Brink Lindey's* The Age of Abundance elegantly poses a plausible answer to the question of American political division. Lindsey argues that the split between red state voters (who he calls "evangelicals") and those in blue states (who he calls "Aquarians") is a result of different cultural reactions to the end of scarcity and the age of abundance that became an American reality in the post-World War II era. For most of our history, humans have been preoccupied by the hunt for necessities, worrying about having enough food to eat, having warm clothing to wear, and having roofs over our heads. But capitalism and the division of labor did away with such scarcity in America. Few of us today lose much sleep fretting about where our next meal will come from. Even the poor face primarily the threat of obesity, not hunger.
According to Lindsey, the right--the evangelicals--reacted by embracing the capitalist work ethic and the economic individualism it required. The left--the Aquarians--instead embraced the cultural individualism made possible by the freedom suddenly available to become one's self. The trouble is that the right rejected that cultural freedom, while the left rejected the very economic system and work ethic that provided them with the material abundance to become hippies and drop outs and New Age spiritualists.
Much of the book is Lindsey's attempt to deal with this split--a feat he accomplishes with great skill--but I want to expand his analysis to an area he doesn't address in the book. The Age of Abundance is primarily concerned with the shift in culture between the Great Depression/World War II generation and the Baby Boomers. But the book got me thinking, too, about the generation gap between the Boomers and their children, those who grew up firmly in the Information Age. It seems that split is isn't about the use of resources or a middle class work ethic and is, instead, about privacy.
One of the few ongoing arguments I've had with my father that I'd term "generational" (as opposed to ideological) has to do with me putting content on the net. Namely, any person googling "Aaron Ross Powell" turns up, among things like my short fiction and my novel, a host of pro-atheism pieces, articles my father assured me threatened to cost me any job I sought post-graduation (thankfully, I found employment with the same organization that awarded adjunct scholarships to Penn & Teller, so this turned out to be a false alarm). His concern is like, though in some ways a good deal removed from, the hand wringing about photographs on Facebook and the Boomers' eye rolling at their kids blogging instead of reading. "Why are kids writing all that crap and posting videos of themselves skateboarding when they could be reading Worldbook encyclopedia?" Of course, my generational split was not a result of there being better things to do with my time but, rather, with the danger what I chose to do with my time posed to my reputation, should the results be made public. But, at its core, my disagreement with my father and the apoplexy of parents when their children use MySpace "inappropriately" is one of how much personal identity should be broadcast to the world.
Looking at this generational divide within the framework of The Age of Abundance, I wonder if it is driven by notions of scarcity of communication resources. The Boomers grew up in a time when mass communication was expensive. You could call someone on the phone, sure, or send a letter, but those are one-to-one mediums. If you wanted to engage in one-to-many, you needed significant economic wherewithal to buy a printing press or a TV or radio station. Thus whatever you said in those costly one-to-many mediums better have been important. To waste it telling your friends about what you did last night was just, well, wasting it.
But today one-to-many communication is, effectively, free. A blog costs nothing. Twitter costs nothing. Even printing a book and making it available for sale to the world on Amazon.com costs nothing if you use print-on-demand services. Creating TV shows can be done with the Mac your parents bought you for Christmas and a $179 HD camcorder. And you can distribute the result, no matter how facile, via YouTube, for free.
Because a price means making a decision about paying it--and the greater the price, the harder and often more considered the decision--the Boomers thought more about what they broadcast to the world. The Internet generation doesn't have to make a price decision so they don't consider what they're communicating to quite the same degree. And that lack of consideration means more communication, which means more communication of the sort--of the content--the Boomers find objectionable: drunk photos, tweets about crushes, or my atheist essays.
The unintended upshot, I believe, is an increasing willingness by the generation brought up in this age of abundance of communication to be open about themselves--because everyone else is doing the same. The Boomers typically see this openness as a bad thing and a scary outing of personal information. But I find it rather liberating.
*I should note that Brink is my colleague at the Cato Institute, but that in no way artificially inflated my opinion of his book. I'd have loved it even if the author worked at the Center for American Progress.