The Quarantine Generation:

Baptized by the Internet

Words Miles DeSouza
Illustration Liza Hale Doyle

They say younger generations have different sensibilities than their older counterparts when it comes to their palate for experiences vs. material things. While that might be true—today’s influencer prefers Coachella tickets over a Sephora gift card—have you ever considered the response you’d get if you offered a young adult access to a well of exclusive Fornite skins, bespoke in-game Animal Crossing merch, or even a vintage Bratz bomber jacket that perfectly fits an aspiring e-girl’s wardrobe? What can we make of this insight in light of a generation's desire for digital experiences and the virtual presentation of material things?

Let’s take a peek, starting on the ground floor and then head on up to the penthouse view. You’ll hear me use the word “we” as a self-referential catchall for the “Younger Generation.” This is purposeful. The commonly used terms “Gen Z” and “Millennial” are oft-debated and, at times, even accusatory. Age ranges for these classifications vary depending on who you ask and people even weaponize these labels for the sake of proving a point. Hence, some controversy. Some people see Gen Z—characterized by diversity, understanding of all things digital, and, somehow, wise beyond their years—as a badge of honor worn somewhat ironically. Whereas, others see them as disconnected from the realities of life: self-obsessed, unwilling to conform, and quick to judge. For the sake of argument, I’m impartial to both.

This isn’t to throw the bathwater out with the baby (Boomer, Zoomer, et al.) but to say that Quarantine has cast our generational differences into relief under our new, shared reality. Gen Z and Young Millennials, brought together by their relationship, or rather, tumultuous matrimony, with the internet. For us, the marriage was arranged and the terms were never defined from the outset. We were never aware of what the relationship would become and yet we find ourselves consumed by it so often that it’s hard to pull ourselves away.

Sounds like the beginnings to a dystopian rom-com. 

Now, with the world turned outside-in, we must confront the realities of this relationship. Although we need the internet, the internet, it often seems, doesn't quite need us. Moore's Law tells us that our binary companion will move on with or without us. So what do we do at this juncture? Do we pick up a book in an attempt to detox and digitally distance? Or do we double back Matrix-style to 1’s and 0’s? Most of us will choose the latter and the reality of that existence presents a lot more in the way of self-expression, escapism, and legitimate “activities” than this State of Quarantine (or even pre-COVID life) has to offer.

Consider the following hypothetical: You wake up on a lush, remote island alone. You are given all of the resources you need to farm, fish, harvest, exercise, and clothe yourself in accordance with your own style. At will, you travel to communal centers to meet up with a friend, discuss the yield of your latest harvest, trade goods, and maybe even go on a date. Life is void of stress. Sounds lovely for those seeking a simpler lifestyle, no?

Another scenario for a more social creature: You wake up living the life of an aspiring model. Your closet is full of designer garments and your inbox is overflowing with messages inviting you to all of your favorite outposts. During the day, you imbibe and socialize to your heart's desire and at night you walk in an invite-only runway show for your favorite designer. It’s your world and others are just living in it.

Seem appealing? Well, the millions upon millions of Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Sims 4 users would say so. Not to mention the millions of other gamers who live out their fantasies in other corners of the virtual ecosystem like Minecraft and Fortnite. But the blurring of the lines doesn’t stop there.

The Fabricant, the self-styled, leading digital fashion house, has made a point of making virtual reality a harbinger for a lived reality, rapidly approaching. They would also tell you that the digital world is continually bleeding into our physical one—and that they, along with Rosebud AI (the Build-A-Bear workshop for marketers in need of “models”) and Club404notfound (the “it” group of AI influencers) are the reasons why.

The Fabricant specializes in creating digital garments for the technologically and sartorially inclined. However much of an upstart, their operation has already partnered with the likes of PUMA, Napapijri, and Tommy Hilfiger. The idea is simple. Fashion, as it stands, is tremendously wasteful. People are creatures of habit—we consume unabashedly, especially during these days when getting fits off virtually is far more exciting than Zoom calls and Instagram scrolls. All of this amounts to a business model that plays to subconscious desires to own exclusive pieces while feeling as though you’re not contributing to the destruction of our planet. It’s conspicuous consumption for a digitally tethered, currently-quarantined, fashion gaggle. And the Younger Generation have already begun pegging it as fashion’s next move.

All of this amounts to a business model that plays to subconscious desires to own exclusive pieces while feeling as though you’re not contributing ot the destruction of our planet.

Sure, the juxtaposition of digital and physical worlds seems timely given our current circumstances. But this most certainly won't be the last time society is threatened, forced to remain inside or left with nothing but the screens in our shelters. Regardless of these existential threats, it's not as though we weren’t already drawing closer to these realities. We live in a world where digital currencies are transacted across similarly digital exchanges; there are AI influencers with social followings equivalent to international supermodels; there is digital art being created on blockchain technology and digital garments selling for upwards of $7K. Consumption has an appetite without end.

And, most importantly, there is our avatar-self, out there and connected to it all. So, what does this all mean both for the individual and the community?

There is a world being built within the internet right beneath our fingertips. It is advanced, welcoming, and very much serviceable in the instance that being indoors and staring at walls pushes you into a state of Black Mirror-like dissociation. The question is not if this virtual-artificial economy will supplant the material one but rather when? In light of our current pandemic, there seems no better time to create the virtual version of yourself and dive head first into the 1’s and 0’s than now.

Whether you like to fish, farm, dance at the disco, walk on the fashion runway, collect one-of a-kind digital garments, or blockchain-based art, this reality is here for you and it continues to forge its path and play home to millions that seek respite from a meatspace reality in flux.

My question to this “Quarantine Generation” is thus: Do you prefer virtual experiences or digital “material” things? ︎