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Cyberpunk

All Aboard

By Joab Jackson | Posted 5/2/2001

Between the dot-com crash, the hobbling of Napster, and the end of Bianca's Smut Shack, I guess we media pundits can all start crowing about the end of the Net era.

Which, admittedly, I haven't been worried about, not even after two people forwarded me an essay published by the Orange County Register (and reprinted in The Washington Post) on the very subject ("Taking Stock of Gen X: It's Fallen Sharply" ). But the author, Stephen Lynch, did do something interesting while speculating on how history would and should view the past five years: He fused Generation X with the dot-com crowd.

It had never really occurred to me that Gen X, much derided as listless slackers by the mainstream press in the early '90s, was largely responsible for scaling up the Internet. The sweat needed to build this new infrastructure came from the brows of the same generation that supposedly wasn't enthused about much of anything. And why was this news hidden from us? Why, it was those baby boomers, the ones who propagated the slacker stereotype, blithely failing to correct the record as the e-commerce ventures which Xers built were padding boomer retirement funds.

"Funny," the 28-year-old Lynch opines, "but no one rushed to correct that stereotype when, four years later, companies founded mainly by people in their twenties and early thirties jump-started the economy and developed a whole new system for communication, education and commerce."

Could Lynch be right? Was Gen X the larval stage for the hyperactive Net generation to follow, and are we not getting the props we deserve?

Yes, "we"--I'm one of the 50 million folks born between 1963 and 1981, the generally accepted Gen X brackets, and I'm here to tell you (sorry, Mr. Lynch) that the slacker stereotype wasn't entirely off the mark. In 1992, I was post-bachelor's and not the least bit interested in participating in corporate America. I was halfheartedly churning through grad school, only because it was the least uninteresting option available. I didn't dress for success. More than once I found myself thinking, You want me to do what for 40 hours a week? I had plenty of the "sarcastic, sardonic cynicism" Lynch characterized as the prevailing generational attitude.

The problem with the world at the time, I now recall, was that everything seemed so defined. There was little that anyone with even a modicum of creativity could do that somehow didn't already fit into some sort of predetermined pattern. Everything seemed handed down from the boomers with horrible contracts of conformity--like rock music, for instance, which 10 years before had seemed to me to offer freedom itself. If you wanted to rock out in the early '90s, your options were the ready-made nostalgia of classic-rock stations and Hard Rock Cafés or the mannered avenues of indie and grunge rock, in which a band's value was gauged by its proximity to a Sub Pop or a Mammoth Records. Ditto with literature, comedy, drugs, and art. All seemed so ossified.

I only really recognized this stiffening of culture after logging onto the Net for the first time. Even with a text-only screen and a 9600-baud modem, I experienced a feeling I can liken only to free fall. Holy crap, I thought. There literally is no end to this stuff. And that was in the pre-Web days of gophers and FTP sites. It wasn't so much the amount of information but how it cut across all sorts of boundaries. This ubiquity, upending all orders, could be dangerous.

By hopping on the Net, I blossomed from despondent corporate outcast to cloying techno-babblist. And as such, I suppose I understand why Lynch wants so badly for his peers to get the credit. The Internet was something alive that seemed to be replacing something dead.

But understanding why he wants the credit doesn't mean he--or we--deserve it. I just tend to think it wasn't so much the result of any particular generation's labor and creativity as a storm that simply blew the roof off the whole theater of cultural continuity in the first place. Many of the early movers and shakers I interviewed for Cyberpunk in its nascent days, in '95 and '96, didn't fall largely into any age cohort. I talked to innovators in their 50s and others in their early teens. Open-source gurus Eric Raymond or Richard Stallman were too iconoclastic to be part of anyone's generation, demographically or culturally. You were simply on the bus or off the bus, as author Ken Kesey said of an earlier time.

Of course, a lot of work did come from those falling under the Gen X rubric. I just part with Lynch when he claims that it showed we were misunderstood from the get-go; I believe it shows we were primed to leap onto something that offered a viable alternative. As my friend Dave, who e-mailed me about the article, pointed out, "The people who found the most utility in the 'Gen X' label were the marketers--baffled by the way they couldn't come up with strategies for selling things to a generation that was already savvy to their stupid tricks. 'What a baffling enigma,' the marketers would say. 'They are truly the mysterious Generation X.'"

Maybe what marketers defined as cynicism was really pent-up energy unusable in a world too set in its ways. It took something undefined, like the Net, to harness such powers.

It's a theory for those writing the history books, anyway.

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