On "Zoomers" and Generations

Thu 30 November 2023 by R.L. Dane

One thing I've noticed as someone who has lived in *gulp* six decades is that we Americans have a thing for generations. Well, in broad terms, looking at life generationally is absolutely not new, nor uniquely American. But naming generations just might be. Several European FediFriends have expressed to me how foreign and bewildering they find the American propensity to name generations (e.g., GenX, Millennials, GenZ/Zoomers, etc).

I am not a historian, but I surmise that a lot of this is a result of post-WWII American prosperity, and marketing. The "Baby Boomers" were such an unusual population bulge that marketing to that generation became very lucrative. When the Boomers were getting into music as teenagers, you had the explosion of early Rock music in the 50s. When they were old enough to drive and needed cars, the auto makers were having a great time. When they were old enough to buy houses (back when the average person could buy a house), the housing sector did well. And now that the Boomers are entering their geriatric years, retirement homes and healthcare companies are marketing to them hard. I know that previous generations had names ("The Great Generation," "The Lost Generation"), so I'm not sure exactly when this predilection for generation naming became so widespread. I know that in England (up until at least the 20th century), it was the norm to name time periods after the monarch (Elizabethan, Jacobean,... Victorian, Edwardian), but not the generations of the populace.

Regarding generations, I've noticed a trend starting in my early adulthood that has carried forth to this very day (and echos back to ancient times): the propensity for older adults to question, judge, and even mock the generation coming up "beneath" them.

When I was a young GenXer, we were the "clueless, listless generation" (as if the Baby Boomers didn't spend a decade chilling out on pot and rock music, but anyway!). The very name Generation X hearkens back to the colloquial/marketing term "Brand X," meaning "A poor copy of the original, generic."

Then, in my 30s, I watched the Millennials come up, and they were labeled similarly to us: irresponsible, "hipsters," "They can't buy houses because they're wasting money on avocado toast" (a really egregious lie covering up the runaway inflation of housing and the collapse of labor autonomy in the post-Regan era). A common refrain I saw during that decade which has reached fever pitch in the past few years is the shtick of mocking, belittling, and making fun of others' sincerely-held convictions. Millennials were "weird," "hard to understand," and "suffered" from significantly different moral beliefs compared to their parents (supposedly).

It is with zero pride that I must confess that I was one of those standoffish, judgy GenXers (although not as bad as some of the Boomers I saw — though that is no excuse). A decade later as the "Zoomers" started coming of age, I remembered my mistakes from the last go-around. I did my best to remain quiet on the subject, not quick to stereotype or mock GenZ. Instead, I just observed.

Admittedly, I'm not around a lot of young people, but I have had the opportunity to interact with a few senior Zoomers over the internet, and overall, my reaction has been very positive. They're not the embodiment of the supposed stereotypes of their generation, and many of them have the self-awareness to see the negative aspects of the things that (supposedly) define their generation, and distance themselves from it.

There is one troubling aspect of GenZ which I believe I can see fairly clearly, and one where many (but thankfully not all) seem to fail recognize the problem:
The citizens of this generation (GenZ, but by extension, most everyone alive today) are no longer "digital natives."

Generically speaking, a "digital native" is someone who grew up in the Information Age, and therefore, Zoomers are Digital Natives by definition.

But I beg to differ.
To me, a digital native is not just someone who grew up during the information age, and is "data fluent," but someone who possesses "digital agency."
That is the crux of my argument. Zoomers, and by extension, most people alive today lack Digital Agency. They are consumers of data, not shapers of it. Now, we're* getting into the weeds a little here, because creative types ("content producers" is the more common, cringey term) are definitely producers of data. But that's not what I'm talking about. To me, a Data Shaper is someone who has authority over the digital domain s/he lives in. They do not merely use tools to create, but (to use a now quite cliché analogy) wield the data like Neo in The Matrix: they maintain control over their lives and are not as vulnerable to the "agents" of mass-surveillance and mass-manipulation by corporate social media.

So, what makes for a true "Digital Native," or a "Data Shaper?" How do you go from being "Miiiiisterr Annnnderssonnnn" to Neo? This brings us* to another modern adage which I find meaningful:

Hard times make for strong people.
Strong people make for good times.
Good times make for weak people.
Weak people make for hard times.

I must recognize I'm skating onto thin ice, and encroaching upon "elitist/gatekeeping" territory here, but it must needs be said: Difficult-to-use technology creates (a small number of) digital natives. Easy-to-use technology creates (many) digital consumers. But fortunately, that is not an absolute, and I believe there is truly a happy medium of technology that can be both easy to learn and use, and empowering, rather than restricting and controlling.

* Yes, Dr. Brewer, I know you told me not to use "the royal We." But to me, I'm going on a journey with my readers. So it stays.

But why does a challenging technical system create "Data Shaper?"

Wellll, Come with me to 1977. *POOF!*

It's 1977, and let's say you're 10 years old. Your dad takes you to the electronics store with him, and you excitedly help him carry the brand new and shiny Apple ][, TRS-80, or Commodore PET 2001 to the car. You bring it home and help your dad set it up on the small table in the kitchen. You look at each other, cross your fingers, plug in the beast, and flip the switch: A happy chirping beep is emitted from the enormous metallic spectacle before you, and within a second, some green text staring back at you:


"Now what, dad?"
Your dad reaches into the bottom of the box and pulls out a spiral-bound book, "Well, read this! Let me know when you're ready to program my accounting system, heh.*"
Your dad goes to help in the kitchen, and your glance flits back and forth between the tome on the desk and the inscrutable digital zen koans on the screen. Resistant to more extracurricular reading, you leap into battle with the beast:


You lean back into the wicker chair, bested by a soulless metal beast. You will regroup for battle tomorrow with your ally, THE MANUAL. Right now, your mom is calling you over for dinner.

* Yes, kids really did help their parents write accounting systems in BASIC. I'm taking that part of the story from an interview I watched a few years back.

Ok, silly story, but makes an important point about digital agency. I can divide the history of home computing into four eras:

  1. The Dark Age - ~1700-1970 - A "computer" is either a job title, or a humongous electricity-gobbling machine in a university or research lab somewhere. The concept of a "home computer" is unthinkable.
  2. The Homebrew Age - ~1970-1976 - You can buy a computer, but it's either a glorified calculator or video terminal, or you're going to be doing a LOT of soldering. And praying.
  3. The Home Micro Age - 1977-(~1984) - You buy a computer, then a tape drive, and if you're lucky, a disk drive and printer. If you need educational software, YOU WRITE IT. If you need accounting software, YOU WRITE IT. If you want games, YOU WRITE THEM, or possibly type one in in BASIC from a magazine full of program listings (not fun, let me tell you!).
    You buy the hardware, you make the software.
  4. The Age of Consumerism - ~1984-today - Computers are commodities. Software is a commodity. Computers are for entertainment, education, and work. Until the mid-late 80s, your computer is still booting into a BASIC interpreter, but the very first thing you do is type in a command to run some pre-written program from disk or tape, such as a game or word processor. Programming is now serious business, bringing in bank. Few people are interested in how their machines work. Starting in the mid-80s, most computers no longer boot directly into programming environments (chiefly BASIC) stored in ROM, but either into a Disk Operating System (DOS) or graphical interface. In either case, the interface you're presented is for running pre-made software, not programming.
    Programming as a common hobby for most computer users dies out in the mid-80s, and programming goes from being a thriving cottage industry to a stiflingly corporate enterprise by the 1990s.

And from that day until today, users of computing devices have steadily lost control and agency over their own digital lives, to the degree now that most Zoomers don't even realize there was a choice to begin with.

That is a tragedy.