Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The New Homo Novus

The millennials (I still shudder when I hear that word) are difficult to define. We seem to be difficult for other generations to figure out. Baby boomers tend to think we're selfishly lazy, and our activism pales in comparison to the hippie protests of the late 1960s. Courtney Martin, who is a young person herself, recently dubbed us as a generation that's too comfortable with playing by the rules. (Her essay drew criticism.) But such broad generalizations just don't really seem to fit. Sure, some young people are lazy, but a great number of them are also leading polticially active organizations that make good use of the Internet, coordinating transportation and travel to get students to caucus in a highly-anticipated presidential election. So what is it that really defines our generation? After reading a little Tom Wolfe, I have a theory.

Wolfe wrote a (rather dull) essay called "Two Yong Men Who Went West" about Robert Noyce, founder of that Silicon Valley startup Intel. Although Wolfe's descriptions of young people often sound like they're written for the AARP (see his essay "Hooking Up"), in this essay he, almost by accident, describes a tension I hadn't much thought about until reading the essay.
Noyce used to go into a slow burn that year, 1968, when the newspapers, the magazines, and the television networks got on the subject of the youth. The youth was a favorite topic in 1968. Riots broke out on the campuses as the antiwar movement reached its peak following North Vietnam's Tet offensive. Black youths rioted in the cities. The Yippies, supposedly a coalition of hippies and campus activists, managed to sabotage the Democratic National Convention by setting off some highly televised street riots. The press seemed to enjoy presenting these youths as the avant-garde who were sweeping aside the politics and morals of the past and shaping America's future. The French writer Jean-Fran├žois Revel toured American campuses and called the radical youth homo novus, "the New Man," as if they were the latest, most advanced product of human evolution itself, after the manner of the superchildren in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End.

Homo novus? As Noyce saw it, these so-called radical youth movements were shot through with a yearning for a preindustrial Arcadia. They wanted, or thought they wanted, to return to the earth and live on organic vegetables and play folk songs from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They were antitechnology. They looked upon science as an instrument monopolized by the military-industrial complex. They used this phrase, "the military-industrial complex," all the time. ... They wanted to destroy the new machines. They were the reactionaries of the new age. They were an avant-garde to the rear. They wanted to call off the future. They were stillborn, ossified, prematurely senile.

If you wanted to talk about the creators of the future -- well, here they were! Here in the Silicon Valley! ... Now here you saw youth in the vanguard, on the deading edge!Here you saw the youths who were, in fact, shaping the future! Here you saw, if you insisted on the term, homo novus!
There's a thread here to pull on. Today's youth, at the end of the first decade in the 21st century, is a product of these two subcultures. Today, we are not afraid of technology, as Wolfe asserts that the Yippies of the late 1960s were, but rather we seek to use the technology born of the Silicon Valley to for grassroots activism, commentary, and organizing. We are at an advantage. We do not have to reconcile the change of technology with political change -- in fact these two are linked so that one is necessary to cause the other. Perhaps finally, with the merging of Silicon and Yippie, we are homo novus.

Cross-posted at

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