There Go The Grown Ups


Funny you would bring this up. Last weekend, M and I had a really nice chat about all of these articles on adulthood. Everyone wants to talk about it, because things are changing, aren’t they? It’s temping to label it as generational fighting, but I think it’s a simple communication breakdown. The rules are changing, and everybody knows it.

I mentioned that I don’t feel any particular social pressure to take on the trappings of “grown-uppiness.” I’ll draw a line between being a “grown-up”—which comes with all the expected obligations like marriage, children, home-ownership, etc—and being an adult—living well within a dignified role in society, educating yourself so you can contribute, honoring responsibilities, having empathy, being a citizen, defining and living the life you want, and the other good stuff that makes the world get along a little better than it would otherwise. I am an adult, but I am not a grown-up. There are many, many more like me.

After thinking about it for a few days, it seems to me that the bad articles are looking for grown-ups instead of adults. Grown-up is a flavor of adulthood that’s been the dominant version for the last century or so. Grown-up is the 20th century adult. Here in the 21st century, the changes that sprung up at the end of the last are finally taking root—choices about how to live a life, educate yourself, participate in a community, and rear a family (whether that’s with a partner and kids, a network of close friends, or some combination of all that). There’s greater variety in adults, so if you have a narrow criteria, you’ll leave worrying that the world is stuck in arrested development. You might even go off and write an opinion piece for the Times.

The bad articles mistake choices as requirements and requirements as choices. A few common examples I’ve seen:

  • Most articles cite children as a requirement for adulthood. But between women’s reproductive rights, the pill, and a larger scientific and socially-acceptable window for child rearing, the grown-up requirement of having children is now a choice—not just of timing, but whether to have kids at all.
  • Home-ownership is a “requirement” that is less and less likely as my generation becomes increasingly urban and property costs soar. Home-ownership is a very North American ideal, however. For example, most Germans don’t own their homes—they rent.
  • The older generations participate in a double speak when it comes to education: faulting my generation for not launching into careers and stable income by their 20s, while helping to produce a world that necessitates more and more formalized education for roles of diminishing consequence.

The social pressures around becoming a “grown-up” are lessening. This doesn’t mean people aren’t becoming adults. I’m actually glad the grown-up is dying—we need the space to have versions of adulthood for people who don’t happen to be straight, white, and cis-gendered. I look forward to fewer noun-based versions of adulthood (spouse, house, kids) and more verb-based visions of adulthood. The future is a lot less scary if you believe an adult is someone who wields autonomy, empathy, and responsibility with an even hand. I’ve been looking around, and come to realize that there’s just as much of that—and maybe even more—than ever before.


The Only Note To Self

You don’t get to decide the truth. Other people have their own experiences, just as valid. This is easy to forget. Your slice of life seems so large and unmistakeable, like a mirage of wholeness from where you stand. But it is your job to know better and not confuse your small piece for the whole, even if you sometimes forget. Life is big—much bigger than just yours. This is the only note to self: other people are real. That’s all there is to learn.


Sometimes it’s worth reading the comments. For instance, take this comment on the web’s consolidation from Mike Caulfield.

You look in 1993 and see Guido Van Rossum and Berners-Lee arguing that instead of an IMG tag there should be a general “include”, that would allow you to pull together pieces of multiple sites together from multiple MIME types. Twenty years later, there’s still no include.

You see Shirky and Weinberger talking in 2003 about how the web was designed to connect pages, not people, and the groups forming were essentially hacks on top of that. But that power to connect people doesn’t get built into the protocols, or the browser, or HTML. It gets built on servers.

It’s almost like the web’s inability to connect people, places, and things was the ultimate carve-out for corporations. [I]f the connections have to live on a single server (or server cluster) then the company who controls that server wins.

The lack of an <include> tag led to Pinterest. No method to connect people created Facebook. RSS’s confusing interfaces contributed to Twitter’s success. Any guargantuan web company’s core value is a response to limitations of the protocol (connection), markup spec (description), or browsers (interface). Without proper connective tissue, consolidation becomes necessary to address these unmet needs. That, of course, leads to too much power in too few places. The door opens to potential exploitation, invasive surveillance, and a fragility that undermines the entire ethos of the internet.

[Edit: APIs were at first a patchwork to resolve the shortcomings of protocols. They let data flow from place to place, but ultimately APIs are an allowed opening to a private dataset—a privatized protocol. The halcyon days of Web 2.0 were a short lived window of benevolence that eventually closed.]

If a fifth of the planet signs on to Facebook each month, why shouldn’t a neutral version of it’s functionality be built into the protocol, markup spec, and browsers that drive the distributed web? (An argument could be made that Facebook is already trying to do the inverse—turning the internet into Facebook—with its campaign.) We should view the size and success of these companies as clear calls to recreate their products’ core functionality and weave it into the fabric of the web.

What if tech companies were field research for the protocol? This may be a dream, but it’s our only hope to refragment the web.

From the Porch to the Street

Dear J,

To answer your question, I haven’t much felt like it. I’ve been quiet, because there hasn’t been much to say, and I haven’t been looking for things to say. Of course, Twitter is a megaphone, so there is a small temptation to say something into it, even if it is just braying to hear your own voice loud, so…

Whenever I log in to Twitter, I think, “Where did all my friends go?” Now, my feed is mostly the strangers talking. That’s fine: my friends and I find other ways to keep in touch. Although, I do miss having that bizarre, constant contact a feed gives you. Maybe too intense. Maybe unhealthy. Not sure. Having a Twitter account with a decent number of followers is a high-maintainence relationship. I can’t blame my friends for clamming up. I remember last year catching myself: I was composing a tweet in my head while eating breakfast. I felt sick to my stomach and couldn’t finish. Since then, I’ve clammed up, too.

Have you heard of evaporative social cooling? It says the people who provide the most value to a social group or organization eventually burn out and leave, undermining the stability and progress of the group. Most of my internet friends have been on Twitter since 2008, so they probably fall into this group. How much more is there left to say?

We concede that there is some value to Twitter, but the social musing we did early on no longer fits. My feed (full of people I admire) is mostly just a loud, stupid, sad place. Basically: a mirror to the world we made that I don’t want to look into. The common way to refute my complaint is to say that I’m following the wrong people. I think I’m following the right people, I’m just seeing the worst side of them while they’re stuck in an inhospitable environment. It’s exasperating to be stuck in a stream.

Here’s the frustration: if you’ve been on Twitter a while, it’s changed out from under you. Christopher Alexander made a great diagram, a spectrum of privacy: street to sidewalk to porch to living room to bedroom. I think for many of us Twitter started as the porch—our space, our friends, with the occasional neighborhood passer-by. As the service grew and we gained followers, we slid across the spectrum of privacy into the street.

Of course, the things you say on your porch are much different than what you’d say on the street. But if the porch turned into the street without you noticing, there’d be a few painful months before you realized you needed to change how you spoke. I remember the first few times I was talking to friends (forgetting the conversation could be viewed by those who followed both of us), only to have strangers piggy-back on our grousing. It felt like a violation. But that’s on me for participating in a kinda-private, kinda-public conversation.

For the better part of a year, I’ve been trying to make Twitter feel like talking on the porch again, but it just can’t happen. Twitter isn’t talking for anyone with more than 500 followers—it’s publishing or advertising. We’re all on the street, and it’s noisy.

This may be overstating or overthinking the situation. Twitter is just a website. Yet, I can point to many opportunities, jobs, and (most importantly) friendships that sprung from it. Some married friends met on Twitter. It’s tempting to give an importance to the service for those of us who joined early and were able to reap these benefits, but that doesn’t mean Twitter needs to stick around forever. It matters. Or mattered. To me, I’m unsure which just yet.


I Can’t Read Walden

Time is already a tough customer, but it is torturous when you start measuring yourself to others by it. Henry David Thoreau was my age, thirty, when he sat down to write Walden. What does that mean for me? Not much, I suppose, since my copy sits unread and unloved. Worse yet: feared. I am scared it will reinforce my hunch—yes, modern life is too much, and each day is getting much more much-er. The only sane option is to opt out of the game and become a recluse, because you can not lose if you do not play. This is, at least, what the fabricated Walden in my mind says. “Go—flee. It is the only way. Your life, your mistakes, and this world are baggage. Find a virgin plot, build a foundation, and start fresh.”

Then again, I doubt the Thoreau in my mind and the one on the page, because the things I’m being told to run from are all that I have. A man only writes about his self-inflicted extraction to an ersatz wilderness because he wants to consider his problems under the auspice of the world’s. Who’d trust the opinion of such a weary, indignant, callow, and conflicted young man? I say this describing myself, too.

Thirty is a tender age. A man is old enough to have a past he regrets, young enough to feel he has a stake in the game for righting the course, and self-obsessed enough to have a hyper-vigilant sense of justice. I feel it. It is genetic, or specific to whatever human archetype Thoreau and I share. I try to beat it down. Thoreau ran away and wrote a book. Last year, when I swallowed my pride, contained my fear, and started to read Walden, I only made it 15 pages before throwing it across the room. I identified too much, and saw myself reflected, 150 years in the past, still just as foolish and making the same mistakes I make today.

Some questions I’d like to ask the ghost of Mr. Thoreau, in the purpose of extreme self-interest: Did escaping modern life leave you feeling curiously trapped? Were you running away or running towards? And, most importantly, were you ever able to reconcile the tension between enjoying the world and trying to set it straight? I want to ask because Thoreau ostracized himself, and seclusion, for some, can be just as addicting as any drug. It’s a defacto solution that feeds the problem which requires itself as a solution.

Life is a set of nested envelopes—the seed of you is held in the mind, which is in your body, which is encased in your family, your relations, workplace, city, nation, society, and so on. Thoreau eliminated all the layers and kept only the ones he couldn’t escape: nature and his mind. But I wonder if this was a mistake. What if those fussy middle parts between the mind and nature weren’t a crutch, but the third leg of a stool? Perhaps the real reason Walden scares me is the same reason it has offended so many others: that third leg Thoreau disparaged is where I put most of my weight.

I don’t need to read Walden, it’s already written in my mind by the Thoreau within, cooing the things the weak part of me wants to hear, like the ghost of previous mistakes echoing across the centuries. I’ll take a lesson from Thoreau’s trip to the woods and speak from the side of me that knows better: people don’t have to leave what they know to start fixing what’s wrong. They can start where they are. A man can do it right here, Henry.

Visit the archive for more posts ↬