The end of history?

Last night I mentioned to some colleagues here in Rio that I blog every day. One person at the table, who is in his 20s, looked up my blog on his phone, and then seemed unhappy that two days ago my blog post was very short. Apparently I was not playing by some rule he had formed in his head.

What I think he missed was that the very brevity of that post signaled its importance. To me the death of Robert Evans is enormously significant from a cultural perspective. My hope was that readers would look him up and find out why I had honored his passing.

Yet earlier in the conversation, this same person, who does professional research in VR, drew a blank when I mentioned the Star Trek Holodeck. Someone of his generation, he explained patiently, wouldn’t know about such an out of date cultural reference.

To me the two moments seem related. My extremely short post on Robert Evans was a pointed invitation to do research into an historically important figure in popular culture, a key to understanding how we get to where we are in 2019.

And of course the Star Trek Holodeck was central to the origin of our current interest in Virtual Reality. It was, in a very important sense, one of the tentpole moments in the cultural evolution of VR.

All of which makes me wonder — are the young people in Gen Z completely uninterested in history? If so, how can they hope to understand where they are going, without understanding the path to how we all got here?

Are we entering a time in history where young people will stop paying attention to Shakespeare because he’s just some old dead guy? Will Jane Austen, Amadeus Mozart and Mary Shelley come be considered irrelevant?

Are we becoming culturally stupid?

4 Responses to “The end of history?”

  1. I gave a talk at a major university to a group of comp sci graduate students and mentioned Doug Engelbart and Alan Kay. None of the students recognized their names. The students were immersed in the ideas that Doug and Alan had made real, but they were very much like the fish that was unable to discover water. The sad part of being unaware of history is that they see their roles as simply extending existing paradigms, where the creators of our current reality intentionally started with a blank page. If all they had done was extend the world that they lived in we would have very fine card readers indeed. We are in need of redefinition of the nature of the human/computer/human interface. Not understanding the historical context dooms the research practitioner to improving the card reader. I think every graduate program should have one semester of the history of our field.

  2. I think an alternative hypothesis might be : is that person an outlier and not representative of his generation? My experience with young people is the complete opposite ; a startling awareness of cultural references across a sprawling range of time and location coupled with bottomless curiosity about the world.

  3. admin says:

    There is a third hypothesis: He may just have been in an ornery and argumentative mood that evening.

    I have noticed that, as a general trend, younger people I encounter these days, while extremely engaged, tend to be much more attuned to current cultural references than to past cultural references.

    This could be a symptom the sheer volume of new cultural information that is continually bombarding them, at a much higher rate than what previous generations needed to contend with.

  4. thibault says:

    I don’t think so, it seems every generation think the one below his or her is somehow becoming stupidier or less inclined to older cultural references, but it just take time to form new interests and discover / select / digest all the informations that the previous century – and those before it – has seen emerged. I myself began to really dig into the history of cinema in my early twenties, and litterature is so broad than one can really explore part on its own term.

    I agree though that the holodeck, and sci-fi tropes in general, is part of a popular culture that should be easily transfered to younger generation, especially those interested in these matters.

    The memeification of popular culture through the internet make a lot of (especially young) people share the sames references, maybe without much of a reflection of their origin (as for all popculture). But it seems easier now than ever to broaden a topic of its own a few click and type aways.

    As for one, I’m still delighted when I figured some acquaintance of mine has references I would not have think of, through discussion or browsing through their library, as not the whole character of a person is exposed in most of our superficial relationships.

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