Are Millennials Doomed to Repeat History?

What happens to culture when an entire generation can't be bothered with the past?

HEY, YOU GUYS? It’s not “free reign”; it’s “free rein.” As in, you give your horse free rein to go where he will. What the hell does “free reign” even mean, anyway?

You don’t care; what’s my problem? It’s just a figure of speech. Here’s how Smit Patel, a college junior (ooh, a college junior), explained it to my generation in a recent blog post:

You are blaming millennials for not having the right skills when they graduate. But no one is focusing on the root cause, i.e. the colleges and professors who are looking in the rearview mirror trying to teach us the future.

Because, you know, how could anything in the rearview mirror possibly matter?

The culmination of all this navel-gazing is Jelly, a new “social search engine” launched in January by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. Say you’re walking along and spot a flower and don’t know what kind it is. Jelly lets you take a photo of it and send that photo out to everybody in your social network, with the question “What’s this?” If they don’t know, they can forward your question to their social networks. As Jelly’s website explains, “Maybe your friend, or even your friend’s friend doesn’t have the answer. However, your friend’s friend’s friend just might.” Or maybe she doesn’t have the answer, but she has an answer. Might be right. Who knows? Does it matter? Jelly’s squishy! Jelly’s easy! Jelly’s fun!

Benjamin Bratton, a visual arts professor at the University of California at San Diego, recently presented a TED talk on the idiocy of TED talks. It’s pretty scathing; he describes Kony2012 as “a campy video explaining genocide to the cast of Glee.” His big complaint is that the TED format is reductionary—that it relies on oversimplification and what he calls “middlebrow megachurch infotainment” instead of true intellectual inquiry:

If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). … Instead of dumbing down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded. … More Copernicus, less Tony Robbins.

Oh, amen!

But I don’t see that happening in the age of cat videos. Not when it’s easier to crowd-source disinformation, toss the past on the dung heap, and speed up baseball so we can all get home sooner and play our own games.

First appeared in the March, 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.