How I became a 100-year-old, motorcycle riding, white evangelical hip-hop member of a steel drum band begins with my consideration of why today’s generation of young people are not a visible political presence when the entire civil rights movement is going quietly to its grave.

I have spent a lot of time hoping, waiting for a new wave of the civil rights movement to take hold, a movement embodying the civic energy of the 1960s as reinvigorated by the youth of today. I wonder why there is such apathy.

My students are, on the whole, less anxious about this than I am. They tell me that activism hasn’t disappeared–it’s just all happening in cyberspace. The Internet is their commons. I am glad to hear it, and when I think about MoveOn.org, it seems reasonable that there might be real movement by real bodies. At the same time, as anyone in academia knows, those of college age and below are online all the time. Even in class, the laptops are burning up–they’re taking notes ostensibly, checking cites and sources not sites and solitaire, the busy little bees. Yet however genuinely engaged in their classes they may be, it is also true that often we teachers can’t see their lips moving anymore, just the tips of their noses over the raised tops of their laptop screens. They speak, they interact, but always a part of their heads, a slab of their faces, an ear or an eye, is sucked into those powerful machines. You can see them receding–heads, necks, arms, torsos disappearing into the fog. Sometimes I just want to pull them out by their feet and manacle them to their chairs.

Recently, I joined Facebook and MySpace, two of the more popular networking sites, to see if I could incorporate some of it into a lecture, nudge them back to what I think of as the real world, from the inside out. For all the much-discussed–and valid–questions of sexual predation, what was most striking to me about the social climate of these sites are the invisible hands that seem to be guiding what goes on. It’s often said of MySpace, for example, that the participants “choose” to foreground their interests so as to be connected to other like-minded souls. But you don’t just choose by wandering and grazing–you proceed by filling out themed questionnaires and following links and pursuing guided suggestions. If you choose a Paris Hilton-themed path, you might be asked how often you go shopping. If you choose hip-hop, you’re asked to “fess up to the acts of a true thug.” The jokey, formulaic questions demand to know if you’ve ever smoked or used drugs or committed a crime, or what, by the way, your sexual orientation is. They ask how you see yourself dying and on what date, how many guns you own, how many orgasms you have in a day and how much money you make. Who would you be if you were a famous dictator? Do you like Hello Kitty? What would you name your own personal police force? The sites analyze and organize your personality as though rendering a horoscope, based not on the stars but on what your dream car would be.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to question Rupert Murdoch’s ownership of MySpace more closely, given its structured invitations for people to sort themselves into cascading ranks of adolescent sexism and sexiness, foul gangsta language and multiple temptations to transgression. If I were a data miner, I’d be in there every day, grazing and hunting and gathering, sorting and profiling and pre-empting for a rainy day.

To say that these sites are not private understates the problem. “Going public” implies a group so massive that some anonymity is guaranteed; you can lose yourself in a crowd in real space. But cyberspace is like entering an obsessively unforgiving world with no capacity to forget. Even if the human administrators mean you well, the machines are inherently promiscuous and literal-minded. If you are a white Episcopalian from the suburbs of Connecticut who wears polo shirts and plaid boating shorts, you may find yourself cruelly redirected along life’s cyber-path if you disguise yourself as a Confederate flag-loving Wiccan headed for Chocolate City in your Escalade with the gun rack and spinning hubcaps. (Try it out! You could be both these people and more!)

This is lots of fun, assuming there are no consequences. If there are overseers with stern standards and no sense of humor–well then, that could make a difference. Small droppings of letters and slurrings of words could have life-changing consequences–my spell-checker recently changed “Jerry Falwell” to “Jerry Falafel.” At present, such errors are as frequent as dust bunnies–particularly for those with common last names–yet determine whether you get to vote, whether your welfare check is cut off or your insurance processed, or whether you spend years in the stalls of Guantánamo Bay. We need some process–due process–enabling us to distinguish ourselves in this Kafkaesque landscape.

In the meantime, a generation raised on the Net is becoming adept at proliferating many different identities for one life. The medium invites all of us to generate multiple brands of ourselves. It makes me wonder, this evolution into a high-tech future: In a world given over to purchase, cover and disguise, might the pursuit of ideas not be nearly as important as a talent for manipulating appearances according to the urgencies of escape or the conveniences of entering new markets?

A friend whose grandfather fled pogroms and fascism spoke of what it took to live in those times: “They had to speak six languages,” he said. My students will survive by having 600 e-identities. They will have more colors than a chameleon, changing race and gender, upgrading religion, downsizing dreams, outsourcing home as a page. They live in a land so unimaginable to me as to earn the label “foreign”–even as I tootle around it on my newly imagined motorbike.

“You have 733 new friends,” blinks the screen of my computer, gleefully, gaily, as though I really, really do have 733 friends. The thrumming steel drums of my newfound identity notwithstanding, I feel lonely. This is not about substantive engagement, but numbers. It’s ruled by assortive principles and the misplaced faith that an actuarial table is any kind of community–beloved, political or “other” wise.