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The Next Generation Gap: The Rise Of The…

The Next Generation Gap: The Rise Of The Digitals And The Ruin Of…

by Kem Luther

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Disclosure: Kem Luther sent me a free copy of his book to review based on, I suppose, my interest in the area (having reviewed a number of books dealing with evolution, technology, or the combination).

Luther's premise certainly tickled my fancy: not so much that we're just getting over a great generational gap, but that we're about to undergo another one. Not having thought about it much I confess to having been reasonably convinced that I was the right side of the sixties - the same side as my children - and that the Web 2.0 generation, technologically as revolutionary as it may be, is really just the next extension of the revolution that Elvis - or someone of that generation - originally wrought between my parents and me.

Luther would have me waken from my complacent slumber: having displaced the "moderns" of the postwar nuclear, pre-flower-power generation, we "post-moderns" - more about that label later - are the wrong side of a new revolution that's already well and truly under way. Indeed, this is just the latest turn of a well established cycle.

To support it Luther has constructed an elaborate and engaging hypothesis about "meta-generational" cycles, which he supports by a lengthy disquisition from recent North American history. He proposes a cycle of what he calls "signature generations" which follow a fairly tightly described six-stage life-cycle. In a broad sense, what Luther proposes is intuitively coherent: a generation emerges during the tail end of the moribund generation as younger members of the community who haven't enjoyed its benefits question the now settled order of things; that stage is succeeded by outright rebellion and initial failure; the new generation then retreats into a less visible exile and regroups; it emerges from that exile into a slowly flowering utopia of positive action, precipitated by a "fatal crack" in the prevailing order: outright failure of that old order, often characterised by an unsuccessful war, leads to a wider reprogramming through which the new order settles and, in time begins to ossify, leading finally into an autumnal synthesis and decline to the the point where, to analogise Animal Farm, the pigs have replaced the farmers, whilst a new generation which hasn't enjoyed the benefits of the existing one question the now settled order of things foments, and the cycle is set off again.

In general terms this is plausible and well stated. It closely resembles of two other notorious hypotheses, to neither of which Luther expressly refers: in literary theory, the Jungian "monomyth" (see for example, Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories or Joseph Campbell's celebrated The Hero with a Thousand Faces) - each of which casts pretty much all fiction as a variation on that sort of cycle, and in scientific theory Thomas Kuhn's brilliant The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which described the emergence, establishment and eventual degeneration of prevailing scientific orthodoxies in strikingly similar terms. It is that work which bequeathed the World the expression "paradigm" and lent the postmodernist world much of its credible heft. It's a pity Luther didn't more directly reference these works, for I think they both would have contextualised and lent weight to his programme, particularly insofar as he purports to address Postmodernism (he doesn't, really).

That said, I do think he's overdone it. Luther spends many pages mapping his theory onto his own potted version of American 20th century history, and later in the book, technological development, by way of "proof" of its close fit to the facts. The exercise isn't terribly persuasive: it's a truism of social science that one can always select facts to fit ones purposes and ignore those that don't - in fact, that's how science tends to work, according to Kuhn - and in places Luther's attempts to do that with his own theory feel a bit forced: For example, his argument is that identifiable technologies and modes of transport have "cradled" successive "signature generations" and that they have alternated between "ganged" technologies - one-to-many, like traditional broadcast radio and mass transit - in one generation, and "unganged" technologies - many to many, like the internet and the automobile, in the next. But his selection of the technologies, and particularly the transportation modes accompanying each generation seems arbitrary: why the Moderns (1920-1965) are associated with the automobile but the Post-Moderns (1965-present) are associated with the passenger airline isn't made clear.

This isn't to refuse Luther's theory wholesale, but to suggest he is probably over-reaching with it. My sense is the picture of a whole generation acting in step is implausible, but micro-revolutions of the sort Luther describes are happening - or at any rate can be understood as happening - all over the place, just as they do in science.

As mentioned, despite its title the book doesn't really have much to do with, or say about, Postmodernism. The "Post-moderns" is Luther's label for what used to be called Generation Y, and Luther believes "the metaphysical crusade waged by Leotard and the other postmodernist theorists (e.g. Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault) seemed to wane in the 1990s". I'm not sure I'd agree - I'd throw the more permanent intellectual fixtures of Kuhn, Richard Rorty and others which retain much of their force, in with the Postmodern movement and claim it to be still in rude health - but that's more or less all Luther has to say about it.

The book is thus a little uneven - the histories do seem oddly weighted and patchy in coverage (another reviewer has pointed out the lack of any mention of email in the technological history discussion) - I dare say a second edition would benefit from a stoutly challenging editor (and possibly a different title: in the UK "Next" is a mid-market fashion retailer not unlike the Gap, and when it first arrived I mistook "The Next Generation Gap" for a history of mass market casual closing!), but in general Luther writes well and engagingly, has something interesting to say and I'm certainly pleased I took the author up on his offer to send me the book. ( )
  ElectricRay | Nov 9, 2009 |
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