A Gutter Rat in London #3
A Gutter Rat in London #3: The Final, Virtual/Physical Death of Gen X
“I walked far down a dirtside road and into a farmer’s field… [and I] lay myself down on the ground, surrounded by the tall pithy grain stalks and the faint sound of insects, and held my breath, there experiencing a mood that I have never really been able to shake completely – a mood of darkness and inevitability and fascination – a mood that surely must have been held by most young people since the dawn of time as they have crooked their necks, stared at the heavens, and watched their sky go out.”
— Douglas Coupland, ‘Generation X‘, 1991.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about two seemingly unrelated concepts: contemporary urbanism and paralysis.
By this, I refer to the experience of being a semi-professional, postgraduate research-focused foreigner living in London, grappling with various potential futures. These futures often have grand battles with one another in my head, their urgent cries leaving me feeling simultaneously overwhelmed and exhilarated. In this sense I feel a great deal of empathy for the confused, self-indulgent, neurotic post WWII Generation X’ers who came before me – in their twenties in the 1990’s, this generation (epitomised in the attitudes of apathetic, over-educated grunge seen in Linklater’s film ‘Slacker‘) was characterised by a sense of confusion – bombarded by intense branding through both advertising and post-war societal expectations, many decided to opt out entirely rather than follow the path of their parents – one that they felt led only “to depressing suburban mundanity”. Author John Ulrich famously wrote that Gen X signified “a group of young people, seemingly without identity, who face an uncertain, ill-defined (and perhaps hostile) future.”
However, today’s oversaturation is no longer mediated merely by corporate branding and post-WWII societal expectations for identity as it was for members of Gen X, growing up in a time when Naomi Klein’s famous anti-capitalist globalisation cry ‘No Logo‘ shook the Western world with its shocking truths about corporate re-defining of youth cultures through excessive ad-based influence. It’s taken on a complex new form that is changing us in ways Klein, Ulrich and Coupland could never have imagined. Perhaps it can be said that yes, in the hyper-real ecosystem of youthful freelancers, activist squatters, cultural creatives and perpetual students that jostle through London’s streets today – many working a variety of vague projects building towards equally undefinable careers of the sort that make well-wishing parents balk in horror – the 1990’s identity crisis outlined in Gen X still exists with a vengeance. Regardless, I’m starting to suspect that it is no longer as simple as a ‘crisis’ of identity these days, but rather the multiplicity of co-existing identities that now serve to both paralyse and exhilarate fledgling Londoners like myself.
For example, while my physical “IRL/in real life” self quite contentedly jokes, talks and learns with other “real life” folk every day, my understanding of this is augmented, enhanced and remixed by my virtualised experiences as a resident of cyberspace – and because of this duality, my inspirations, intrigues, jokes and relationships are expanded a thousandfold. As a foreigner in London with an array of idiosynchronous interests, acquaintances and goals that span the world in a confused jumble, I am currently in the middle of learning exactly what it is to be young and urban in a globalised, hyper-fast world. And what’s most interesting is I’m not alone in this. In fact, I’m living in a city that’s full of other young folk having exactly the same experience.
Case in point: in a typical week, I meet old friends from far-off lands for lunch at the Albion and discuss the latest Al Jazeera-based international news, chat online with strangers about 4chan cat memes and hacking, plan tech conferences with coworkers in Berlin via Skype, troll for illegally-acquired goods and bikes on Gumtree, and meet potential play-friends at underground burlesque shows who I get along with famously online via 140-character-defined Twitter bantering.
This past Friday in West London, I checked out DorkBot, a semi-monthly gathering of self-defined ‘geeks who do odd things with electricity.’ I saw Londoners in all their wondrous variety, from a hardware hacker who makes wearable electrosensored e-textiles, a dubstep producer who uses programmed meta-parameters to automatically mix beats, a researcher who studies human perceptions about flying saucers, and an interaction designer who persuaded Coca Cola to use open source software. Later, after an especially dirty, wine-encrusted interlude at a typical East London haunt, imbibed with ridiculous rap music and covered in smudged arm-stamps, I danced until the point of collapse shrouded in fog, acid house music and neon green lazer beams with “IRL” Internet-based friends at a warehouse party on the water. I walked home in the rain, tipping my soggy hat in a gentleman’s solidarity towards the other river rats also on their own meandering, limping journeys towards legal and illegal homes of all sorts. Despite the cross-city chaos of my night, I felt a sense of deep abiding calm at the end of it. It was the rarest kind of calm that is only felt when all elements of ones active mind have been satiated, given new material to mull over, intriguing images to absorb and odd characters to analyse.
So yes, much like the twenty-somethings of Gen X, we’re all oversaturated by various intense, dichotomised, urban/virtual identities. Our lives are made up of a million warring, paint-splattered technicolours of possibility – and in a city that’s as pulsating with larger-than-life experience as London, that sensation can feel much like drinking out of a fire hose. Yet, when I think of what allows me to feel such a strong sense of agency here despite the consistent, looming possibility of force-fed drowning by over-stimulation, I always think of one thing. It is London’s dizzying potentialities – and its non-judgmental fostering of every possible quirk I choose to indulge in – that allow me to live out my own duplicities as a multi-faceted, geeky, curious post-modern urbanite. And for that reason, despite the confusion, I love this city – and I feel an abiding hope for the future that is very post-Gen X in its resolve.
So in finality, yes, there will be more moments of confused paralysis, of a sense of too many things to be done at once, of too many influences and possibilities – of events missed and opportunities squandered. But there will also be times of amazed clarity, where the virtual and the physical, the augmented and the tangible, combine all at once in London’s dirty alleyways and illicit gatherings and sweeping postcolonial balconies – and I think it’s those moments that get us through even the darkest, most mundane Gen X-style mornings of Tube-riding, newspaper-clutching and crowd-jostling towards Oxford Circus in the pouring rain.