Divisive monsters of social media threaten the better world our children want to create
As a younger, single man I remember taking a carload of my nephews and nieces to the cinema to see the original Jurassic Park. In the course of the film I was treated to a graphic example of how children and adults view the world differently.
The story is set in a theme park on a fictional island owned by multimillionaire businessman John Hammond, who had hired a team of genetic scientists to genetically re-engineer and re-create dinosaurs.
According to the storyline, bad guys cause the electric power on the island to fail, neutralising the security and leaving a group of visitors and Hammond’s grandchildren at the mercy of these huge and vicious creatures.
In the course of the movie an unfortunate man takes refuge in a portable toilet. A rampaging, carnivorous tyrannosaurus rex comes upon the flimsy structure, smashes it open and gobbles down the poor man as he sits on the loo. I was horrified by this but the children screamed with laughter thinking it was hilarious.
In another scene a group of the survivors were perched high up on a tree admiring a herd of long-necked herbivores grazing happily on a plain below. One of the giant creatures approached the tree and was eating its way up through the leaves when it came face to face with the humans. Their scent caused it to sneeze on them, and while I thought this was hilarious, my young nephews and nieces were disgusted and horrified.
There has always been a generation gap in the way the world is experienced. Priorities and preoccupations vary according to all age-groups. One group’s version of entertainment is another’s nightmare.
Among teenagers and young adults, the loss of summer entertainment in the form of cancelled music festivals and gigs this year has been one of the major social costs associated with the Covid pandemic. In previous years, like many parents, my list of summer tasks included collecting exhausted youngsters from these events and I would always marvel at how they managed to stay sane in the midst of the mud and the debris.
Hopefully that will be as close to the experience of trench warfare they are ever likely to get.
Driving them away from these latter-day Woodstocks they’d fill the car with saturated clothes and superlatives describing the event: ‘best ever’ ‘brilliant craic’, ‘superb’. Adjectives like ‘horrific’ would come to mind for me.
Moving into the late teens and 20s, communication with the next generation involves less rolling of the eyes at Dad’s dinosaur moments and more direct challenging of accepted wisdom. During almost every family conversation I find my mind being stretched, my horizon lifted and my attitudes challenged in a combination of information, admonition and mischievous entrapment.
While I like to regard myself as an open, reasonably civilised modern man, I am constantly surprised at the ingrained and subconscious nature of some of my prejudices and how my youngsters jolt me out of them. When it comes to racism, sexual orientation, gender issues, gender fluidity and climate change, they are constantly hauling me out of the confined reality that moulded my generation and opening me up
Until the social media giants’ power is checked they will stalk the earth like re-incarnations of Jurassic Park’s tyrannosaurus rex to a world view that is far more spacious and benign.
Listening to them, I have great hopes for the kind of world they will create and I’m tempted to bask in the glow of their possibilities. But, when I look around at what’s happening on the global stage I fear for them, and for all of us.
The emerging reality is far from benign. From the vantage point of unregulated social media platforms, the resurgence of narrow, divisive and supremacist forces is threatening the very notion of liberal democracy.
The era of the strongman leader has made an unwelcome return in the US, Russia, Turkey, China, India and closer to home in Poland and Hungary. Even in London a reclusive strongman has taken up residence in Boris Johnson’s basement.
I am afraid for the next generation that we could be could be heading back towards the vicious chaos of a Jurassic Park ironically, a journey expedited by technology giants who believe themselves to be the drivers of global progress.
The CEOs of the big four of these recently came before the US Congress in an antitrust hearing where they fended off questions about their monopolising and anti-competitive practices. These monster companies have facilitated the coarsening of public discourse and give worldwide exposure to exclusion, phobia and hate.
Until their power is checked they will stalk the earth like re-incarnations of the tyrannosaurus rex, and there will be no hiding place, not even in the loo.
The resurgence of narrow, divisive and supremacist forces is threatening the very notion of liberal democracy