Every year since 1998, Tom McBride and Ron Nief, both academic staff at Beloit College in Wisconsin, produce the Mindset list, a depiction of the world view of that year's incoming 18-year-old freshmen. Particularly in its earliest years, it often got circulated around the internet by Baby Boomers pointing and giggling at "kids today". The "generation gap" between us and our parents centered on the Vietnam war and social change; today's gap is more like culture shock.
McBride's and Nief's original idea seems to have been to help their fellow professors communicate effectively with the year's incoming 18-year-old freshmen, avoiding too-dated references. I understand the thinking: a couple of professor friends lamented in 1985 that their students no longer laughed at Firesign Theater references. By now, The Mindset List has grown up into a mini-industry.
The first list, Class of 2002 (kids born in 1988), listed this: "Their lifetime has always included AIDS". They had also always had remote controls and answering machines. Now, that dates them: today's 18-year-olds have always had voice mail and have no idea what it means to "program a VCR".
I was reminded of the Mindset list last week when asked to speak about "Big data, the cloud, and what we can see of the future" to a meeting of eNACSO, the group of NGOs interested in child online safety. It was a tolerant invitation: they and I are usually on the opposite sides of arguments about web blocking and filtering, but they have become interested in children's privacy (which, I said, means everyone's privacy) and the data trade. I figured protecting kids required some understanding of how they think.
And so some items (paraphrased) from the Class of 2018 - that is, last September's freshman class, born in 1996:
- Hong Kong has always been part of China.
- Cloning has always been fact.
- There has always been "TV" designed to be watched exclusively on the web.
- One route to pregnancy has always been through frozen eggs.
- They and their friends gather on Skype, not in the local park.
- They have never had to hide their dirty magazines under the bed.
And, from the authors' Financial 2018 list:
- To them, Yellow Pages have never been yellow or contained in a book.
My estimate is that it was the Class of 2016 for whom the internet had always been a commercial medium with advertising. (The acceptable use policy barring commercial traffic was lifted in 1994, so that's the year the first big internet ecommerce sites were founded and when the first ads appeared.
I was thinking that talking about children's safety online requires some understanding of their world view. Everyone has some new medium that's a bugaboo: my parents thought comic books rotted the brain and banned them but didn't care how much television I watched; if I had a kid now I suppose I'd be fretting about their iPad use. When my friends' 30-something kids were young, I was so appalled by the children's TV they watched that I bought a VCR to show them old Bugs Bunny cartoons (which my mother called "so violent") and Marx Brothers movies. The show that set me off is, of course, now a classic. The internet is today's scary, new medium.
So for eNACSO (and later for ORG Brighton) I tried to imagine the future mindset of today's five-year-olds. One milestone will have already been passed, for the Class of 2020 the World Trade Center will never have existed in their lifetime. So, for the Class of 2028:
- "They don't know what getting lost is.
- They have never "surfed the internet".
- These things are "normal": surveillance, monitoring, an unforgiving database infrastructure that remembers minor infractions and makes them self-fulfilling prophecies, public shaming.
- Algorithms have always made major decisions about human lives.
Also on my list: fear, which became a topic of conversation at Brighton. Every generation has its fears: the 1980s were the Cold War; Vietnam was a very real threat for 1960s American teens, IRA bombs for 1970s Londoners. Today's kids are growing up in a culture that presents monitoring and surveillance as their protection from being blown up. Many other entries on that list - cashlessness (traceable electronic money instead of anonymous currency), school databases, and, especially, public shaming could create a generation that embraces caution and conformity. Or who knows: the economy could recover, their parents could be the ones who, like our Depression-era parents, are the cautious ones, and Class of 2028 could be the rebels. Timing is hard.
Finally, some possibilities for the Class of 2038 - the babies born in 2020:
- "Big data? What's that?"
- It's always been possible to 3D print physical objects, food, and human organs.
- Humans have always had robot companions, pets, servants, and cars.
- Software and electronics have always been able to change the physical world.
And a possibility that I hope we all act to avoid:
- Everyone has always had to pay individually for each access to copyrighted works
Whatever the coming generations' mindset turns out to be, it will reflect the decisions we make now.
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.