At the Raindance film festival, London, UK, 27 October–6 November 2021
I Am Gen Z is a documentary about, er, Generation Z, and while it kicks off with a quick intro as to who Gen Z are NOT – they’re not millennials (born early 80s to mid 90s), instead they’re the next cohort (mid/late 90s to about 2012) – it settles down into an examination of the defining fact of their lives. They’re the digital natives whose lives have been shaped by, and who often live through, social media.
It’s spooky to be reminded of how fast this has happened. There’s that old footage of Steve Jobs announcing three new devices – an iPod with touch controls, a “revolutionary” mobile phone and a “breakthrough” internet communications device. A second later, to a crescendo of whoops in the hall, he reveals that they are in fact all the same device. It’s the iPhone. It’s 2007.
The ramifications of that announcement are still playing out, and Liz Smith’s debut feature doesn’t hold back when it comes to the negatives. Gen Z have become digital serfs, targets for advertisers who bombard them all day. They’ve become human guinea pigs whose dopamine responses are being triggered by tech-generated habit loops, much as people get addicted to slot machines. They’ve lost their attention spans. They no longer engage properly with flesh and blood humans, which means a loss of brain health. Social media has ruined the way relationships are formed. It’s led to “social cooling” – being seen to be having fun makes Gen Z a hostage to the future, and so they don’t do it. What about the personal information these tech giants have in their data silos? What about the civil liberties implications of facial recognition software? Smartphones mean Gen Z remain on a “digital leash”, forever connected to their “snowplough parents” and not learning things for themselves. There are self harming issues. The problem with eating disorders. Trolling. Post-truthism. The YouTube and Facebook system which, through the “you liked that so you’ll like this” algorithms, lead the user into more and more extreme territory. Is democracy at stake? Is society heading towards a civil war?
Some of this long list is nothing more than the “Kids today, huh?” response of every older generation to a younger one, some of it is not. Smith comes up with some positives to offset what is undeniably a majority gloomy picture. Gen Z are obsessed with fairness and want to make the world a better place. #BeKind. They’re vocal about climate change and health care and gun control. And… er… Greta Thunberg!
The dystopian future has always been with us as an idea and a warning, but whereas earlier generations looked to George Orwell as their prophet of doom, Aldous Huxley has now taken over as. Orwell’s dystopian 1984 was about an overweening state forcing itself into people’s lives; in Huxley’s nightmare vision, Brave New World, the serfs voluntarily enslaves themselves. As the young reach for that Samsung phone, so the turkeys vote for Christmas.
Huxley’s pronouncements stud what is essentially a talking heads documentary full of tech gamekeepers turned poachers, writers, psychologists, marketers and doctors. Noticeably, the expert pronouncements on the gloomy future are largely being made by Generation X (1965-80ish) plus the occasional more youthful millennial. The contribution by Gen Z has largely been sourced from social media itself, so we’re largely getting them at their most performative rather than most reflective.
Much ground is covered and as with other documentaries on the same subject, like last year’s The Social Dilemma, this works best as a broad introduction to this huge subject rather than as an in-depth analysis. In the time available that would be impossible. But (as you can see from that list above) the ground covered is impressive and the talking heads (among them Tim Kendall, former president of pinterest and one of the first employees at Facebook) do know what they’re talking about.
There does seem to be a remarkable preponderance of good-looking young men and women in I Am Gen Z. Maybe they’re just a better nourished and hence better looking bunch of people than their crusty Gen X parents, or maybe they all had their Instagram face filters switched on.
What is obvious from the Gen Z contributions, in among the songs and the pile-ons and the “yay me!” self-obsession, is that these clear-skinned young people have intuited that the culture they inherited from their parents isn’t up to the job, it’s lagging too far behind the tech, with its morality and ethics lagging even further behind. They’re trying, messily and largely in the dark, to hash something out on the fly so life can be lived at some level of daily decency. Google may be “making us stupid”, as one of the older talking heads puts it, but according to this documentary Gen Z aren’t going to go down without a fight.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021