Introducing “iGen.”

From Jean M. Twenge’s recent essay in The Atlantic:

The more I pored over yearly surveys of teen attitudes and behaviors, and the more I talked with young people like Athena, the clearer it became that theirs is a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media. I call them iGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. The Millennials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’t ever-present in their lives, at hand at all times, day and night. iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010. A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.

The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.

Twenge supplies a lot of correlated data that strongly link smartphone use to a number of generationally-distinct patterns in what she calls “iGen.” Among the more worrying data, she documents the rise of cyberbullying among young people, especially among girls. Then this:

Social-media companies are of course aware of these problems, and to one degree or another have endeavored to prevent cyberbullying. But their various motivations are, to say the least, complex. A recently leaked Facebook document indicated that the company had been touting to advertisers its ability to determine teens’ emotional state based on their on-site behavior, and even to pinpoint “moments when young people need a confidence boost.” Facebook acknowledged that the document was real, but denied that it offers “tools to target people based on their emotional state.”

At no time in human history have we possessed tools more finely-attuned to the art of manipulating the psychology of masses of people. These tools are supremely scalable. The same platforms that can target a demographic of heterogenous millions can individualize their content to reach, perhaps, a niche demographic of dozens. Taken in the context of Mark Zuckerberg’s utopian manifesto from earlier this year, the existence of the “boost” document ought to give us serious pause.

Allow me to go one step further. Scientists based in Portland, Oregon, recently succeeded in using the gene-editing program CRISPR/Cas9 to edit the DNA of embryos to eliminate the development of a genetic mutation that would cause hypertrophic cardiomyapathy. This is an incredible victory for medical science. But as I’ve said before, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. You should, too.

We have the tools to shape and reshape the human experience on a very literal level. On the genetic level, CRISPR is but the first feeble step toward technology whose power will enable us to program our own genetic makeup on scales previously imagined only in science fiction. Similarly, the algorithms of social media sites like Facebook have the potential to shape their users’ desires, feelings, and perceptions in ways that are simultaneously microscopically managed and macroscopically unpredictable. I strive to make these observations not in a spirit of alarm or histrionics but in the mindset of sober assessment. If, despite my attempts at sobriety, you feel alarmed… well, good.

“Turn water off.”

4DX falls squarely within — and furthers — this tradition. It jostles your seat, which is larger and more like something you might buy at Brookstone than your typical movie theater seat, and sends you bumping along as Vin Diesel and his Furious co-stars race through the streets of various global metropolises. When the camera tilts, the seats often tilt with it, and an early set of shots of the blue ocean waves is accompanied by a gentle rocking motion that made me a little sleepy.

Every so often, little puffs of air burst by your face to accentuate, say, gunfire or a big explosion. On your 4DX armrest, there’s an option to “turn water off,” but Fate of the Furiousis not an especially wet movie, so I did not get sprayed once. But other effects are also possible: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 director James Gunn has promised “snow and bubbles” for his film when screened in 4DX.

–Todd VanDerWerff, How can movie theaters compete with your living room? By building a better living room.

This sounds horrible. Why in the name of everything holy would I want to go to a cinema, of all places, and have to figure out how to “turn water off?” A bidet belongs in a bathroom, not movie theater. No doubt the “turn water off” option will be available exclusively on a smartphone app. I’d have to ask someone from the “smartphone section” to hack my seat for me. Ugh.

VanDerWerff gets it right at the end of his article: “There’s still something potent about sitting down, in the dark, with your loved ones, and forgetting everything but what’s onscreen. You don’t need your seat to move around for that.” When I go to Six Flags, I want a Six Flags experience. When I go to the cinema, I want a cinematic experience. Instead of asking themselves how to make going to the movies more than a moviegoing experience, theater owners should be asking themselves how to make it more of an moviegoing experience. 

Hand the kid a hacksaw

When you tell a 22-year-old to turn off the phone, don’t ruin the movie, they hear please cut off your left arm above the elbow. You can’t tell a 22-year-old to turn off their cellphone. That’s not how they live their life.

At the same time, though, we’re going to have to figure out a way to do it that doesn’t disturb today’s audiences. There’s a reason there are ads up there saying turn off your phone, because today’s moviegoer doesn’t want somebody sitting next to them texting or having their phone on.

–Adam Aron, interviewed by Brent Lang

I will never—ever—go to a cinema if I think there’s even a remote chance of sharing a theater with the “cell phone section.” Why? Read the above quote with a minor modification:

When you tell a 22-year-old to put out their cigarette, don’t ruin the movie, they hear please cut off your left arm above the elbow. You can’t tell a 22-year-old to put out their cigarette. That’s not how they live their life.

At the same time, though, we’re going to have to figure out a way to do it that doesn’t disturb today’s audiences. There’s a reason there are ads up there saying put our your cigarette, because today’s moviegoer doesn’t want somebody sitting next to them coughing or blowing smoke in their face.

How in the world to your reconcile these mutually exclusive audiences? The point is not that it’s patently ridiculous that 22-year-olds live their lives permanently attached to smartphones. (Although it is patently ridiculous. If some 22-year-old thinks giving up his phone is like being asked to cut off his arm above the elbow, I say hand the kid a hacksaw.) The point is that I, as a consumer, as a citizen, value what Matthew Crawford calls the “attentional commons,” largely for the same reason that most Americans who enjoy breathing unpolluted air value the Clean Air Act.

I can’t even imagine what novel forms of attentional pollution cinema chains and telecom advertisers will devise when they know that they have a captive audience in an environment already primed for product placement and surrounded by personalized digital devices. Nor can I imagine the novel forms of rudeness to which my fellow creatures will descend once that barn door is cracked open. If the traditional film continues to exist–one that does not incorporate interactive, smartphone-dependent elements–and it continues to be exhibited in cinema chains, those chains are going to drive away any- and everyone who still goes to the movies for the movie-going experience.

I totally understand that entertainment media evolve all the time, and at some point there will be a sea change in the moviegoing experience. Until that time, though, people like Aron should understand that people like me go to the movies to watch movies, not to dink around on our phones and be distracted by the cancerous pests who do so. Have I made my position perfectly clear?

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