The Lost Generation in a Brave New World

“But old clothes are beastly,” continued the untiring whisper. “We always throw away old clothes. Ending is better than mending, ending is better than mending, ending is better …”

Children in Brave New World were hypno-trained with messages of endless consumption and appetite for new things. Because without constant and regular consumption, the over-production of things couldn’t be justified or sustained.

Planned obsolescence ensured that clothes fell apart with little use, and everything else was equally disposable. I don’t think even Aldous Huxley himself could have guessed that this disposable fantasy of his would actually become a disposable reality:

Danielle George, Professor of Radio Frequency Engineering, at the University of Manchester, claims that the under 40s expect everything to “just work” and have no idea what to do when things go wrong.

Unlike previous generations who would “make do and mend” now young people will just chuck out their faulty appliances and buy new ones.

I think Professor George is correct, and it is a bit uncanny that she even echoed Huxley’s language, but I also think it’s not entirely the fault of young people that we are living in a brave new world. George may say whatever she wants, but few people have any capacity for fixing iPods, or computers, or other things like them. Diagnosing software issues is one thing, and I think Professor George would be boggled at how good kids are at troubleshooting those kinds of issues, but if you have a hardware malfunction in your laptop, the likelihood is that almost no one knows how to mend it. Even the tech specialist you bring it to is not going to fix the part that’s broken. He will likely send off for a brand new part.

We don’t live in the days when our inventions make much sense. Cars used to make sense. If something went wrong with them, there was usually a mechanical source for the error. Now, a car might be glitchy from an electronic or computer problem, and it’s hard to diagnose the problem. It’s like modern technology, because of the vagaries and complexities of computers, has exited the realm of the “broken” and entered the realm of the “cursed.”

The computer does seem like magic, and a generation raised on these kinds of magical technologies tends to be less likely to even care how other things work. I don’t think the younger generations even think about it. This coming generation doesn’t just accept technology as a given. They take everything as a given. They don’t think about where their food comes from. Or their clothes. Or anything else. They take things for granted in a haze of entitlement.

I remember when I taught in high school, I used to begin the first class of the year by conducting a thought experiment with my students:

Imagine that everyone in the world who makes and understands things inexplicably dies this moment. All the people, the very small number, who understand exactly how your cell phones and your computers work (and know how to build and fix them) die. Everyone who builds and fixes cars. Everyone who builds and fixes appliances. Everyone with practical knowledge of all the things we use every day. If they were all to die, how long would it take the rest of us to return to largely primitive conditions? Do you know how to make clothes? Make thread? Rubber? Plastic? Farm food? Wire a house? Fix cars? Anything? Do you even know how to explain how these things work? If you didn’t have the internet or Wi-Fi, could you describe to your grandkids how this little metal and glass (What is glass?) box used to allow you to communicate with people across the world and access all the possible information of humankind?”

Most of the students would tell me they had no practical skills whatsoever. And I asked them, “So when you all are the only people left in the world to teach things and run things, what useful things will you be able to contribute? A world made up entirely of people like you would be a primitive society. You need to use your time now to change that.”

It seems, in this brave new world, that my thought experiment is already becoming a grim reality.