This past Sunday, a couple hundred students made headlines by turning their backs on Vice President and former Indiana Governor Mike Pence as he began his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. These new graduates will hopefully soon discover that such behavior is not acceptable in a professional environment, at least not for the time being. Whether this will remain the case is a more troubling question as the rising Millennial generation builds a world for themselves that more and more resembles their insular and carefree college years. As a vision of things to come–or perhaps a warning–the Washingtonian magazine recently profiled a new type of communal apartments called “WeLive.”
WeLive offers many of the conveniences and comforts of the college dormitory experience. This trend towards “lifestyle” in real estate marketing is eerily similar to the language used by college admissions promotional materials. There are the same sort of planned community activity nights, plenty of “free” amenities, and most of all, an emphasis on building relationships and networking to improve one’s future career prospects–a sort of country club for hipsters. The much ridiculed “pajama boy” stereotype of Millennials could not be further from the truth, as the tenants are very much type-A go-getters. Still, there is a certain Peter Pan quality to pre-furnished apartments where nobody can be bothered to deal with mundane tasks like cooking, cleaning, laundry, or running errands.
With all the horrors and struggles in the world today–yesterday’s terrorist bombing in Manchester which was aimed mainly at defenseless women and children provides a brutal example–the newest graduates of Notre Dame look rather foolish, petty, and small by comparison. Ironically, the Vice President’s speech was about protecting exactly the kind of freedom that privileged Notre Dame students take for granted, both abroad and on campus. A college education is supposed to challenge students to think critically about their assumptions and preconceived notions, but instead, like many universities today, the “Standards of Conduct” for Notre Dame includes a prohibition on “unwelcome communications” as a behavior which is “clearly inconsistent with the University’s expectations for membership in this community.”
As we saw a few weeks ago in Berkeley, these restrictions on speech inevitably lead to violence. When our future leaders are no longer taught how to engage in civil debate and how to politely disagree, they will increasingly resort to riots and mayhem to get their way. Fortunately at Notre Dame the disruption to the commencement ceremony was non-violent, but it is clearly part of a larger trend towards lawless radicalism on college campuses. A student interviewed by CNN described the motivations for the walk-out by saying, “Either we are all Notre Dame or none of us are, ” which as nonsensical as it is, nevertheless has a disturbingly totalitarian ring to it.
In the case of WeLive, instead of expecting the government to take care of everything, Millennials are being trained to trust corporate entities to provide for all their food, furnishings, and entertainment in a self-contained little world. In return for these creature comforts, they can devote more of their time to being productive little worker bees who add value by spending all their waking hours thinking about the new social app they’re developing. Community living is all well and good–to a point. However, the implication is pretty clear that, just as with campus speech codes, only people who buy into the snowflake ethos of today’s college campuses would be welcome there.
For now, this is an experimental form of living that is self-selecting, but it’s not hard to imagine this lifestyle first becoming normal, and then eventually mandatory as a condition of employment for technology companies on the leading edge of innovation, much in the same way that many companies today offer irresistible incentives for tracking previously private choices about diet and exercise or force workers into open plan offices that stifle creativity and productivity. As idealistic college students grow into a world which coddles and comforts them through a perpetual childhood, they will increasingly assume that what is good for them is also good for everyone else. Cut off from disagreement and criticism, they will fail to seek feedback from the very people they ostensibly want to help in the futuristic utopia they aim to create.
No country ever fell into despotism because they thought they’d be worse off, but it’s always been tied to some promise of greater prosperity and security. As breathtaking as the last 60 years of progress has been, technology companies still have enormous untapped potential as engines of economic growth and greater prosperity for all. However, without deeper reflection on the purpose of the technology we create, technology also gives us the power to make our world into a bleak panopticon of soulless toil. Totalitarianism with white-glove service, a slick social media app, blond hardwoods, free beer, yoga classes, and an on-site gourmet chef is still totalitarianism.