Recently, while reading a movie review, I came across something that was really frightening:
Here’s a thought that will fester for all of you folks out there slowly aging as you read this: recently a friend noted that if Universal greenlit and released a remake of BACK TO THE FUTURE today and Marty McFly traveled back the same amount of time as in the original, he would land smack dab in the middle of 1980. Let that sink in for a moment. That’s how BACK TO THE FUTURE looked to our parents.
Yikes. Digging a little deeper, it would seem that the author’s “friend” probably found this idea in Chuck Klosterman’s recent book, “Eating the Dinosaur.”
A contributing editor for Esquire magazine, Klosterman is best known for his columns and books analyzing popular culture, with a particular focus on music. I’ve always enjoyed Klosterman’s writing, but I’ve almost always completely disagreed with his tastes. His inherent contrariness is what makes him entertaining because he spends “an inordinate amount of time searching for the underrated value in ostensibly stupid things.”
“Eating the Dinosaur“ is a step up for Klosterman. While still as contrary as ever, he seems to have matured to a point at which he doesn’t need to force his tastes on the reader. This frees him up to dig deeper into questioning why we do the things we do.
While the Back To The Future factoid provides a compelling lede for a movie review — and it certainly made me feel terribly, terribly old — the review’s author misses out on the deeper point Klosterman makes:
Before [Michael J.] Fox plays “Johnny B. Goode” at the high school dance, he tells his audience, “This is an oldie . . . well, this is an oldie where I come from.” Chuck Berry recorded “Johnny B. Goode” in 1958. Back to the Future was made in 1985, so the gap is twenty-seven years. I’m writing this essay in 2009, which means the gap between 1985 and today is twenty-four years. That’s almost the same amount of time. Yet nobody would refer to Back to the Future as an “oldie,” even if he or she was born in the 1990s. What seems to be happening is a dramatic increase in cultural memory: As culture accelerates, the distance between historical events feels smaller. The gap between 2010 and 2000 will seem far smaller than the gap between 1980 and 1970, which already seemed far smaller than the gap between 1950 and 1940.
Though Klosterman leaves it at that, the Internet is an obvious driving force behind this expansion of cultural memory, and it’s interesting how often mention of “new media” creeps into Klosterman’s trademark in-depth analyses of subjects like ABBA or the wildcat offense in football. Though our society is changing more and more rapidly, we no longer leave anything behind. If you want to explain the term “jumping the shark” to someone, you pull up a YouTube clip of Fonzie from Happy Days. The sorts of things that would live on only in our memories (and get mythologized and embellished due to nostalgia and our faulty recall) are all readily available for scrutiny. There’s something about this that bonds us all together, that allows for a common frame of reference and understanding.
Common bonds aside, is this a good thing? As Kent noted in his recent review of Jaron Lanier’s new book on open networked culture:
Lanier talks about the extended neoteny our rich culture is allowing, and how this extended childhood is exerting an oddly conservative force on our culture — teens today don’t ever lose touch with friends, so don’t reinvent themselves as dramatically as people who could break cleanly from their pasts multiple times over their lifetimes
The same could be said about the cultural relics of our childhood. Instead of leaving behind Rocky and Bullwinkle and expanding our horizons, we can instead stay locked into nostalgia on the flying squirrel and moose’s very own Hulu page.
It’s fascinating to see how Lanier and Klosterman, two very different individuals with very different backgrounds, address very different topics but end up at the same point. Even more interesting is where they coincide with the subject of Klosterman’s final essay in “Eating The Dinosaur” — Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.
While Lanier decries the “hive mind” which makes it impossible for our young to develop as “fierce individuals,” Klosterman, in typical contrarian fashion, calls out the Unabomber as a damaged and deranged individual, but notes that much of his manifesto reflects the toll that increased media exposure has taken on our freedom of thought. He presents the premise that Homo sapiens have existed for at least 130,000 years, and for more than 129,900 of those years, any moving image a human saw was . . .
. . . actually real. . . . we were conditioned to understand that seeing something in motion had a specific meaning. But that understanding no longer exists; today we constantly “see things” that aren’t actually there. . . . Is there any possible way that 129,900 years of psychological evolution can be altered within the span of a single century?
This biological inability to cope with the pace of technology, Klosterman (and Kaczynski by proxy) argues, robs us of our “freedom to think whatever we want.” Citing Jerry Mander’s 1978 tome, “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” Klosterman asks the reader to picture a variety of scenarios:
- life in an Eskimo village
- a pre-operation conversation among doctors
- the flight of Amelia Earhart
- the Old West
- a basketball game
After you’ve done this, Mander asks the following:
It is extremely likely that you have experienced no more than one or two of [these situations] personally. Obviously, these images [inside your head] were either out of your own imagination or else they were from the media. Can you identify which was which?
The argument is that this pre-programming of our imaginations with stock images and ideas from movies, television, and the Internet takes away the freedom of creating our own visions, of using our own imaginations. As our technology becomes more and more futuristic, the paradox is that it’s burying us in our cultural past.
I don’t buy Klosterman’s (and Kaczynski’s) conclusion — that technology is ultimately bad for civilization — and I don’t think Lanier would agree either. But it does raise interesting questions about the difficulty of originality and creativity in a time of so much media inundation, and how this is affecting our culture.
While the Internet may indeed be making us smarter, is it also making us less interesting and original?
Technology has greatly democratized access to media and the tools of creation, but has this resulted in a revolutionary creative era? Have the past 10 years yielded an new major movements in art, fiction, film, dance, music, etc.? It’s certainly debatable. More people can create and be seen and heard, but has this meant more innovation?
The biggest trends I can see in music in recent years are a garage-rock revival and a re-hashing of “progressive rock“, a style so dreadful that punk rock was invented as an antidote to its overblown sense of self-worth. The wildly original and innovative use of sampling has now degraded into a shortcut for having to write your own melody. The “mash-up” fad speaks for itself: clever, to be sure, but brilliantly original? Not so much. Perhaps there is value in having to re-invent the wheel every now and again, rather than relying on already existing building blocks.
Once one accepts the loss of freedom of thought, Klosterman gives the reader two ways to react. Kaczynski abandoned society and went off to the wilderness, losing his mind to the point where he saw killing and maiming as legitimate publicity tools to get his message out. Klosterman instead surrenders:
The Internet is not improving our lives. It’s making things (slightly) worse. But because I’m not free–because I’m a slave to my own weakness — I can no longer imagine life without it. I love the internet . . . but I cannot be saved.
I’m not as pessimistic as Klosterman. I do think originality and creative thought can thrive, but as a species, we’re generally lazy and prefer to take the path of least resistance. This age of abundance gives us more of those easy stepping stones rather than forcing us to blaze our own trails. I’d like to think of this as an era of transition, a period where we are still trying to comprehend and move beyond what technology hath wrought.
The challenge, as the pace of technological change increases, is to adapt before the next paradigm buries us in a new set of issues.