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Why Your Kids Know More About the Future Than You Do


Then there were the milder reports from this teen frontier: From sensory and narrative recombinations (simultaneous chat, television, and phone) to lame and ineffectual parental controls ("My friend is so addicted that when her parents took away her AOL privileges, her friends had to give her screen names") to new social sensitivities ("I mean, I might not like the person in real life, but, like, they're really great to chat with") to a novel perspective for Manhattan kids ("Like, everybody's from Ohio") to the real attraction ("You can just relax, be yourself, like, be in your own world").

And then there were the teachers' facial expressions -- in this mirror you really see the shock of the new. Could they express any more vividly their distaste and incomprehension? As much, I suppose, as you can count on teens acting like teens, you can expect teachers to act like teachers. What scowls!

All media, or all mass media, are teen media. If you can't appeal to teens, you don't have a mass-media business model. You need teen obsessiveness, the market power of teen compulsion. To get at it, you have to offer something forbidden; some taboo has to get broken: It's evident in the lovely, sensuous, compelling voyeurism of films, or the crossing of racial lines with rock, or the sloth of television, or porn on home video. Now the Internet comes along, letting you circumvent one of the strictest taboos of all: It lets you talk to strangers. What's more, it gives you technology that lets you custom-select a stranger (or the stranger to select you). These aren't random, off-the-rack strangers. Hell, no. These are strangers who share your darkest secrets, your most nagging itches, your most violent inclinations. If you're a Quake fan, or a Hitler aficionado, or a pipe-bomb enthusiast, you could have found Eric Harris and sent him an instant message: "Hey, what's up, man? Got any A.H. birthday plans?"

Strangers in cyberspace have all the advantages of imaginary friends -- you can imbue them with any characteristics you want to imbue them with -- without the overriding disadvantage that they don't exist. Online, your imaginary friend really talks back. The realness, or potential realness, is part of the compulsion here: Whenever you want, you can take this unreal world and make it real. It is sci-fi in its dimensions. You have this fantasy; you've developed it, plotted it, played it out. Now you have the power to keep it a fantasy -- or make it real. At this moment, at malls across the country, at Bennigan's and Quality Inns, there are men and women -- and boys and girls -- imaginary friends, anxiously waiting for each other.

But, in fact, the desire to make it real is probably not the main desire. Cybering -- "Do you cyber?" "Want to cyber?" -- is a re-creation of the age of sexual experimentation and freedom, of the famous seventies grail, the zipless fuck (except that in cyberspace, there are no health fears or weight issues).

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