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How the Internet Flattens Generations

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | June 2, 2015 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | June 2, 2015 |

When I was ten years old, I started writing a Star Trek novel. I should clarify. By Star Trek, I mean that I used the names of the original series characters and then wrote how Earth built a battle fleet of hundreds of thousands of ships and then set about conquering the entire galaxy. I’d been reading a lot of Roman history. The story flamed out somewhere around thirty pages and had not the slightest actual resemblance to the Star Trek universe in any way, shape, or form. But it had Kirk and Spock and McCoy because that was the important part of a story in space on some level in my brain.

I also started writing an Indiana Jones novel. And by that I mean that I with no conscious irony and thinking I was being totally original, created a heroic archaeologist named Kansas Smith. It was set in World War II, because come on, when else would you set a story like that? It’s just common sense.

They are terrible stories and something that no one should ever read. They no longer exist actually, disappeared by now through the churning of a quarter century of digital turnover. My earliest writings still squirreled away on my hard drives and backups are from my mid-teens. The stories then weren’t that much better, but they’d at least acquired enough self-consciousness to have some originality to them.

I wrote in a vacuum though. I had my writing, and sure, I had published works. But the latter were so far above anything that I wrote that they were essentially another galaxy, similar but not meaningfully comparable. Having nothing else to compare it to meant that I could spend years not knowing how bad I was, until eventually I was good enough to stand on my own two feet and take the punches that showing your work to others entails.

Had the Internet been around then? It’s true, I might have found a community, might have found support. But I wouldn’t have labored alone in the wilderness, which was what I needed more than the company of others.

A couple of friends and I wrote our own roleplaying game when I was in junior high. We had a bit of Dungeons and Dragons, but most of the books we had were Palladium’s old Robotech series. And if you know anything about RPGs, you know that that was a horrifically bad system, practically unusable despite gorgeous artwork and a deep and interesting setting. So we just wrote our own instead. “Just”. We spent hours after school making tables, creating sketches, inventing and testing everything as we went. We compiled it all meticulously, one of us going home and typing up things in WordPerfect just to print out copies for the other two. I probably spent more of eighth grade working on our own version of Robotech than I did any amount of schoolwork.

Today we with a couple clicks could have found ways to patch the system, a dozen free systems already built, and the entire energy of the affair would have deflated.

The Internet flattens experience, makes it so that way once one person has figured something out, everyone else has as well. This is one of the most fantastic things about it, but it’s also one of the most potentially damaging because figuring stuff out on your own is how you learn to be your own thinker. Because it’s the process of thinking that teaches you how to figure things out, not the process of looking something up.

I don’t mean this to be a nostalgic rant about how youth today will inherently be less capable because of not having to go through the chest-hair sprouting bullshit of previous generations. I saw someone post on an RPG messageboard something that they came up with, some game of their own that they were trying to devise. It was something like adapting Skyrim’s basic system to being played on the tabletop. It was a lousy idea, a pointless labor, and it was ripped apart in moments in the way this always happens. There are six other things that already do this better than you do. There is no point in this. Go do some reading before you post this shit up in here.

But I realized, reading between the lines, that I was that kid twenty years ago. And I didn’t have a place that already had the answers posted and readily searchable, so I had the cushion of solitude to play around with ideas, show them to my friends, and make all the mistakes that you need to make yourself in order to gradually understand.

The Internet flattens generations together, so before you eviscerate someone online for not knowing something that is common knowledge, that you’ve known for decades, stop for a moment and give them the benefit of the doubt. From your place in front of the keyboard, it’s impossible to tell whether someone is a moron who should know better or someone honestly taking their first intellectual steps. Err on the side of kindness. The worst that happens is that you don’t get to rip someone’s head off online.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.