In my last post, I linked to a Wired article which purports to be about a Ghibli-inspired D&D 5th edition setting, but which is really about the bigger issue of 'wholesomeness' and the need which young people nowadays seem to feel for media that is, for want of a better word, 'nicer' than what they are used to.
There was a time when I would have dismissed this is the whining of softies, and accused youngsters of wanting to be special snowflakes. But in recent years I have increasingly come around to the position that life simply is psychologically harder for young people nowadays than for previous generations (those born after, say, the 1950s), for all that it is materially more secure. I therefore have a lot of sympathy for the idea that we could probably do with a more wholesome media landscape in general than the one to which we have become accustomed.
What, though, do I mean by life being psychologically harder? Really, there are three linked phenomena at work.
The first is I think obvious: smartphones. I am glad that there appears to be a head of steam now building towards more robust regulation of these devices, and that there is increasingly more recognition of what should have been evident all along - namely that the effect of smartphone use on the developing brain is nothing short of disastrous. But I still think we are at the very foothills of our understanding of the deleterious consequences of widespread smartphone use. My day job brings me into contact with hundreds of young people every year, and I increasingly see what I have witnessed over the past decade as something like a slow-motion apocalypse. People who are eighteen years old in 2023 are almost a different species to people who were eighteen years old in 2012, and they bear the countenance of people who have been mentally scarred by the mere process of growing up. It's not their fault: they have been subjected to what can only really be thought of as relentless psychological assault, driven by a technology which is designed to be addictive in a way that puts crack cocaine to shame (all the while going through what everyone knows to already be the toughest period of life - the teenage years). It is desperately sad, and I think in ten or twenty years' time parents will have a lot of apologising to do to their children for allowing all of this sorrow to be caused under their watch. (I direct your attention in particular to this recent article for a very interesting and lucid analysis of a central aspect of the phenomenon, which is the problem of loneliness and involuntary celibacy.)
The second is also evident to most thoughtful people, and it is the fact that the world has simply become a lot less social, and a lot 'colder', over the past thirty or so years. Technology has obviously facilitated this. But whatever the cause, the texture of life has fundamentally and drastically altered. One should not look back on the past with those famous rose-tinted glasses, but there were many ways in which life was simply more communal, more supportive, and more forgiving than it is now. I grew up in humble circumstances in one of the poorest regions of the UK, but there were lots of compensatory factors that made life cheerful - kids playing in the street, neighbours looking out for each other and lending each other money where needed, community groups and clubs, religious meetings, pubs and newsagents on almost every street corner, big family gatherings. The importance of this dense web of sociality has radically diminished in my lifetime, and for young people in particular things have become as a consequence just a little bit, well, shit. They have fewer opportunities to develop, fewer opportunities to make friends, fewer opportunities to meet romantic partners in a natural way, and fewer opportunities to mix with people from different generations. All of this adds up to a feeling of being largely alone against a cold and unfriendly world (with only fake online sociality to compensate).
The third is more diffuse, but I think perhaps the most important of all, and it is the spiritual consequence of feeling as thought there is not a great deal of purpose to being alive. Most young people nowadays leads lives of comfort that previous generations could not have imagined. And vast swathes of them are able to postpone the transition to adulthood almost indefinitely with university, postgraduate study, extended periods of living at home. This is in one sense an astonishing privilege, but it is also a curse. Part of what makes life feel as though it is worth living is the sense that what one does matters. One gets this sense, very keenly, when one has to lead an independent life as a productive contributor to society - paying the bills, raising a family, doing a good job at work. One does not get it from studying something vaguely interesting for year after year (unless one is very academically gifted) or from living at home with Mum and Dad and temping. In short, young people now grow up in an atmosphere almost of enforced listlessness. And this saps the soul in a way that people of my generation (who were generally expected to stand on their own two feet from the age of eighteen) cannot quite imagine.
I do not wish to misinterpreted: life was materially very hard for my family when I was a kid, and is still materially very hard for very many people even in purportedly wealthy societies like Britain's. Life is materially much harder still in the developing world. And life was also undoubtedly psychologically harder in many ways for certain categories of people in previous generations - soldiers who had fought in war, gay people who were relentlessly bullied, and so on. But I'm not sure that previous generations ever had to deal with this strange malaise that has set itself like a pall over the lives of our current youth, and which seems almost purposively designed to direct their energies only to the most soul-crushing aspects of life: consumerism, light entertainment, pornography, the self.
What is to be done about this is beyond my pay grade. But facilitating people getting together with their mates and enjoying a wholesome pastime together to my eye seems like one of the most important contributions that anybody can make by way of a remedy or palliative. It at least might be a bit of an antidote to the unrelenting sordidness that the internet has become. And in that sense, I wish Obojima the very best of luck.