Bridging the Divide: Dial Up Modems and Millennials

31 May 2020 | by

If you don’t hear this sound when reading it, you aren’t a millennial: “Ssshhhhhhhhk…. DA DONG DA DONG DI.” This is more than a throwaway comment related to my own childhood, it’s the sound of a dial up modem; the series of screeches that heralded the coming of a new technological age.  

As the internet becomes increasingly populated with luke-warm takes about whether boomers or millenials are to blame for the world’s ills, not enough attention is being paid to the mediums facilitating these conversations. Even less consideration is given to the ages of respective generations at the point at which the internet arrived and began rapidly changing the world. This is at the crux of what divides the millennial generation so starkly from our parents. 

The dial up modem stands for me as representative of the place of my fellow millennials: in-between the old and the new technological worlds. By inhabiting this space, I think we stand removed from the generations both before and after us. If you remember that sound as a child, there’s a chance you already know what I mean, but if not then humour me for a few minutes and I’ll try and explain.

A generation built on shifting ground

In our current age we spend a lot of time trying to categorise generations; inserting arbitrary cut-off points in time to create neat groups (which are then used to devise marketing strategies). This is an imprecise process, and so to reinforce these categorisations we create mythologies surrounding people born at certain times. These are used to explain stereotypical traits of each generation, adding weight to our agreed upon temporal dividing lines.

What comes to mind particularly vividly having grown up in the UK is the way my grandparents’ generation were talked about. The group we refer to as the ‘Silent Generation’ are those that lived through The Second World War. Certain elements of this struggle, such as the ‘Blitz spirit,’ have been absorbed into our national psyche – but the mythology of this generation is built upon living in times of scarcity. Having experienced rationing is cited as instilling an aversion to waste and inspiring a ‘make do and mend’ attitude. Today, this is regularly used to point the finger at today’s throwaway culture.

The boomer generation is often posited as the counterbalance to this: the post-war children who came of age in an era of prosperity (in the West at least). They lived through the uncertainties of the Cold War, but were largely able to build lives for themselves and afford property with any decent job. The typical ‘anti-boomer’ sentiment stems from a perception that this has made them unappreciative of the struggles faced by younger generations in more economically uncertain times. I’m not here to weigh in on any side of this debate; what interests me is that the framing of it, and how this is totally different from the attack lines pursued against younger generations.

The ways in which millennials (and also generation z) are criticised and stereotyped are more technological than financial or cultural: always on their phones, blind to the world, care more about taking pictures of food than eating it. These critiques are often supported by spurious economic ‘arguments,’ such as the infamous, “you could easily save a deposit on a house if you stopped buying avocado toast” story. Such headlines are deliberately provocative, and make for great clickbait to fuel the aforementioned being-on-your-phone-all-the-time situation. The economic deriding of millennials tends to stay in the realms of ridiculous stories such as this. Something that looks set to continue, as many of my generation are now facing our second major global recession before turning 30. 

Instead the children of the late 20th century are derided for being vainnarcissistic, and having tiny attention spans because of the one-click availability of anything we desire. We are a group defined by our relationship with technology, and negatively stereotyped as being slavishly devoted to our digital lives – the feature of existence which most divides our experience of life from that of our parents and grandparents. 

The roots of this lie in the fact that we were young when the world started changing at breakneck pace and we’ve always been trying to keep up.

The formative years of the millennial generation were marked by a radical overhaul of the way in which information is accessed and communicated across the world. We were the generation that were suddenly able to connect with each other and build communities in a way totally alien to any of the adults in our lives – and it all started with waiting for your mum to get off the landline so you could ‘bump’ your friends on msn messenger.

Why Dial Up Modems?

If you can remember a dial up modem, you can remember the time before everything changed. It stands out in my mind because of its instantly-recognisable sound, and for the rift between the world before and after I first heard it.

Millennials are a bridge generation. The boomers grew up in a world without so much as a mobile phone, generation x had already reached early adulthood when technological change started gathering pace, and generation z are truly – to use a horrible piece of marketing jargon – ‘digitally native.’ Millennials, on the other hand, will always have a foot in both worlds:  we grew up in a constantly changing digital space, but with at least part of our childhoods spent in a world without the internet.

Once we had access to the “information superhighway” (I still cannot believe this phrase was used seriously), our generation started diverging from our parents rapidly. As inquisitive children and young adults with access with one of the most revolutionary technological innovations of all time, we started exploring. 

Staying in constant communication with friends was now possible through messaging apps, everyone created email accounts with addresses they still cringe about, and kids in their bedrooms started posing a serious threat to billion-dollar industries by pirating content. Anyone who remembers using the internet as a child will remember the bootleg feel of it, and in a way it was our early experimentations that helped shape the online world of today. A couple of my other favourite “you’re a millennial if you remember this” examples are Limewire and YouTube to mp3 Converter – but these are the superstructure to the dial up modem’s base.

Early exposure to the internet divided us from the boomers and generation x, but the very fact we experienced this as a change also works to distance us from generation z. We had been partly raised in a world where communication was enabled by landline phones and letters, and in which entertainment was found either on TV or actively sought out. The revolutionary capabilities of the internet were something to which we had to adapt; for the generation after us, it’s just a fact of life. This is what makes the high-pitched screeching sound of the dial up modem such a specific lightning rod for millennials.

It is important here to say that this is not in any way meant to come across all, “we need to return to the golden age when instead of looking at screens we carefully examined bark and dried leaves all day.” Living in a time of such unprecedented technological progress has in many ways been amazing, and to pretend it hasn’t yielded advantages would be ridiculous. 

It’s more that the formative years for myself and other millennials span two different realities – as if we had been asleep and the screech of the modem was our alarm clock. We’re not the generation who were born with phones in our hands, but we are the generation that experienced the advent of this new technology at a young age, and have subsequently grown up in a world shaped by it. I don’t think we have done enough to examine what effect that has had in terms of dividing us from the other generations around us, and what I am trying to do here is stimulate that conversation.

Ever-present uncertainty

It is undeniable that the shifts in the different technologies available to us over the past few decades have completely changed the way in which we are able to interact with both each other and the world around us, but it is almost impossible for us to know exactly how. The uncertainty this has spawned is a key part of the millennial identity.

We’re still unpicking the effects that our new inter-connected world has had (in fact, that is quite literally what I’m doing right now). These discussions are being had even as further developments continue to happen in the world around us every day – with both positive and negative effects on the people living through them. 

The advent of the internet has enabled us to maintain connections and relationships with people everywhere, access a huge world of educational resources at the touch of a button, and share our ideas with the world. However, conversely, constantly being contactable has caused a surge in anxiety, freely accessible resources have come into conflict with traditional educational institutions (something which is accelerating due to the coronavirus pandemic), and the ability for individuals to find an audience for content of all forms online has undercut the business models of media organisations. This has led to a lack of decently paid work in traditional media, and has left us with a world full of isolated and often precarious ‘content creators’ and ‘influencers’ living off clicks, as people still strive to get their voices heard.

The social media platforms that allowed people to establish online audiences similarly came with unforeseen problems (at least for the people signing up). Not only do services like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram now make us ever-more constantly contactable, but societies across the world only recognised that these ‘free’ services were in fact huge data mining operations after the fact. At the time myself and my fellow millennials were signing up for Facebook accounts at school, we were completely unaware the extent to which the data economy would shape our lives, and we willingly handed over vast quantities of digital information without even noticing. This encapsulates the place of millennials as a guinea pig generation: benefitting from new technology, but seeing the products and services we used change shape after we had used them as foundations to build our new world upon.

I had the idea for this essay long before COVID-19 spread across the world, but it’s impossible to ignore the influence of the virus on what I’ve been talking about in this essay. Currently lockdown culture looks set to entrench and expand technological ways of living, with the likely result of transforming work culture just when many millennials were finding a degree of post-2008 stability. After getting used to a startup culture shaped by trendy shared office spaces, it looks like many jobs in large cities might be about to embrace the work from home capabilities of video conferencing. Once again, technology enables a change that is not definitively good or bad; it is just another in a long line of changes.

Millennials live in, and to an extent have created, this world; but it is important to remember we are the oldest generation to live in the new reality while still having a memory of the old one. We’ve lived in a world moving ever-faster from the one into which we were born, and it all traces back to the moment our dial up modems screeched into life.