The screen generation, Munro and gender


The screen generation, Munro and gender

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH introduces a book that everyone should read, looks back on Alice Munro's oeuvre and remains a keen fan of Judith Butler.


THE future is not the dystopian world we see in movies and TV series. The future is already with us. We are increasingly indulging in user-friendly casual stupidity on a daily basis. This is what Jonathan Haidt says in The Anxious Generation. I fully believe him.

I recently saw a bunch of kids on a playground in Somerset West taking a break, cellphones wherever you look. In Pringle Bay, our municipal baboon herders walk around with cellphones in their hands all day. I believe Haidt.

But let me pick up the story from biological science.

Babies who never crawl become clumsy adults who struggle with balance. Crawling is the phase in which the brain develops tentacles in your nervous system that govern balance, body coordination, movement, spatial orientation, and things like agility and quick reactions. If you move around on your butt and never learn to crawl, you'll never be a good dancer. Crawling is one of the most important phases in your development as a human.

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New paradigm

Toddlers and children who never learn to play with others will have different socialisation rituals than children who grew up before the advent of Generation Z, thus before 1995. Everywhere, you see children and teenagers bowed over their cellphones and tablets. This is the most visible sign of the new paradigm, which Haidt describes in The Anxious Generation as the rewiring of humanity. We are raising children for their own destruction.

It's about connecting with other people. No one needs to be physically in another's presence any more. You just need to have language at your disposal. With the exception of cellphone conversations (and with them video conversations), most conversations are asynchronous. With WhatsApp, you can stretch a conversation over days and months. You never have to answer right away. Many conversations have many recipients, turning conversations into prompts or hidden marketing. And there is a feeble security guard — people can be blocked but not fully turned away.

The further you progress with this book, the deeper your distress. Put yourself in the shoes of a Generation Z person in Gaza today. No communication, no contact. No cellphone or tablet offering protection against harsh reality — because you only knew that reality in megapixels. Life is not a computer game where you activate weaponry and ammo at the touch of a button and let yourself move on to the next level. Your parents, who still played with toy guns and soccer balls on the dirt roads and learnt to use their imaginations to solve problems, are better equipped to face life's hazards.

Haidt identifies mental health as the area where the new technology has the greatest influence. The way children are raised has changed. Parents use cellphones and tablets as bulwarks against horrible experiences. But what they're essentially doing is putting their kids in a cocoon where their sleep patterns are disturbed, in which they don't learn to socialise, in which they develop a capacity for concentration that makes ADHD seem like meditation — and in which they become addicted to their devices as a way of connecting to life, people and the spectrum of imagination.

Babies need to learn to crawl for the sake of their physiological development. The rest of the story? Haidt thinks our salvation lies in good parenting. Sounds simple, but is it realistic to expect people to be good parents if they've also become caught up in the cyber charm?

Haidt suggests solutions. The new technology cannot be wished away. His analysis of the human condition right now is terrifying — his solutions are what make this book dazzling.

For me, there are now two books that you have to read to understand human interaction with the new technology, and to plan for the future. Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Anxious Generation. And read the books, don't ask AI for a summary.

The Anxious Generation by Jonathan Haidt was published by Penguin Putnam and costs R633 at Exclusive Books.

Huge insight

Alice Munro had dementia for the last 12 years of her life, so when seeking out for her best writing, you have to look at anthologies that have been published with her approval.

It is a testament to her greatness as a short story writer that in these two collections, as well as her “novel", Lives of Girls and Women, there is only one duplication of a short story. The “novel" consists of short stories that are loosely autobiographical and do not need to be read chronologically.

One can obviously go back to the 15 volumes she published between 1968 and 2012, but in the three titles below you'll find the best of Munro.

Two stories deserve special mention:

“Silence" and “The Bear Came Over the Mountain".

The authorship and insights are staggering.


Lying Under the Apple Tree by Alice Munro was published by Vintage and costs $6.95 at Amazon.

My Best Stories by Alice Munro, with an introduction by Margaret Atwood, was published by Penguin Books Canada and costs R472.29 at Amazon.

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro was published by Vintage and costs R270 at Amazon.





There are people who go ballistic when they hear Judith Butler's name. I'm an unabashed fan. Not only because of her views on gender and the way in which it has the far-right on the warpath, but because she writes about the way in which we lose freedoms, rights and common sense by allowing large groups of people to be silenced to death and their rights removed just because we are afraid of becoming concerned.

Gender is Butler's frame of reference, but she also makes the connection to the fascist spirit that is raging internationally. This is why Who's Afraid of Gender? is such a bold attempt to make this whole problem accessible to the ordinary reader.

Who's Afraid of Gender? by Judith Butler was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and costs R633 at Exclusive Books.

Note from the editor

You read it here first. Look at what Kerneels wrote last June about Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck, the book that was announced this week as winner of the International Booker Prize:

I've often wondered if men and women experience certain types of books differently. Jenny Erpenbeck is a writer who deals, in a most refined way, with the frolicking of the human soul in the first flush of romance. She renders the female and male perspectives on this relationship accessible. But it's when the first flush transitions into hesitation and a slower pace that Erpenbeck reveals her mastery. I can't remember the last time I was moved in this way by narrative, or reacted so emotionally to something.

Michael Hoffman translated the novel into English, and I am grateful for the elegance of his work. So far, for me this is the novel of the year.

Read his review here. Well called, Kerneels!

♦ VWB ♦

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