The Shortlist: 3 Books to Help You Understand Millennials and Beyond

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THE SELFIE GENERATION
How Our Self Images Are Changing Our Notions of Privacy, Sex, Consent, and Culture
By Alicia Eler
294 pp. Skyhorse. $24.99.

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The social internet has been gripped in recent weeks by an app, Google Arts and Culture, which relies on total trust from its users (or perhaps their total lack of concern for privacy). The app encourages users to take and upload selfies so that Google’s facial-recognition algorithm might compare them to its vast digital art archive. (Google says it does not store the selfies.) One year ago our generation was donating to the A.C.L.U.; now we’re taking photos of ourselves for a multinational corporation that has cooperated with the government’s surveillance programs. Such is the allure of the selfie.

Eler, who is the visual arts critic for The Star Tribune in Minnesota and also a millennial, has published for years on the selfie and its implications for privacy, self-expression and sex. In the selfie she finds “an aspirational image” essential to “being seen by others online.” She sees the selfie as a lifeline to those who struggle to be represented in the media ecosystem; she mentions transpeople and agoraphobes. And not all selfie-takers, she proves, are as oblivious as imagined.

Unfortunately, Eler’s book would have benefited from a more careful edit. Her discursive style is sometimes whimsical, but mostly distracting. She dwells on a topic having little to do with selfies and then glosses over complicated selfie-related stories. Fake news in the 2016 election gets at least seven pages; the macaque who took a selfie and then saw PETA sue for his copyright gets just two. She provides an extended discussion of blogs that post screenshots of bad Tinder conversations but glosses over the July 2016 Facebook Live stream by Diamond Reynolds after her husband, Philando Castile, was shot by the police. And while there are moments where her light touch suits the material well, a section on social-media surveillance at Standing Rock is hindered by her choice to discuss it through quoting a meeting she had over coffee with a protester.

In spite of its flaws, though, Eler’s book alights on the source of the selfie’s power: It is the easiest way to assert one’s humanity in our hyper-networked world. Perhaps our much-fussed-over narcissism is not a flaw but a survival tactic.

iGEN
Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood
By Jean M. Twenge
342 pp. Atria. $27.

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Back in 2006, the psychologist Twenge swiped at millennials in her book “Generation Me.” She wrote then that we were miserable, entitled narcissists ruined by our parents’ adoration. She was trying to rebut Neil Howe and the late William Strauss (the gurus of generational theory) who had contended in 2000 that civic-oriented millennials would become “the next great generation.” Time has evidently softened her.

Her new “iGen” pities rather than disdains those born after 1995, arguing that smartphone addiction has saddled a new generation with profound psychological problems, including sleep deprivation, depression and unshakable senses of loneliness and fear. They drink less and have less sex; they socialize less without their parents present; they hardly read for pleasure or go to the mall; they eschew church and even spirituality; they kill themselves more (but others less); they wait longer to get drivers’ licenses and give birth. Twenge premises her conclusions on longitudinal studies of high schoolers and college students, which she supplements with first-person accounts from members of iGen. She concludes by offering this advice: “Do not sleep with it or give it nude pictures of yourself. It is not your lover. Do not continuously turn your attention to it when you are talking with someone in person. It is not your best friend.”

Twenge is right to highlight smartphones’ contributions to our malaise. In one section she notes the feeling of rejection that arises from a text sent without an immediate response, and in another she notes that more screen time leads to less in-person socializing, which breeds loneliness.

She could stand to incorporate some of Harris’s alarm about the economy. She duly recognizes income inequality as a prime source of iGen’s anxiety about its future. But while she discusses how smartphones do their harm, she has no such harsh words for the modern labor market. Instead she tells marketers how to exploit iGen’s diminished expectations, which struck me as tacky and not particularly useful, besides. The kids may spend too much time on their phones, but they know better than to trust brands.

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