Time periods are defined by the actions of those within the period and the thoughts of those who succeed them. The intentions of past societies are oftentimes forgotten in lieu of hindsight bias, leaving only the events and records to be sorted out by following generations. No age can truly be defined by a title, but the human mind compels us to sort, simplify, and categorize every bit of information with which we come into contact. Thus, ages are reduced to a single, unified idea.
For those of us who witnessed very little prior to the twenty-first century, it has seemed an eventful century thus far. The internet has connected people from every kind of background, new technologies are being constantly released, and societies are attempting to educate themselves and others on large issues of global importance. Some would argue that these facts make this current century The Internet Age, The Technology Age, or The Age of Education, but, as a member of this current generation, I would like to make the argument that what we are doing today cannot be reduced to ideas as small as these. Internet, technology, and education are simply the manifestations of what I hope will be the greater theme of this age. This is the Age of Self-Awareness.
Globalization in the twentieth century was perhaps the greatest change the world has seen thus far. The ideas and customs of countries spread out to the larger world at an outstanding rate, international conflicts became abundant, and nations had to learn how to deal with major influences from other countries. The world became rapidly connected, and with that connection came not only conflict, secrecy, and fear, but also progress, growth, and knowledge. It became popular in some cultures to borrow from others, whether it was through international cuisine, dress, or customs. However, when this was attempted, it was not always done correctly or properly. Customs of Eastern countries were soon Westernized and Americanized. In other words, they were simplified so much that the original customs were lost in favor of the “Western” versions. As the turn of the twenty-first century came, however, a greater self-awareness developed, and we, as an international community, began to understand that what started as an attempt to understand and enjoy other cultures had turned into cultural appropriation. We, as a global community, began attempts to change this.
This self-awareness has not been limited to cultural appreciation and appropriation. Advances in technology through the internet have made it possible for people from all over the world to start global conversations about the shared global society in which we live. This is important, as the first step to achieving progress is understanding what can be changed and improved; to do that, we need to start talking. Through blogs, online videos, and social media, the internet has become a crucial tool in allowing the spread of ideas. They have “democratized” information. People freely share ideas.
Unfortunately, this free sharing of information means that those who share their opinions face scrutiny, and even harsh criticism and hatred, from their oftentimes anonymous audience. This criticism has been present all along, to some extent, but it has now become an unprecedented force. It does, though, serve as a sort of check-and-balance system. Whenever someone publishes a text online that is controversial in nature, there typically is an immediate check from another perspective, and on some occasions, a conversation is started, letting both sides of the argument make their opinion known – and allowing them to listen to other opinions, too.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, and when it comes to publishing opinions in such a public way, there are many, many instances of excessive criticism and contentious arguments on social media. The internet is the ideal platform to give exposure to new, intelligent thoughts and ideas, but it’s also a great medium for ignorant ideas, too.
The current generation is very literate when it comes to these new technological developments. Though many in older generations are, too, some view these new technologies with suspicion. Members of older generations, especially Baby Boomers, oftentimes describe this current generation as degrading past accomplishments. With our apparent addiction to cell phones, little to no civic activism, and a vast ignorance of global problems, it’s completely logical that older generations would think this about us.
While I don’t believe that my generation has degraded humanity’s many achievements, I do understand that we are facing major social problems, and they all come back to self-awareness. In every population, there are those who don’t see past their own needs and wants. There is an obsession with perfection, no matter the task or goal. Social media accounts are idealized versions of lives. Not only do teenagers and twenty-somethings share only the best parts of their lives on social media, but their day-to-day activities revolve around this stylized “lifestyle.” Whenever a group of friends goes somewhere, many of them have probably already determined the location, pose, and caption of their Instagram post for later in the day. Once the picture is taken, many will edit their pictures to remove any “flaws” they perceive in themselves. After they have posted, the real addiction starts—watching how many people “like” their photos. Some are so upset by low feedback that they try to maximize their likes by waiting for the ideal point in the day to post their pictures to gain the most likes, and a few even pay for followers and likes. An obsession of self is causing this, and it is being forced on us from a very young age.
We as members of this society try to manipulate and control the way in which others perceive us. This leads us to the many different highlights of this generation, whether it is global awareness, social activism, or an idealized outward appearance through “perfected” social media accounts and physical appearance. This will be defined as the Age of Self-Awareness, but the connotation of this title has yet to be determined, and, like the many generations before us, there will likely be arguments over the connotation.
As each successive generation becomes increasingly more self-aware, the time is coming when each individual must make a choice—to remain solely self-obsessed and continue to focus on matters as asinine as the number of likes his or her selfie receives, or to use the many advances that have been made in this age to look outward, at helping the global community. Members of today’s society have a chance to build on all that has been done before. If we utilize the education many of us have had the opportunity to receive to make genuine attempts to better the world in which we live, imagine what could be done. We could solve many of the world’s problems, from hunger and disease to violence and ignorance. We could achieve more, experience more, and be more. However, what could make this the most successful and fulfilled generation in human history is the very thing that may cause it to be the least.
Through human history, our diverse needs intensified and seeking esteem and self-actualization have peaked since the Renaissance. However, since then, we have struggled in order to reach that self-actualized state, and it seems that now many people cannot reach as high as esteem. This is apparent through the social media obsession previously discussed. So, this is the challenge for this generation that will likely determine whether this will be The Age of Self-Awareness or Self-Obsession—in order to reach the former and avoid the latter, we must strive for self-actualization. We must refocus our lives on problem solving, morality, creativity, innovation, and justice. We must go beyond ourselves in order to be aware of not just ourselves, but the place each of us holds in this world. This is the key difference between self-awareness and self-obsession: those who are self-aware focus on themselves only inasmuch as it allows them to understand what they are capable of doing for others.
Each of us has a choice. We, the people of today’s world, have an opportunity. We have been given knowledge from past generations that could make us the most self-aware generation ever, but it is our choice what to do with that awareness. Do we ignore it, or do we utilize it to leave this world a better place than we found it?
In order to do the latter, we must change – we must begin to truly consider the effects of social media, the internet, globalization, and education; and then we must use these many resources to improve the larger human community. This is not an impossible task; we need only look up and begin to pay attention to the world around us in order to see what needs to be done. In a globalized world, we can work together for change. With the internet, we can discover new information and communicate ideas to the masses. And then one day, with education, we can take all that we have learned, created, and changed, and teach it to the next generation so they can be even greater than we hopefully will be.
The world we leave the next generation will define this one. So, it’s up to us: will our self-awareness diminish into self-obsession, or will it allow us to be great, continuing the legacy of those who came before us?