Originally published – OCTOBER 08, 2005
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want to see a movie?”
“Which movie would you like to see: there are four playing now.”
“I don’t know.”
“Would you just prefer to go home?”
A scene not unlike the hallmark footage from the Ernest Borgnine movie “Marty” where two barflies trade rehearsed pleasantries, however this particular exchange was a variant on many which played similarly over this past weekend when my step-brother came for a visit. Aside, from being an exceptionally bright boy, I imagine he is a pretty typical fourteen-year-old: scruffy, attracted to skateboarding, and a natural but unholy obsession with acquiring an “I “heart” NY” thong for his Baptist girlfriend.
At supper, he would devour everything at the table while wearing his ipod. He would join the conversation when something piqued his interest, and only after asking us to repeat what we’d just said. Evenings were spent with the TV on while he SMS-ed friends from his cell phone on the couch, broken by: frequent checks of his email; Instant Messaging a completely different set of people; and surfing the web. Occasionally, he would check back with us and the program he was “watching.” I can’t tell you how many times I heard either: “Is this the part where…?” or “Did I already miss the…?”
Miss what? What could you possibly miss? I haven’t seen that much electricity coursing through anyone without a switch being thrown and a late stay-of-execution. Yet still, Chris is a brilliant boy. He’s a worldly traveler – mixing into multiple cultures with an ease that is enviable. How much of that is being recanted through iphoto scrapbooks and DVR replays? Is this now what passes for genuine experience? How do you catalogue “fond memories?”
If you can be everywhere at once, are you really anywhere at all? Of course, this transition is not without precedent, presently I sit here streaming audio on my laptop, typing eighty words a minute and answering occasional phone calls and email. The genealogy is highly traceable down to the generation we’ve arrived at. Yes, Chris is the next wave. Where once I might have once had my pretenses at cutting-edge, my domesticated evenings are spent thrilling at Giada De Laurentiis on the Food Network – soft-focus risotto recipes are hardly edgy fare.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (“Plugged In, but Tuned Out: Getting Kids To Connect to the Non-Virtual World,” Oct. 6, 2005) singled out this post-Y generation from, well… the rest of us. If mine was the generation that saw video games kill pinball, then his is the generation that could care less that last week, in a now multi-billion dollar industry, EA games was routed for screwing its employees on overtime pay.
The WSJ article bemoans what most of us have participated in over this last decade regarding the infringements of technology on personal space and how it shakes the family tree. There is nothing new there, at least in middleclass-America. It’s no longer a matter of wrestling with convergence technology or cross-platform models… that’s so 90s thinking, what with its picture-within-picture and interactive TV. His generation is adrenalized – a generation raised on multi-tasking would of course result to multi-tainment. Why suffer marginal television when you can do that plus… ? Why eat dinner with your family when you can listen to a comedy, text your friends, “and” have dinner?
“To repeat something once is one thing, to do it over and over is another thing again. Through repetition we can be led to a place where it may be difficult to differentiate, where there may be no telling where we are. If all is the same, over and over, then nothing is distinguishable; deprived of the means to measure, of the ability to tell one moment from another, or one point from the next, we slip, merge into an enveloping sameness and lose our place [ ed. Emphasis mine]” – Graham Gussin, “Out of It,” from “Nothing,” p.11, 2001
Which blue is your blue again? The desire for specificity and exclusivity are growing. As “simplicity” was largest marketable aspirant of the late 90s, I offer that we are now a society moving into more selfish territory. Drawing lines is vogue because of the overload. We no longer find it palpable to coat our environment with thin zen and canned hubris. Name it. Design it. Brand it. It is said, that Television destroyed the neighborly aspect of society. People no longer had reason to visit for entertainment or to fill the void. It would follow that personal television and other forms of isolated entertainment would continue that trend wrenching the individual away from their peer group or family (always maintaining that opt-in element. “Is this the part that… ?”)
That concern is also echoed larger: from the self into the neighborhood: As we noted recently in a sidebar, the town of East Aurora, New York, has twice fended off the advances of Wal-Mart. The community has gone one step further to embrace the character of the town and to shore up the mythology of its main street – passing legislation to deny permits for drive-thru windows, and marveling in wooden garbage cans. As iconoclastic and hostile as legislating against cookie-cutter development is, imagine that struggle enlarged further: on a national scale?
Brussels has so muddled the EU constitution that it’s spared the UK from some serious, inevitable hectoring over its heritage. The breadth of a unified Europe may very well mean the end of a representational Democracy for Englanders – a position which has hit a chord this summer. The September issue of the New Criterion addresses the British angst, referring to Andrew Roberts’ article (same issue) regarding the bicentennial of the battle of Trafalgar, for which they preface:
“Consider, for example, the festivities organized around the two-hundredth anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, one of the greatest naval battles in history and one in which heroism, military strategy, and an absolute commitment to duty conspired to lead England into definitive victory over a voracious continental tyranny. Not, of course, that we are allowed to express the matter in those rude terms. As Andrew Roberts observes, this summer, in anticipation of the anniversary of Trafalgar on October 21, a quarter of a million people gathered to watch the reenactment of the battle – well, of “a” battle, for we really mustn’t say which one: In order to save the French and Spanish participants in the Review any embarrassment at having been defeated two hundred years ago., the reenactment of the battle was fought not between the British and Combined Fleets, but between what were euphemistically dubbed the red and blue fleets. Although an actor playing Nelson, with eye patch and empty shirtsleeve, was rowed on board the sailing ship representing HMS Vicorty, for the reasons of political correctness the Navy organizers did not want formally to identify the reenactment as actually being of Trafalgar itself.
‘In October 1805, when news of the battle reached London, “The Times” announced the event with a three-part banner headline that advised Londoners, first, that a great victory had been won, second, that the French fleet had been destroyed, and third, that Admiral Nelson had been killed. Today, it’s prizes for everyone, as the dodo in “Alice in Wonderland” insisted: nobody won, really, and let’s not be beastly to the French.”
Again, specificity and exclusivity are growing concerns: for Chris it’s a matter of addressing his world on his schedule no matter where he is; in East Aurora, it’s a matter of fixing Main Street ideals against the “erosion” of development; and if you’re a Londoner you’re wondering about the partitions of equality and the cost of participating in the European community.
The weekend finished and I sent Chris and his sister on their merry way. It was only after he was gone that it dawned on me that when I was his age, my father was nearly the age I am presently. It’s not that things change so much in such a short time (two decades between us) that I find interesting as it is how things change. Already so many people spend so much time “elsewhere.” Even withdrawn is drawing a line – if you’re not there, then where are you really?
Placement was a website that turned a critical eye on culture, with an emphasis on the importance of integrity in process over product. It published frequently from 2005 through 2006, as an online critique of art and design within contemporary culture. Placement provided original content by independent voices – something the internet is particularly good at offering but which blogs don’t seem to be very good at maintaining.
In order to save some of that work from the sands of time, I’ve archived selections from that work here: PLACEMENT Archive
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