I’m not sure if it’s just a product of my age (45 and counting), but I’m definitely not convinced we, as a society, are heading in the right direction. Now I know every generation at a certain stage feels like the younger generation is doing it all wrong, that the social experiment has been corrupted and that society itself is heading straight for the crapper. Through a review of historical literature, experts have found that every generation believes there is a deterioration of social values, which is particularly acute on the cusp of new centuries and particularly millennia (think of the social anxiety around Y2K).
It was only recently I discovered that I wasn’t immune from this feeling, when I started getting overwhelmed with a deep nostalgia for the past. It’s not that surprising, considering I had just digitized over one hundred Super-8 home movies stretching back to 1963 and covering many incredible years of life and travel with my family. It took six months to edit the footage to music. What was clear is that we were almost always playing outside. We didn’t seem overly self-aware of how we appeared, though my sisters and I seemed to enjoy hamming it up for the camera.
My nostalgia is for the expansive moments free of the constraints of time (perhaps that’s just a product of being young with few to no responsibilities). My parents would let us roam the neighbourhood after school and after dinner on our own. No parental supervision meant we could follow our whims, instead of being boxed in by the current parenting regime of dance classes, hockey practice, and math lessons. And, of course, in the pre-digital age, we weren’t tethered by mobile phones or concerned with how many virtual friends we had on Facebook. When I travelled to Central America in 1989, I had a chance to escape the familiar and find something new, with lots of space to think and reflect. I would fill notebooks with experiences, emotional states, and ideas, and if I wanted to reach out to my friends and family, I’d have to write a letter and stick a stamp on it. The effort meant there was intention in my actions.
Of course, I’m not nostalgic about many things from my younger years, namely the Vietnam War (or any war, for that matter), the nuclear arms race, Ronald Reagan, the Rwandan genocide, or my long list of crappy McJobs (those jobs, of course, made me appreciate the value of a dollar). I grew up in Toronto, which was a provincial kind of town up until the 1980s, where big ideas weren’t celebrated, gay people were regularly taken down to Cherry Beach and beaten by the cops, and the city moved at the pace of a snail (which wasn’t a bad thing for a little kid). But I think Toronto really came into its own in the 90s. The society moved outdoors into public spaces, where free cultural events like Caribana, Word on the Street, and Afrofest proliferated. Even cafes found a home on our sidewalks. Finally, we seemed to find a real sense of identity and social cohesion and a deep pride for our multi-cultural social experiment…Then, somewhere in the mid-2000s, Toronto got a little too big, grew a little too fast, and perhaps even the proliferation of mobile technology began to impact how we related to one another. Things seemed to get a little meaner and more cynical.
Now I’m not saying technology doesn’t have its place. But my issue with our tech obsession is that it actually rewires the brain and can really stifle our imagination and even our ability to connect meaningfully with other human beings, which can have a larger societal impact. My theory for the coming generation is that the socially literate shall inherit the earth.
Just last week, my son sat and happily stared out our apartment window at the passing people and cars for half an hour. I joined him, but it took everything in my power not to browse the internet on my smart phone. Why would I rather surf the net then be present with my son? In a word, addiction.
As the Buddhists would say, the only time you can live is in the present. So maybe it’s time for me to be less nostalgic and more present.
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