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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Do I Have a Moral Obligation to Be On TikTok?



I’m only 30, but already I feel myself disengaging from youth trends. What’s a TikTok? Who’s Pokimane? Sometimes, though, I suspect I’m letting society down. Shouldn’t I stay current, the better to relate to—and thus support—the inheritors of the earth? Besides, I get annoyed whenever my parents call me for troubleshooting. I should be part of the solution, right?

Dear [ 426 ] ,

That the young are destined to inherit the earth would seem to be an incontrovertible fact, true of every age. But believing in the next generation requires, first of all, a belief in the future, which comes easier in some historical eras than others.

Christ, of course, blessed the meek instead. He wasn't much interested in the next generation, convinced as he was that the world was going to end with his own. (His early followers were so certain they occupied the final hours of a decadent civilization that they dissuaded one another from procreating.) Today, with the prospect of an inheritable earth again uncertain, the willingness to believe that kids will one day muster the sustained engagement and long-term thinking required to solve, say, the climate crisis feels like an article of faith—a prayer dispatched into the darkening void.


Most young people today are, as far as I can tell, delightful human beings, and the culture they’ve produced is very much worthy of our attention. I mean this, though it’s also the sort of thing one is obliged to say after reaching a certain age, for fear of banishment to the isle of the out of touch. In fact, at the risk of sounding cynical, I find it difficult to believe that your own motives are as purely altruistic as you believe them to be. While it may be true that we all have an instinctive, evolutionary investment in seeing the next generation flourish (regardless of whether it includes any children of our own), I imagine that your more immediate concern is for your long-term viability in an economy that regards cultural capital and technological fluency as assets to one’s personal brand. If you happen to be in a line of work that depends on garnering and sustaining an online following, keeping up with the culture is a matter of professional subsistence, a prerequisite to fulfilling one’s most basic economic needs.

I’m sorry to tell you that this quest is hopeless. For one thing, most social platforms are designed to keep users in their demographic lanes. You can download TikTok to satisfy your own delusions that you are not yet beyond the pale, but unless you have the superhuman willpower to resist lingering on the opening chords of that Top 40 song you loved in high school, or a quiz that promises to determine whether you are a true child of the ’90s, the algorithms will swiftly corral you into a ghetto of other millennials.

Many people your age are fooled into thinking they can understand youth culture because so much of it has been recycled from their own adolescence. The prevalence of nostalgia—the fact that each new batch of kids appears more ardently devoted to reviving trends that were popularized by the one before them—would seem to provide a link between generations, some semblance of common ground. But this is rarely the case, in practice. Nothing is so alienating as witnessing the naïve celebration of the music, clothing, and television that you yourself mindlessly consumed as a young person, wrenched free of its original historical context and appropriated with ambiguous degrees of irony.


I’m not saying that it’s impossible to keep up, just that it requires more time and effort than most of us have at our disposal. When you’re young, of course, it isn’t work at all—you breathe in the culture as mindlessly as the air—but maintaining active engagement as an adult is a full-time job, and the knowledge you do obtain is always tenuous and second-hand. You enter their world as an anthropologist. There are exceptions to this rule—the Dionne Warwicks and TikTok grannies who have managed to thrive among a much younger milieu—though their popularity rests on somewhat bumbling personas that play out-of-touchness for laughs (and are, one suspects, orchestrated by much younger PR teams).

I don’t mean to depress you, only to slightly reframe the question. If perpetual relevance is a chimeric virtue, as futile as the quest for eternal life, the question then becomes: What will make your life more enriching and meaningful? On one hand, it might seem that acquiring more knowledge—staying up to date on music, slang, whatever—will lead to more meaning, at least in its most literal sense. To grow old, after all, is to watch the world become ever more crowded with empty signifiers. It is to become like one of those natural language processing models that understands syntax but not semantics, that can use words convincingly in a sentence while remaining ignorant of the real-world concepts they represent. It feels, in other words, as though you’re becoming less human.

But knowledge is not the only source of meaning. In fact, at a moment when information is ubiquitous, cheap, and appended with expiration dates, what most of us long for, whether we realize it or not, is continuity—the sense that our lives are part of an ongoing narrative that began before we were born and will continue after we die. For centuries, the fear of growing old was assuaged by the knowledge that the wisdom, skills, and life experience one had acquired would be passed down to the next generation, a phenomenon the historian Christopher Lasch once called “a vicarious immortality in posterity.” When major technological innovations arrived every few hundred years rather than every decade it was reasonable to assume that your children and grandchildren would live a life much like your own. It was this sense of permanence that made it possible to construct medieval cathedrals over the course of several centuries, with artisanal techniques bequeathed like family heirlooms.

This relationship to the future has become all but impossible in our accelerated digital age. What of our lives today will remain in 10 years, or 20, or into the next century? It’s hard to think of anything that might be preserved from the cultural scrapyard. When the only guarantee is that the future will be radically unlike the past, it’s difficult to believe that the generations have anything to offer one another. How do you prepare someone for a future whose only certainty is that it will be unprecedented? What can you hope to learn from someone whose experience is already obsolete? To grow old in the 21st century is to become superfluous, which might explain why the notion of aging gracefully has become such an alien concept. (As one Gen Zer recently complained of millennials in Vice: “It all feels like they’re trying to prolong their youth.”) Meanwhile, the young become, for the old, not beneficiaries of wisdom and knowledge but aides in navigating the bewildering world of perpetual disruption—in other words, tech support.


Someone of your age, of course, still has a foot in both worlds: still young enough to count yourself as part of the rising culture, yet mature enough to perceive that you are not exempt from the pull of gradual irrelevance. One difficulty of this phase of life is feeling as though you don’t have a clear role; another is the constant anxiety over when you will finally tip into fustiness yourself (that this moment always seems about five years off reeks of self-delusion). But to take a brighter outlook, you also inhabit a unique vantage with a clear-eyed view of both the past and the future, and if there’s one thing we could all benefit from right now, it’s a sense of perspective. Rather than merely serving as IT for your older friends and relatives, you might ask them about their lives, if only to remind them—and yourself—that there remain aspects of human nature that are not subject to the tireless engine of planned obsolescence.

As for those younger than you, I suspect that your life would come to seem more meaningful if you focused less on keeping up with transient fads and considered instead whether you have acquired any kind of lasting knowledge that might be useful to the next generation. It is often assumed that the young have no interest in the past—or that they regard it merely as a source of fashions and artifacts that can be endlessly pillaged. But nostalgia typically reflects a fear that history is moving too fast, an anxiety that the past will be lost and forgotten. If it’s true that the pace of modern life is accelerating, it would make sense that the longing for continuity would be felt most acutely by the young.

Is this true? I don’t know. You should find a young person and ask them. Perhaps it’s better to abandon the pretense of knowledge and assume a posture of curiosity. We don’t always need to “relate” to one another. Sometimes it’s enough just to talk.

Yours faithfully,


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