At Christmas a few years ago we gave my son a Star Trek phaser and communicator. They were impressive replica toys complete with all the features and details from the original series. He was initially very excited about it, but an interesting thing happened.
Once all the wrapping was cleaned up and the Christmas high descended into the Christmas hangover he disappeared with his new phone. It was nothing special, a flip-phone that came free with our family plan, but it was his constant companion. Near as I can tell the phaser was never touched again after Christmas dinner.
One of the finest technical accomplishments of the imaginary 23rd century pales in comparison to a 21st century give-away. With a few exceptions, the gadgets imagined by the writers of Star Trek are embarrassingly inadequate in comparison to cheap ordinary consumer toys we take for granted. In just four decades we’ve outrun the farthest limits of a prior generation’s technological imagination.
Let’s face it. Captain Kirk’s communicator is a useless piece of crap. You can’t tweet on it. It doesn’t take pictures. You can’t stream music on it or use it to find the nearest Starbucks. It won’t even send a text message.
While the original Star Trek was still on the air, Alvin Toeffler was writing Future Shock. He speculated that a dawning era of permanently accelerating technological advancement would strain human society and personal sanity in ways we could hardly imagine.
Toeffler’s vision has proven remarkably accurate, but he failed to anticipate one important aspect of this transition. The ‘Future Shock’ phenomenon he described would, in a sense, end. It was an experience unique to those who still remembered the old world.
While older Americans rattle apart under the rising pressure of global competition, relentless anachronism and disintegrating social norms, a younger generation shrugs. They are fine.
You can’t miss what you never knew. Americans under 30 have no memory of permanence, stability, privacy, or boredom. They have grown into adulthood as technological natives. The only “shock” they experience comes from power outages.
A recent AT&T commercial spotlights this phenomenon. A couple of twelve year-olds watch younger kids enjoying AT&T cable TV. They muse about the difficulties of their youth, when your set top box could only record two shows at a time and only replay them in certain rooms. The kids they are observing (just three or four years younger) could not possibly relate to the hardships of their childhoods.
We may be experiencing a generation gap larger and more meaningful than the one that rocked our culture in the ‘60’s. For the first time in decades, young people are maturing in a world that bears virtually no resemblance to their parent’s experience. The gap is starkly visible in politics and religion.
The generation at the peak of their power and influence remains deeply marked by religious and political norms that are increasingly irrelevant to Americans under 30. Older voters on the left and right all look more conservative than their younger counterparts.
Where older voters value tradition, younger voters crave authenticity. Politics for older voters is still dictated by race, conservative sexual and religious norms, and a suspicion of government, values that are largely meaningless to younger voters. Today’s young are the most irreligious, post-racial, socially liberal generation we have ever raised.
Anyone who is expecting these kids to mellow and drift right as they age is kidding themselves. This gap is not a universal phenomenon. Contrary to popular myth, younger voters are not always more liberal than their elders. Reagan won massive majorities among the young and voters under thirty remained a solid Republican block until the mid-90’s. Many of those Reagan-era youth, your writer included, have grown disenchanted with the GOP as the paranoid panic of the Future Shock generation has driven the party into reactionary delirium.
Adapting to a world that renders science fiction quaint is a serious challenge for conservatives. Unfortunately, these are times that demand an intelligent, adaptive conservatism more than ever. Credible conservatism could prove to be a vital break, preserving critical institutions and values that might otherwise be cast aside in the headlong chase for efficiency and money.
Conservatives need not immolate themselves in a futile attempt to halt change. Instead they could be working to preserve some of the most critical (and portable) values of an older era, allowing us to carry forward traditional emphasis on family, patriotism, and duty in an era with little room for non-commercial values.
Authoritarian campaigns to dictate personal choices will not accomplish these goals. Today’s conservative agenda merely reinforces to younger voters that conservatives have nothing to offer the world beyond their bottomless drive to crush other people’s fun and block solutions to problems. Remaining relevant will require ingenuity and humility. Those are not traditional conservative strengths.
My kid still has those Star Trek toys. He never played with them, but he stored them. Meanwhile that dumb phone is long gone and forgotten; replaced by the new, new thing. The key to conservatism in the age of Future Shock is preventing essential institutions from being destroyed in the race toward novelty. We don’t have to dictate that everybody goes to church or gets married. We just have to make sure that some space remains for our traditions to survive. With a little care, the real value will weather the storm.