'How do we take control of our lives in the digital age?'

2017-03-30
How do we take control of our lives in the digital age? What happens when a generation gets all their sex education from the hardest of hard-core porn? How do we respond to horrific images of gay Middle Eastern teenagers being thrown off roofs popping up randomly on our feeds? Why are we so scared of young people taking power when every other generation has royally messed things up? These were some of the questions sloshing round my brain when I wrote Natives, my new play appearing at Southwark Playhouse from March 29. Reflecting on the so-called ‘digital native’ generation, it’s a sometimes-dark, sometimes-celebratory look at what it means to grow up with the online world shaping every aspect of your identity – from sex and sexuality through to seemingly every single minor decision you make. Theatre has so been far pretty crap at reflecting our lives in the digital age – and it’s particularly bad when it comes to representing the most digitally-connected generation of them all: teenagers. In writing Natives, I’ve discovered it’s an incredibly hard thing to show on stage: how do you talk about social media without wanging up a load of text messages, Hollyoaks-style, on a giant screen? How do you move the conversation about digital natives beyond the usual dangers-of-the-internet newspaper headlines? I’m not sure I have the answers to these questions but I wanted to have a go. To try to write something that reflects a bit of where we are right now and where we might be heading next. Featuring myths, magic and a fair smattering of pop music, Natives tells the story of three nameless teens across the world on one average, life-altering day – from a 14-year-old lad encountering extreme homophobia to a privileged young woman finding peer affirmation one purchase at a time. While ultimately it’s a work of imagination from my own rather-limited brain, I was nonetheless spurred on by the conversations I had in the course of writing Natives. Such as with the young guy who moved to the UK from Afghanistan and found life at a London school more confusing than living in a war zone; the secondary school teacher who had to explain to a thirteen-year-old student that double penetration isn’t a thing most people want to do on a first date, conversations with kids who had reinvented themselves and caused small-scale social revolutions in their hometowns, and some who had almost destroyed their lives with one single FB post. The thing that became most apparent? That all the stuff teenagers are now dealing with is all the stuff they’ve always had to deal with – only amplified and heightened and distorted in strange new ways. All these ideas of identity and belonging and personal responsibility. Figuring out who you are at a weird, exciting, terrifying moment in time. All the things we’re pretty much all dealing with right now, in fact. And while I don’t think this generation of digital natives has fully exploited the power that they now have –  the power to organize, to revolt, to actually change things on a massive scale – it’s surely only a matter of time before they do. And personally, I’m excited to see what they’ll do next. Isn’t it time the natives took over? Natives  is at Southwark Playhouse from March 29 to April 22. WORDS: GLENN WALDRON