Millennials, the Punchline of the Year is You

Shia LaBeouf, a Harvard undergrad, a truly unlucky online dater, and the week the internet sapped everyone of competence

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Technology shapes generations. The affordable and reliable automobile powered our grandparents’ expansion into the suburbs. Prescription drugs will make our parents live longer, easier and healthier lives than ours. And we millennials? We’ve got the Internet. Do we ever have the Internet.

The Internet’s chief virtue, to all of us 20-something Youngs without venture-capital funding for our apps (and to almost all of us with venture-capital funding), is its ability to automate nuisances. Tasks that once demanded tremendous exertion — say, walking across the room to the CD player, finding the CD I wanted, placing it in my finicky boombox, waiting for it to whirr to attention, thumbing the forward button until the machine would play the track I wanted, and then walking back to my chair — now happen with the flick of a pointer finger. I wanted to switch tracks on my iTunes, playing on my laptop, all the way across the room. (Wait. I’m lying. The laptop was on a chair, and I was reclining on a couch that was slightly more than the length of one of my arms away from said chair.) So I cued up the Remote app on my iPhone and changed the song myself. What a life! The spoils of the automated world cascade unto me, as they would unto any other millennial; for them, during this holiday season, I am exceedingly thankful.

These treats, though, come with high unseen costs. The retail prices sting surprisingly little — but the non-monetary outlays, well, they burn. One millennial who can speak firsthand of these high costs is Shia LaBeouf, the raffish actor of Transformers fame who also styles himself an auteur. It is in this endeavor that LaBeouf has fallen flat on his face (as opposed to in his films, where he would consider himself lucky to have caused an event of such kinetic magnitude).

LaBeouf directed a 2012 short film, Until Dec. 16, one would have imagined that he wrote the film, too. But no, as BuzzFeeᴅ revealed (as though the saga lacked intellectual-property intrigue!), he had filched the plot from “Justin M. Damiano,” a 2007 comic by artist Daniel Clowes. (Good artists copy. Shia LaBeouf steals.)  And it got worse: When LaBeouf apologized later that day on Twitter, his first tweet bore a nontrivial resemblance to a four-year-old Yahoo! Answers post. Lo, he had plagiarized his apology for plagiarism, inadvertently updating that old Jonathan Lethem Harper’s essay for the 140-character set.

If you think we’re being hard on Even Stevens, you should meet Ryan Covington. Around the same time as LaBeouf’s online meltdown, Covington was having computer problems of his own. Police in Richmond, Virginia, reported Wednesday that they had tracked down the 24-year-old, who had skipped an earlier court date, on the dating site OKCupid. Posing as “Sashaxopowo,” the police invited Covington on a blind date.

Covington made his way to the Galaxy Diner, police said, expecting to find the 27-year-old Sasha wearing a red skirt. He found Lt. Daniel Minton instead. “He kept saying ‘I’m supposed to be meeting someone here on a blind date’ and I said ‘well, you have a warrant for your arrest you’re coming with us instead,’” Minton told the local NBC affiliate.

Were it only that LaBeouf and Covington had the worst weeks among millennials. But no, that title belongs to Harvard sophomore Eldo Kim, charged on Dec. 17 with making a bomb threat to get out of a final exam the day before. College students have long tried all sorts of ruses to duck impending deadlines; bomb threats offer the most vivid option in the frazzled procrastinator’s bag of tricks. And according to the FBI’s affidavit, Kim’s intentions were just that understandable and benign — he allegedly told investigators that he mentioned a “shrapnel bomb” in his emails to Harvard employees and others only because it sounded scarier. Why would he have done it? That answer’s easy.

But why did he do it the way he did it? According to the affidavit’s allegations, Kim used Tor, an online anonymity routing service, to access Guerrilla Mail, a website that generates email messages anonymously. Kim, the FBI reports, overlooked the simple fact that all of his traffic was traveling through the Harvard network to which he was connected. Obfuscation technologies do not alter the fact that someone is watching your communications.

The young man — who isn’t old enough to enjoy a pint of Boston lager — now faces five years of jail time. The statutes are clear. All for a threat that never had any teeth to it, one borne of desperation and naivete.

It would surely have been better for his sake, and perhaps no worse for Harvard’s or the police’s, had he not been discovered. Had he used a payphone, as would have any other selfish, unthinking but non-violent bomb-threatener of yore. But no, the millennial, allegedly thinking the security tools all kinds of hackers have come to love could automate anonymity, left a trail of especially garlicky bread crumbs. At least he didn’t have to go outside.

This is what the internet has done for us. Automation technologies minimize one’s contact with modern life’s two most odious poxes: other humans and the outdoors. Flag down a yellow cab? Call a taxi dispatcher? Yeah, right — there’s Uber, USA Today‘s tech company of the year, the app-based service now available in 30 American cities. You can see a photo of your driver, for instance, and track his car as it comes toward you. Life’s little pleasures, you know?

Too bad that in blizzard conditions, Uber will wring its customers for a price increase just shy of eightfold. And too bad that the company deploys slightly lighter surge pricing in the absence of surge conditions. Too bad that gouging has infiltrated a business regulated by many major metropolitan governments to avoid that precisely. There’s a cost to convenience. And sometimes it’s $415.

If only the real toll of these niceties came in currency. Instead it comes in stupidity, and in shame (or its disconcerting absence). It comes in a slow cerebral bleed. The punchline of the year is You.