Down the rabbit hole of the digital native.

I wrote and delivered this speech to the students of my critical reasoning class at the Tec de Monterrey in December 2021.

“Having lived a decade in Mexico, I have seen many changes.  In my experience, when it comes to big, global trends, Mexico lags the rest of North America and Europe by a few years.  When veganism was firmly established elsewhere, Mexicans were still committed to carnitas.  When sourdough bread became a food fashion loved by hipsters and then ordinary humans, Mexicans were still consuming Pan Bimbo.  When coffee bars were ubiquitous, Mexicans were busy drinking Nescafe or el Jarocho.  These things have all changed and Mexicans are busy gobbling vegan sourdough toast and almond milk lattes with the rest of the world.  There is, however, one trend in which I am very happy still to see a lag, and that is the concept of the “rabbit hole of the digital native”.  Unfortunately, you are catching up fast.

Digital natives are defined, by Wikipedia, as people born after 1980, who were raised in an environment in which they were surrounded by technology, and who have technological skills that are different from previous generations.  And what about The Rabbit Hole?  In 1865, Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland and, in the book, Alice famously fell down a rabbit hole and had all of her fantastic adventures.  The important feature of the rabbit hole remains that Alice went alone.  Her rabbit hole was not a place anybody else could go.  Nobody from her “world” here on earth could share her interactions with the characters she met, nor was she willing to explain her adventures when she returned  Her experiences, although shared when she was down the rabbit hole, with those with whom she interacted, down the rabbit hole, were singular.  The people in her “real life” did not know about them, had not shared them, and could never possibly have conceived what she had gone through.  I want to draw the obvious parallel between rabbit hole and the “real world”, and the internet and the “real world”.  One obvious similarity is this:  What Alice experienced down the rabbit hole, and the community she encountered down there were “real” in the same way that an immersive video game or 30 minutes on Tik Tok are “real” experiences with “real” communities.  And so we get into a philosophical discussion of what is “real” – something famously discussed in another classic children’s book entitled The Velveteen Rabbit, by Marjory Williams. 

“What is real?” Asked the rabbit.

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’

‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are Real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the horse might be sensitive.  But the horse only smiled.

“The boy’s uncle made me real.” He said.  “That was a great many years ago; but once you are real you can’t become unreal again.  It lasts for always.

I want to pick up on a couple of things.  The first is that being real is something that happens to you when you love and are loved.  The second is that being real can hurt.  The third is that once you are real you can never go back to being unreal.  These are emotions and levels of consciousness that we only achieve by interacting profoundly and over a long period of time with others. Others who may love us, hurt us, understand or misunderstand us.  To become real, we need to grow.  To grow, we must experience both joy and pain at the hands of others.

From a very different quarter, a Korean born, German philosopher named Byung-Chul Han writes beautifully about how the digital world is becoming increasingly blurred with what some of us still consider real.  In his books, which are mercifully short, The Disappearance of Rituals, Psychopolitics, and The Palliative society, he discusses, among many other topics, how a move away from owning “things” cause us to lose important time markers and memories.  He discusses how a lack of rituals leads to a loss of societies, and a world in which individuals live in isolation with no recollection of the past and no anticipation of the future.  He discusses how easy it is to avoid pain – anger, frustration, hurt, disappointment –  by customising our environment to such an extent that we can build an echo chamber, cocoon ourselves in a world of our making, and no longer encounter the difficulty “the other”.  We risk becoming exclusive, intolerant, and afraid. He says:

“Today we chase after information, without gaining knowledge. We take note of everything, without gaining insight. We communicate constantly, without participating in a community. We save masses of data, without keeping track of memories. We accumulate friends and followers, without encountering others.”

This modern rabbit hole is very different from Alice’s. Alice did not create her parallel reality and, in it, she encountered characters extremely different from herself and each other.   Alice had adventures, experienced fear, love, consternation, frustration, and curiosity –  she learned and she grew.  Digital natives, on the other hand, customise their parallel reality to make themselves feel comfortable and in control.  Their rabbit hole – your rabbit hole –  is infinitely more limiting even though it is a world with no boundaries.

Do I worry about you?  Yes I do.  8 years ago my students made speeches about corruption, wanting to be an actor in the face of parental opposition, or the Cotton Field Murders and the birth of femicide.  4 years ago they spoke about climate change and the importance of using tupperware and a re-usable water bottle.  This year, nearly 50% of you made a speech that was one way or another about depression, anxiety, sexual aggression, addiction, and bullying.  Maybe my worry for you is misplaced.  Maybe the source of your distress has nothing to do with being down the rabbit hole.  Maybe I am wedded to an old fashioned world with obsolete values.  The problem is that I do not think that values like courage, loyalty, and inclusivity are old fashioned.  I do not think young people will grow into well-adjusted adults who are capable of recovering from set-backs if they avoid conflict. I do not think that the world can progress if individuals within it avoid making changes that they will be experience as painful. 

Change is a decision only you can make.  Should you choose to stay out of the rabbit hole – or at least have a healthier relationship with it – university provides you with so many fantastic alternatives to do something real.  The first thing you need to do is join.  Joining something requires emotional commitment and results in emotional growth.  If you are an athlete, join a sports team.  If you like dancing, join a dancing club.  If you like debating, join the debating team.  If you like social service, get a group of people together and do something good for our community.  The second thing you need do to is  support.  Put on a Borregos sweatshirt and go to the games and the competitions.  Experience the joy of winning and the disappointment of losing, surrounded by your friends and colleagues.  You will begin to grow and in growing you may just survive the rabbit hole and everything life is going to throw at you.  Join.  Support your school.  Support your friends.  Support yourself.

Thank you.

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