- If your social media and communication experiences are all stuck in one generational cohort, then what you are seeing is perhaps not quite the whole picture at all.
Over the past weekend, I had the privilege of learning something about communication technology in the lives of our elders.
Normally, we tend to think of communication tools like the phone as a neutral instrument, a mere technology that allows us to transmit and receive other people’s words.
But in reality, the emergence of each communication technology in history has had profound effects on social relations, from the invention of mass printing in the 1450s to the telegraph in the 1850s to, of course, the internet and smartphone in more recent times.
The arrival of each communication technology has also been greeted by a combination of optimism and skepticism. In the past, the optimism was almost always for religious reasons. Whether it was the Gutenberg Bible or Samuel Morse’s first words transmitted through the telegraph (“What hath God wrought”), communication was seen as a useful instrument in the spreading of Christianity. In more recent times, the optimism has been expressed in more secular terms, with communication being heralded as a purveyor of economic development, social progress, and democracy.
Concerns about communication, of course, have also come and gone, with the latest iteration being focused largely on the issue of disinformation and “fake news,” and how these are changing the landscape of politics around the world.
WhatsApp Between Three Generations?
It is on this last point that I would like to share a poignant observation made by an Indian American friend (as a parent, and also as a child of Indian elders) recently. This parent was distraught about the lack of connection, sometimes even empathy, between their American-born children, and their elderly grandparents who come all the way from India. While generation “gaps” are something we have perhaps always heard about, what struck me about this story was the very central role that a seemingly generational difference in communication philosophy, or perhaps just etiquette, was playing.
The biggest complaint the American grand-children had about their Indian grand-parents, apparently, was about their faith in WhatsApp messages. Even the most preposterous or outrageous messages somehow seemed to escape their elders’ scrutiny.
Perhaps this is well-intentioned, at least some of the time. But, as another grand-mother visiting from India recently told me, elders of her generation find themselves becoming more and more sensitive to unexpected comments and gestures than they were before. There is, she said, an overwhelming sense of grief about not being “useful” to the world.
And of course, as studies by generational researchers like Jean Twenge show us, there is also a great amount of anxiety and concern among the younger generations who are growing up in the shadow of the internet, iPhone and social media today.
Is there any kind of a duty that the generation in between, say, those in their forties or fifties, might have towards bridging this divide?
I believe that a useful and essential starting point for all of us would be to exercise what I call “vertical” sociological perspective, in other words, to pay attention to where each of us is located in time, as opposed to “horizontal” categories alone (the labels we commonly use in our discourse about identity such as race, class, gender, sexuality etc.).
Vertical Sociology and Intergenerational Empathy
By paying attention to time, we notice first of all that our “life-stage” has a huge bearing on how we experience life, starting from the very mundane level of the physical body, to more complex realities like economic, social, and mental health. We can notice that something that appears very real to us, might well change after a few years as we grow older. As youngsters proud of being able to tell hoaxes from real news on the phone, we might feel terrible our elders don’t know better, but in time, we may notice things about their abilities we cannot quite do so now. We can cultivate what I like to call “inter-generational empathy.”
Twenge’s new book Generations offers a rich, data-based study of different generational cohorts in America today starting from the “Silents” (born between 1925-1945) to “Gen Z”(born between 1995-2012). Through a painstaking study of multiple survey research databases and many examples from pop culture, Twenge paints a picture of multi-generational cultural flows that is very helpful for understanding the “vertical” dimension of our lives. The childhood a “Gen Z” person experienced is quite different from the childhood that their parents, say, a “Gen X” person (born between 1965-1979) had. Similarly, in the Indian or Indian American context, we can notice, if we pay attention, the fact that there are different generational experiences of childhood, adulthood, and elderhood for each cohort.
For young Gen Z and Gen Alpha (born after 2013) Indian American or Indian children, some of whom I interact with often when I lecture in Indian schools and colleges, there is no lived memory of the Emergency, or the terrorist attacks of the 1990s and 2000s, and only a textbook or pop culture account of the period. For elders, the fear of curfews, arrests, or worse, being killed while out buying vegetables, was a greater reality and memory. No wonder many elders seem to ignore much dubiousness in WhatsApp forwards as long as it assures them Nehru was to blame and Modi-ji is the Messiah!
This a real-life, lived context that many youngsters fail to comprehend, let alone imagine. Conversely, elders find it hard to recognize how easily youngsters can access information to events and arguments that they feel supports their views, and cannot figure out how to speak across the divide of cultural generational divide. They feel an urge to teach, as perhaps elders have often done since the dawn of time, but see only blank walls erected by boredom, busy-ness, or some other reason among the young.
Those of us who are Gen X or Millennials (born between 1980-1994) from India are among the first generations to witness the aging of our parents’ generation far away from us. There is no moral judgment to be made but just a sociological observation. Many of us have accepted that when we age, we will most likely not be living with our children and expecting them to care for us either. These are changes that have happened all very recently in history. We account for them as best as we can, and we try to adjust.
Intrusive and Pervasive Technology
But in between this process, we have to pay attention to the fact that communication technologies have become an intrusive and pervasive part of our lives. In the 1990s and 2000s, the coming of satellite TV and screeching TV serials made one kind of communication gap between generations a difficult one. Elders had horrible TV shows on, loudly, while their children or grandchildren found the noise hard to bear. Now, with social media and phones, there are two different life-words staring down at each other even more starkly.
Recently, following the death of my uncle, a large group of cousins created a WhatsApp group. Without fail, every morning, the three or four elders, all in their 70s and 80s, wish each other and share photos of flowers. As you age alone, your phone and WhatsApp status embodies the loves and joys of a lifetime of relationships. But as you face youth, uncertainty of adulthood, and a world your elders don’t seem to understand, your phone and WhatsApp seem like a whacky nuisance at least as far as the elders go.
What is the way forward? Just three words, like the dance of three generations and generational worlds at play between parents, grandparents, grandchildren: Empathy, patience, kindness.
It is easy for a youngster to see through fake news which could easily fool an elder. But remember, if you are a youth or child today, you too are being targeted by very sophisticated propaganda systems through television, pop culture, and of course, social media algorithms, every day and every moment. I know that many schools and colleges offer media literacy training and try to teach you how to spot fake news, tell advertising from news, and so on. But there is a great resource for you in the memories, lives and experiences of your elders too.
Next time taatha, daadi or paati send you something bizarre on WhatsApp, use the moment to talk about something nice instead. We are all being colonized by our technology, and our only escape, if I may be so bold, is our ability to share different generational pools of memory, which, ultimately, is reality. If your social media and communication experiences are all stuck in one generational cohort, then what you are seeing is perhaps not quite the whole picture at all!
Vamsee Juluri is a Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco. His latest book is “The Firekeepers of Jwalapuram,” part 2 of a trilogy titled “The Kishkindha Chronicles,” … “because the world was a better place when the monkeys ran the world.”