professing Christianity.
Meanwhile, his gay friends could not accept his Christian beliefs; so, he fragmented himself, remixing both “Christianity” and “gayness” to suit his particular feeling of what these should be. He eventually discovered one man who, like himself, was a gay, Christian, Chinese immigrant to the U.K., and who affirmed all of Marcus’s self-generated ideas about himself and the world. But fine-grained identities are a work of “ongoing discovery”—Marcus could still change one or all aspects of his fine-grained identity and seek a whole new group of friends to affirm his new identity in another corner of the internet.
Hyper-individualized identities like Marcus’s are only possible through social media’s global connectivity. Gen Zers spend nine hours a day on screens, and 4.5 of those on social media. Interacting only or mostly through niche communities allows for the tribal redefinition of words and customs—like redefining what Christianity teaches about homosexuality, for example. The problem emerges when people from different groups attempt to interact, only to realize they don’t share basic common assumptions like what a woman, nation, or God is.
Even KOS&W vaguely recognize this problem. They call it “conflicting values,” and explain that it encompasses nice, manageable disagreements like the tension between valuing free speech and valuing inclusivity. “Conflicting realities” might prove a more accurate epithet.
One interviewee, Lily, sums up this problem:
Another of our interviewees described her confusion about what to do about a friend who was always late to meet with her. She explained that while she of course wanted to honor and respect his unique identity, choices, and lifestyle—including his habitual tardiness—she was also frustrated by how that conflicted with her sense that he was then not respecting her identity and preferences for timeliness.
Seeking to satisfy the demands of identity idolatry, Lily has cornered herself. Her social conditioning around identity will not let her assert that tardiness is bad, but her innate rationality won’t let her forget that timeliness shows respect; she lives in a constant state of self-contradiction.
Identity fixation colors Gen Z politics, too. Being “resolutely non-hierarchical,” Gen Zers favor collectively led political movements because they are flexible enough to accommodate an array of niche identities. KOS&W cite BLM as an exemplar of Gen Z’s modular, “by the people” style. But this has its limitations. In 2015, Seattle’s BLM movement sharply divided after a group of BLM activists hijacked a Bernie Sanders campaign event, grabbing the microphone and accusing the Sanders fans of “white supremacist liberalism.” The event had to be called off, to the dismay of one Sanders fan, Nikki Stephens—the founder of the Black Lives Matter: Seattle page on Facebook. She received massive amounts of hate mail and eventually had to change the name of the page.
As Ben Collins and Ted Mak have pointed out,
Black Lives Matter—a decentralized organization with official and unofficial Facebook pages, meet-ups, and blogs throughout America and the world—is splintering internally on how to express that message, and even defining what that message truly is. . . . Who is Black Lives Matter? The answer to that question might be a small group of people who self-identify as a “radical organization.” The answer to that question might also be anyone.
BLM tried to function as a lateral, group-run collective, friendly to the subjective identities of “anyone”—only to stumble over the reality that people with different beliefs, different conceptions of reality itself, cannot come together as a functional decision-making unit.
Politically and personally, it seems my generation has become comfortable with living in contradiction. KOS&W avoid addressing this problem, but cultural critic Neil Postman’s writing on media illuminates how the digital age forms Gen Z’s apathy and identity fixation. For Postman, every new technology has an unpredictable “ideological bias” that completely changes human environment and experience. Clocks, for example, first invented by monks in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to keep rigid schedules for prayer and worship, created ex nihilo the first concepts of standardization, mechanization, and the 9-5 work week, laying the foundations for capitalism. So transformed is our collective mind by the clock’s “ideology,” that if every clock in the world suddenly vanished, we would still think in terms of hours, minutes, and seconds. Through the constant repetition of this cycle with each new piece of tech, Postman explains in his book Technopoly that we are not creating technology so much as technology is creating us—without our consent or even awareness.
Postman died in 2003, before Facebook came on the scene in 2004, Twitter in 2006, and the iPhone in 2007. He might have concluded that social media has an unforeseen ideological bias of its own: the lateralization of both reason and authority. It widens and shallows reasoning, which in turn places all ideas and all people on an equal plane. This process spreads truth so thin that my generation has no choice but to turn inward.
Social media lateralizes reason by habituating minds to move horizontally across pieces of information rather than deeply examining them vertically. Gen Zers typically take no more than 1.7 seconds to look at a piece of content before scrolling. The average Gen Zer spends only 15 minutes per day reading. More than half instead elect to consume news and information through social media, and of those, 63 percent prefer video to print because it’s easier to process. Naturally, the forms of information that thrive in this environment are data, statistics, numbers—anything you can read and absorb in a second, regardless of its accuracy. It buttresses scientism and devalues abstract, philosophical thinking. Finally, social media undermines rationalism through its very sociality. Because social media “engagement” has instant psychological pay-offs, it can easily subordinate thinking to feeling. As social media threatens to succeed print as the primary transmitter of information and ideas, it brings with it a new ideological bias: Down with linear syllogistic thought and up with instant gratification, emotionalism, and statistical thinking. And Gen Z is its star student. One interviewee sums up his experience:
“If I have an idea and I want to develop it like one, two, three steps away, there exists a point at which . . . I’ll be like, ‘eh, I don’t feel like it—let’s turn back.’”
Without reason, all opinions become equal, and social media’s structure further enforces egalitarianism. Features like Twitter’s bright blue “Tweet” button or Facebook’s post prompt “What’s on your mind?” suggests that every thought that enters your mind is worth saying, that you have a unique truth to express. The tyrannical majority extolls a new class of youthful celebrities who appeal to the qualities social media rewards: emotion, immediacy, shallow thought. These newly elected rulers reflect back the empty message that formed them: You make your own truth. In this mimetic cycle, social media becomes a prosaic horizon of conflicting “personal” truths. As interviewee Benoit tells KOS&W: “Truth and facts . . . no longer carry the meaning they used to. . . . It’s ‘does that person belong to my group?’”
Habituated to the idea that reality doesn’t have to be rational and left with nothing transcendent to gaze up at together, Gen Z can only turn inward for answers. Hence personal identity becomes the source and summit of life—it alone is certain because you define the terms. Yet it is still unstable (because those terms constantly shift throughout the process of self-discovery) and inauthentic (because individuals usually only mimic other identities they find on social media). In a survey, KOS&W found that 39 percent of Gen Zers in the U.S. rely on their own judgment and 34 percent rely on their feelings and intuitions; only 19 percent turn to religion and 5 percent turn to history and tradition for guidance. KOS&W may be right that this is not a self-absorbed generation. Perhaps Gen Zers gaze at their navels because looking up at the diaspora of contradicting information nauseates—especially since they were never taught to sift through it rationally. Carefully curated identities provide struggling Gen Zers a fixed point to grasp, and also an answer to give a world constantly soliciting its opinion. One Gen Zer interviewee, Zach, explained where truth comes from:
“I just kind of have to find it for myself, whether it’s within me in some kind of human nature of social interaction thing, or if it’s just truly nothing and I have to create it from the depths of my own being or something.”
Gen Z is aware of the limitations of internet life. While only 55 percent of Gen Zers say social media generally impacts them positively, 48 percent say that it causes anxiety and depression (up from 41 percent in 2017). One of KOS&W’s interviewees laments that “romantic relationships have become meaningless. . . . Courtship used to be very important. Now it’s just match, match, no match. . .” Another comments that after spending a typical evening of swiping left and right, “at some point I realize, ‘Oh God, I have become who I hate.’”
Gen Z’s greatest asset is its perception that human nature yearns for some unidentified, missing thing that lies outside the warm, digital glow it was born into. Statements like these cropped up in almost every interview:
“We are so oversaturated by interacting with social media. . . . I think it’s just generated this craving to have deeper connections with people.”
“People should question everything you read on Facebook, question everything you see. Even question why—why do I like this social media so much?”
The digital renaissance has drastically changed our environment and the way we think about reality, as the invention of the written word and the clock did before it. It is not going away. But I remain optimistic that my generation, Z, can discover a better way to live and use this technology because, at root, its obsession with identity is a perverted but genuine pursuit of truth in a world that obscures it. The potential for spreading truth by digital means is vast, and by limiting our and our children’s screen time, hopefully we can curb the bad while maintaining the good of the digital revolution.
Elizabeth Bachmann is a junior fellow at First Things.
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Photo by Nben54 via Creative Commons. Image cropped.