‘Generations’ an actually viable concept

Who knew?

| Managing Editor

With a degree in the liberal arts, you get a lot out of the Sunday funnies. This last Sunday, on the front page of the Cincinnati Enquirer’s comics, Jeremy in “Zits” shows his parents a highly technical presentation he put together for a high school class. How much time did he spend doing it? “All together? About 20 minutes.” His parents’ response, and the punchline of the strip: “Stop the Internet. I want to get off,” his mom says with a dazed look. Responds his dad, “I fell off a while back.”

“Blondie,” a slightly less up-with-the-times comic strip, took on the same subject Sunday by showing Dagwood’s coworkers extolling the benefits of new technology. Says a co-carpooler on the way back from work, “Did you know they have caller ID that flashes on your TV screen? Meanwhile, I get streaming videos on my cell phone!”

The fact is that Scott/Borgman (“Zits”) and Young (“Blondie”) decided to dedicate their weekly full-color, longer-than-usual strip to a depiction of behind-the-times characters watching in desperation as technology advances on their everyday lives. One can visualize the longtime reader of “Blondie,” as he cuts out the strip for his son and puts it at his son’s place at the table. The father sees in it an artistic expression of the technological frustration that he’s been dealing with increasingly for 20-plus years now and that his son seems to have somehow mastered.

The son comes down to breakfast, and he reads the comic. He gets it, more or less: Here’s this perplexed character who’s worried about the functionality of his microwave in the midst of a variety of newfangled gadgets that do lots of things that they weren’t really originally built to do. But instead of identifying with the perplexed protagonist, the son sees him as a caricature of his own father. His goofy, frantic response to technological change becomes a surprisingly apt characterization of the bizarre response of the older generation.

There is a fundamental gap here between the father and the son. It’s a gap that’s much talked about these days, especially in terms of the workplace, in books like “Bridging the Generation Gap” and “When Generations Collide.” We’re Generation Y, the Millenials, the Net Generation. They’re the Baby Boomers.

I think the most astute of us often consider these monikers irresponsible overgeneralizations, because for the most part they are. But it seems to me that, when you really look at it, there is a real, serious gap in communication, a place where language, or concepts, or views just don’t match up. It’s the place where older adults have other people “sign them up” for Facebook. It’s the place where they “boot up” their computers. No, we might respond. You just turn them on.

A similar thing happens in a recent article in The New York Times Book Review that describes the disparity in sex scenes between a raunchy earlier generation of authors represented by Philip Roth and John Updike and contemporary, much more sexually mild writers like David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers. In it, Katie Roiphe describes a couple of characteristic scenes in “Infinite Jest” where males’ worried anticipation of the sexual act is more potent than the act itself. “Rather than an interest in conquest or consummation,” Roiphe concludes, “there is an obsessive fascination with trepidation, and with a convoluted, postfeminist second-guessing.”

Right. Except it is not a fascination with such attitudes that these books display, but a possession of them. Throughout the article, Roiphe speaks as if the new more self-conscious approach to sex in literature were some kind of hip fashion, a “cool” attitude toward sex. Her account is something like Borges explaining a planet where beings experience life in terms of temporal, rather than spatial, unity—the planet’s language has no nouns. Roiphe sees, intellectually, what is going on in contemporary novels’ sex scenes. But, like Borges, she doesn’t have the language or generational assumptions to really get inside it.

Wallace, on the other hand, says of Updike’s penis-with-a-thesaurus effect, “I’m not especially offended by this attitude; I mostly just don’t get it.” Forget that he was born six years before Roiphe. Instead, focus on the fundamental gap in communication: Roiphe and Wallace, our avatars for the Boomers and the Millenials, really fundamentally have no way to “get” one another.