The Skynet Funding Bill is passed. The system goes on-line August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.
Character, some Dead White Male once said, is what you do when nobody’s watching. That short sentence explains pretty much everything about the weird affect — half cringing mouse, half junior varsity kommissar — of the upcoming generations. For them, somebody’s always watching.
The Pale Penis People focused so obsessively on “character development” in their schooling because communications were so slow in their world. A 19 year old kid fresh out of Eton might find himself in command of a regiment somewhere on the Northwest Frontier, where, as the only authority figure for 300 miles, he’d have to deal with native rebellions, blood feuds, famines… Without a very flexible character operating within a very rigid set of norms, he might be overwhelmed. Which mattered, because if the subaltern on the spot blew it, by the time the captain 300 miles away finally heard about it, he might have another Mutiny on his hands.
This system resulted in some real absurdities — officers in the mess at Quetta, eating roast beef and drinking wine and passing out from heat prostration in full wool dress uniforms — but the absurdities were a natural outgrowth of those necessary character constraints. A subaltern who wouldn’t “play up, and play the game!” when “The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead” would succumb to the thousand and one lesser temptations he faced every day out there on the frontier. He wouldn’t have the moral fortitude to lead, which in a very real sense was the only thing keeping a nation of 500 million, plus the scum of the British jails under his command, from putting his head on a spike.
They could be real bastards, those public school boys, and Modernity got them in the end, but the same Modernity that killed them wouldn’t have been possible without them.
The reason they’re so hard for modern people to understand is their — for lack of a better term — historical sense. Even the 19 year old kids — if you know anything about teenagers, especially the 19 year old kids — were acutely conscious of their importance in the grand scheme of things. As a young frontier nation full of self-avowed rugged individualists, we Americans have nothing close to the Old School Tie. Even if you’ve been to the Ivy League, even if you’re one of those insufferable pricks who considers himself a “real Harvard man,” you’ve got nothing on Old Etonians, old Carthusians, etc. Those kids always acted as if Henry VI was watching, because in a very real sense, he was. When your father, and his father, and his, and his, all the way back to 1441 were “Old Etonians,” you can’t take the simplest action without feeling the weight of all that ancestry on your shoulders. It doesn’t matter that everyone else around you is running away or surrendering — Great-Great-Great-Granddad didn’t run or surrender at Bosworth, so neither will you.
Modern kids, by contrast, feel nothing but the weight of their own peer group. They’re characterless, and while we on the back nine of our lives read that as an insult, it’s not intended to be. How could they ever have developed any character in the first place? Today’s 19 year old was born exactly at the turn of the Millennium, to parents born in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Their parents’ world was already heavily globalized; their world is almost exclusively online. If a kid barely knows his own father — and 40% of all children in the US are now born out of wedlock — then how could he possibly know what his grandfather did?
Today’s 19 year grew up at a physical address, but not a neighborhood. In our day, our playmates were whoever happened to be roughly the same age whose parents lived on the surrounding blocks. We had to learn to at least tolerate pretty much everyone, because that’s who you were stuck with, and since everyone from the neighborhood went to the same school, such was your social life until at least high school. Nowadays, local kids don’t play together. Everyone has his own set of tightly supervised activities, and it’s unthinkable that little Jimmy should just, you know, go outside and play. Something like pickup baseball is inconceivable — even if you found enough kids to play with, with no adult supervision and no liability waivers Mommy wouldn’t know who to sue if you scraped your knee. Plus you could hurt your hand, meaning no piano practice for a week, which means you can kiss early decision at Princeton goodbye (never mind that you’re only ten years old). Plus it’s ten to one that you’ve moved three or four times in your childhood, as Mommy clawed her way up the corporate ladder…
Given all this, it’s no surprise that today’s kids are so painfully self-aware. All their peers are online, and since everything they do must be tweeted and instagramed and snapchatted and facebooked as it’s happening, peer feedback is both instantaneous and constant. They’re either a part of the online outrage mob, or desperately trying not to be noticed by it. Whatever works is right, because now is the only moment that will ever matter.Loading Likes...