On Generational Nihilism

“Future Hope” by Raymond Doward

I remember life before. Before Steve Jobs launched the iPhone, and centuries of human evolution were accelerated by lithium-powered bodily extensions. Before digital engagement was weaponized against democracy, and society woke up to the human cost of surveillance capitalism. Although I have many millennial friends, I’m technically a member of Gen-Z, and my position at the cusp of my generational cohort has come to define my worldview.

As the first plane desecrated the North tower, I was babbling my first words. Nervous adult chatter about the 2008 recession shrouded my elementary years in uncertainty. My hands shook as I addressed my local school board, urging them to reallocate budget cuts so my favorite teacher could keep her job. On the day the man with two daughters my age and a kind smile was elected, my Black classmates carried their heads a tiny bit higher. While his presidency brought me liminal hopefulness, it was soon eclipsed by America’s reluctance to condemn institutionalized racism in the wake of Michael Brown’s death. Eight years later, I watched students shout and tear through the halls of my small-town high school clad in “Make America Great Again”’ t-shirts and victorious grins. When recalling my college years, I’ll tell the story of a global pandemic that resulted in thousands of unnecessary deaths. And when asked about my passion for issues at the intersection of speech and technology, I’ll remember the day an angry mob fueled by disinformation laid siege upon the Capitol in an attempt to derail our democratic process.

I write this not to mourn personal losses — my childhood was not unhappy — but rather to underscore the nonsensical concentration of tragedy that played out over the past two decades. Somewhere between 9/11 and the recent attempted coup, my generation grew accustomed to this downward spiral. Optimism requires the unwavering belief that sequences of tragic events form a gradual, upward arc over time — a tough sell for my increasingly agnostic generation raised in the “post-truth” era. Research shows that Gen-Z distrusts the government, corporations, and other people more than any other generation. Perhaps the foremost task of our time is not resolving climate change, nor the disinformation problem, but rather barricading ourselves against an encroaching tide of nihilism.

Personally, I find it difficult to see the arc. But I’m also convinced that, by rejecting apathy and embracing determination, Gen-Z can build one. Throughout my childhood, my parents repeated these words until they became embedded in my mind: “When you grow up, you’re going to make the world a better place.” Over time, their prognosis became my truth. It took “MAGA” signs sprouting up in my coastal Maine town for me to realize that not everyone shared this mission. Despondent with the state of my country, I looked to college courses on networked communication, political science, and constitutional law for answers.

I sought solace in Milton and Mill, who warned against censorship at all costs. They were the optimists of their time — firm believers that human understanding is on an asymptotic ascent towards truth. Marcuse, however, was a pessimist in every sense of the word. He noted how universal speech protections inherently disadvantaged the dissenter, a role disproportionately filled by minority groups. Yet Marcuse’s proposed solution took root in Marxist ideology, and I struggled to comprehend how it could hold up in a democratic framework. While the certainty of their arguments was comforting, not one foundational first amendment text considered the possibility of a future like ours: one facing such a crushing density of information that we’re forced to trust algorithms to serve us representative samples of the marketplace of ideas.

How can we reverse this downward spiral if we can’t agree on the definitions of up or down? Scouring law reviews and computer science textbooks has only confirmed that the answers I seek don’t yet exist. Automating humanity’s pursuit of truth has undoubtedly exacerbated polarization, and the future of our democracy hinges upon our ability to mitigate its effects. By virtue of my generation, I’m unwilling to believe that society inherently tracks towards some universal good — I own my responsibility to forge that upward trajectory.

The author wrote and submitted this personal statement as part of an application in January 2021.

I mostly write about tech policy, freedom of expression, and equity in the digital world. –––––––––––––––– COMM + CS @ Penn

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store