Month: December 2018

Book review: Zero Hour for Generation X

Initially, Michael Hennessy’s book Zero Hour for Generation X says it’s about a coming showdown between generations. It’s time for Generation X, he says, to show lazy, shallow, tech-obsessed millennials what it means to make sacrifices and fight for what matters. As Generation X occupies the prime middle age years, it’s time for us to claim our moment setting the national agenda or else we’ll get usurped by those younger and less capable than we are.

The book does follow through on this premise. There is a section contrasting the economic woes of Generation X and millennials, in which Generation X is seen to have it worse off, and there is a short chapter laying out the now predictable argument that millennials have been so coddled by a culture of self esteem and safety that they now inhabit an alternate reality of safe spaces and social justice where free speech and self reliance are impossible. Only some of this is convincing. 

The book has plenty of bile for Baby Boomers, too. Though they presided over the end of the Cold War and the unprecedented economic boom of the 1990s, a formative time for Generation X, Hennessy argues that they suffer from the same self-importance as millennials. This has led them to keep too many of their economic gains for themselves and to fail to lay a real foundation for long-term prosperity. But worst of all, says Hennessy,

… has been their flaccid acquiesce to the still-incoming wowy-zowy technological utopia dominated by Internet connectivity and artificial intelligence, in the process of putting untold numbers of artists, businesses, trades, and traditions on the road to extinction. This betrayal is at the heart of the economic and social riddle that Gen Xers will have to help unwind.

ZAnd it’s here that Hennessy gets to the strongest arguments in the book, and the only ones that ever lend any real support to the somewhat spurious concepts of generations. In the postwar era, the most powerful shared experience people born around the same time can have is the effect of new technology, and Generation X will be the last American generation to know from experience what life was like before the Internet co-opted every part of it. And when I say every part I’m not exaggerating. 

Boredom, privacy, silence, uninterrupted concentration and direct experience, and the exhilaration of discovering something or someone not because an AI shoved it into your feed, but because chance and sensibility led you to it–all these are being given up in exchange for whatever else the Internet may have to offer. 

Hennessy is the Op-Ed editor of The Wall Street Journal and Zero Hour for Generation X is a conservative book. I don’t agree with his criticism of a universal basic income or of the supposed vapidness of social justice culture, but I do agree with his assessment that it is a shift in the main medium by which we experience life that is changing its essential character and that too little attention is being paid to this fact.

Americans have not become dumber or less virtuous since the late 1990s. But we have changed the way we experience life. Where once we saw one another face to face, now we spend most of our time peering at screens.

Hennessy is a conservative, but he is no lover of Donald Trump and the thoughtless social media culture which helped bring him to power. Like Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard, Hennessy is an educated, cosmopolitan conservative who feels alienated by the Republican party and the America it represents, and Zero Hour‘s call for a more mindful future is one that thoughtful people on the left and the right can share. 

In the end, as with other technological critics, Hennessy has little to say other than to turn away from the new devices and spend more time in the world. Put down your phones, he says, and set a better example for the millennials.

From the commonplace book: Daniel Bell on why you have no time

From the The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society:

When productivity is low, time is relatively cheap. When productivity is high, time becomes relatively expensive. In short, economic growth entails a general increase in the scarcity of time.

This is from a later section in Bell’s great book, in a section called “The New Scarcities.” Before the abundance of mass production, it was material goods that were scarce. Now that most people have what they need (and more) materially, it is abstract things that become scarce, specifically for Bell information, coordination, and time.

While experiences to be had and objects to be enjoyed multiply, time remains finite. While we now have hundreds of restaurants where we can eat dinner, we will only have enough time and appetite for one dinner per day. And furthermore the cost of choosing where to have it and the anxiety that we might be having it somewhere better or with someone better are additional costs which were not felt as acutely as before.

We are time poor because we are rich in so much else.

How do you solve problems?

When I have to solve a problem, I need silence, time, and no interruptions. For most of my life I assumed this was how everybody did it, and noisy and more collaborative approaches struck me as just invasive or dumb. Thanks to my sister, who forced me to take a psychological test that defined my “workplace personality,” I learned that my way of solving problems is just one of many effective approaches.

What I take for interruptions are what others think of asking for help. What I take for needless time-wasting in chatty meetings others think of as necessary collaboration. I still despise either of those approaches, but I do know they can be valuable and that others think of them as work.

So, when life presents you with a challenge, what’s your approach? Retreat or collaboration? What drives you nuts about the way your colleagues approach problems?

My Memory of George H. W. Bush

I sang in the Yale Whiffenpoofs, an a cappella group that’s been around for over a century and was invited more than once to sing for Yale alum George H. W. Bush. My group met him during the administration of his son. We were singing at the Yale Club in New York and he was in the front row.

It’s traditional for every set the group sings to end with The Whiffenpoof Song, and all alums get the honor of being invited up.

We made a point of saying that all honorary Whiffs were welcome to come up and sing too, which caught the president’s attention. He hesitated a bit, then got up and joined us. He hadn’t sang while at Yale and he’d been made an honorary member by some past group while in he was in the White House.

But he joined us anyway. He knew all the words to the song and put his arms over the shoulders of the Whiff on his right and left during the chorus, as tradition demands. And afterward he shook each of our hands and seemed to genuinely appreciated the honor, as perhaps only a Yalie can.

I didn’t agree with his policies and wouldn’t have voted for him if I’d been able back in the 1990s. But he had a grace, charm, and gravitas which filled the room. We could use his touch in the world of presidential politics today.

 

For Your Long Weekend Read: Deciphering the Library of Herculaneum

Here’s what may be the mother of all long-term data storage problems.

When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., it sealed the extensive library of a wealthy Roman under many feet of ash and earth. Scrolls that wouldn’t have otherwise survived two thousand years were preserved intact and dug up in the 1750s. Since then, they’ve pinballed around Europe, exchanged as gifts between kings and emperors and been locked away in rarefied institutions. They might contain lost works by some of the superstars of antiquity, like Sappho and Aristotle.

Trouble is, nobody can read them because they are lumps of blackened carbon that crumble to dust when you try to unroll them. A few have been deciphered but the majority remain rolled up.

Now, a group of scholars and physicists are trying to use equipment capable of peering into the scrolls without unrolling them, detecting details at the molecular level. A grain of sand left by a reader in between two layers, the faint raising from page-level of dried ink, or the groove of a stylus are all detectable.

Even though this piece came out in The New Yorker three years ago, it’s news to me. It’s the kind of wonder that doesn’t often make it to the headlines, but should.