Few generational markers are more salient than attitudes toward technology. From anecdotes of i-savvy toddlers to the stereotype of the perpetually texting teen, younger generations distinguish themselves from their predecessors in part by their uninhibited embrace of new technologies.
It’s therefore unsurprising that many among the socalled Millennial Generation have a great deal of faith in the potential of technology to address the most significant challenges of our time. From volatile markets to pandemics and climate change, young people tend to believe that “there’s an app for that.” Or, at least, there will be.
Such optimism is a departure from how previous generations view scientific progress. For the baby boomers and generation X, enthusiasm towards moon landings and microprocessors is tempered by apprehension about atomic bombs, superbugs and CFCs that burn holes in the ozone layer. Despite its myriad achievements, twentieth-century science also yielded existential threats that have no parallel in human history, thus leaving many decidedly undecided about whether science is more culprit or cure.
The claim that older generations approach scientific advances with more unease than their younger counterparts is far from groundbreaking. Part of the gulf may even have biological origins. Developmental psychologists attribute the facility younger people have with new technologies to a cognitive schema that is more malleable than those of adults. Whereas adults will typically modify experience or information to fit with their pre-existing beliefs about the world, youth are more prone to alter their beliefs to reflect new experiences or information.
They are dreamers, adaptable to change and open to possibility.The result is not just a difference in how different generations engage with technology, but also in their perceptions of the role technology plays in society.
In the preceding issue of Policy Options, Neil Seeman and Adalsteinn D. Brown effectively refute Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone thesis, arguing that emerging technologies contribute to the fostering of a renewed sense of community among younger generations. Millennials translate some of this into bullishness about the prospects for technology in the twenty-first century. A common assumption among many of my students is that science will inevitably supply technological solutions to our most pressing concerns. Of these students, most feel confident that said solutions will be discovered within their lifetime. I am often bemused at the resilience of this line of thinking even in the face of rather shaky evidence.
For all our advances, diseases such as cancer, malaria and HIV have not been beaten. Technology and science have yet to find a way to eradicate famine or poverty, and it could be argued that advances in science are fuelling armed conflict, not ending it. Drone strikes may be more precise than traditional air power but, like atomic arsenals, they have not made war obsolete or any less tragic.
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The common retort of youth to these cynical overtures about science’s mixed record on big problems is to point to the transformative power of the digital media. This tends to be the default fallback position for millennial technophiles and with good reason. The digital revolution is toppling industries and old hierarchies, and there are compelling arguments to be made about the contributions of digital media —and social media in particular — to civic engagement, transparency, dialogue and democracy. I have made similar arguments.
But the logic espoused by many Millennials falters on its functionalist presuppositions about scientific progress. Complex problems rarely have a single solution, and the development of any innovation is largely conditioned by structural incentives. The US went to the moon because of the Cold War, just as the Internet emerged from the strategic imperatives of the military-industrial complex. One reason we have not seen alternative energy technologies overtake our carbon economy is because we have collectively been unwilling to commit to the massive political, economic and social changes that would be required to do so. Sometimes science fails due to lack of political will.
This applies to the social media revolution as well. Although social media is now leveraged by particular communities to organize, subvert and resist entrenched power, it did not emerge organically in response to democratic deficits. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube exist — in their present form at least — because venture capital sought out opportunities for commercialization, not to facilitate the tearing down of dictatorships.
Without the political will to, say, keep global temperatures within a limited band of warming, science can only do so much. Technological developments will largely track the economic calculus of industry. There will be no shortage of social media start-ups, but without a change in our political values, it is unlikely that we will see technological solutions to our biggest problems. Some of that optimism of youth that is now channelled into a faith in technology must also be directed into creating the political climate to solve the 21st-century challenges. The belief in science and technology for creating a better world can be realized, but only if idle optimism is supplanted by concrete action in the society outside the lab.