Monday, November 30th, 2009

Staring Into The Abyss: A Frightening Glimpse Of The Future

Not you

Somewhere down in the Flatiron, out in Brooklyn, over in Queens or up in Harlem, cabals of bright young things are watching all the disruption with more than an academic interest. Their tiny netbooks and iPhones, which serve as portals to the cloud, contain more informational firepower than entire newsrooms possessed just two decades ago. And they are ginning content from their audiences in the form of social media or finding ways of making ambient information more useful. They are jaded in the way youth requires, but have the confidence that is a gift of their age as well.

That's David Carr, in his weekly media column, discussing the industry at present and in future. The column is vague in the way that the future of the media is vague-we all think we know how things might shape up but none of us are really sure-but it also contains what feels like the kind of forced optimism we all keep reminding ourselves to feel during These Troubled Times. Plus, it is an easy set-up for the Matrix joke, and who doesn't love that?

I have been in a slightly philosophical mood of late. Perhaps it is due to the change of seasons, the closing out of what's been a difficult and frustrating year. My mind generally operates in a fairly discursive manner, so my thoughts are perpetually ajumble (Not a word? It is now.) and non-specific, but here is what I've been thinking about.

This generation, our generation-and you know who you are-is at the dead center of a profound transition in the way we process information. This is not by any means an original observation, but I'm not sure that enough attention has been paid to those caught in the middle. For my parents and those who are older, it is too late. They will cling on to the old ways of thinking and knowing and will probably be relieved to die without having to make the switch, particularly since they can see where we're all headed and it has absolutely no appeal. For the kids who have grown up plugged in, they know no other way, so they are spared the difficulties of change. They look at the old folks, or even the slightly-older-than-they folks with a mixture of idle curiosity and derision.

But what about us? We were brought up reading for totality. Sure, we were taught to grab the vital bits and pieces as necessary, but there was more of an understanding that a complete text was its own reward, and either by osmosis or unconscious analysis, the necessary information would implant itself within us. These days we're trying to absorb everything new, everything that comes at us in endless waves, with a sorry combination of old tools and an unsettled and slightly faulty concept of the new ways in which words signify and convey. The most successful of this cohort will be those who are able to separate themselves from the lessons we were taught at the start and adopt the new methods while carefully maintaining previous understandings, but knowing when to avoid those understandings lest they interfere with the new process.

Does that make sense? Probably not. I am writing this for the Web (the driver, after all, of the new way) so my arguments are untested and my assertions are like Italian seaside resort construction-put up fast with cheap material on shoddy foundations. Then again, you are reading this on the Web, quickly scanning for relevant nuggets-good luck with that!-and automatically skipping typos or filling in missing words. We have this new agreement, you and I, that cogency and authority are no longer subject to the once-standard necessities of clarity and completeness.

There was once a time in this country where Roger Miller was able to have his own variety show on one of the three major networks. (There was once a time in this country where there were three major networks.) I love Roger Miller, but that is a baffling fact to me, that this country once thought itself so uniform in its tastes that Roger Miller was a viable television host. And that's me looking back at a time not a decade before my birth and being baffled by it. Can you imagine how this new generation will look back at, I don't know, "Friends"? Or The Matrix?

Oh, right, the Matrix joke: The Matrix joke is something I do pretty much just to annoy my acquaintances. If I'm not in a mood for deep thinking-and if the Google era has done anything, it's given me a perpetual lack of interest in deep thinking-I simply respond to anything that threatens to get thoughtful or profound with a learned nod and say, "It's just like The Matrix." Try it, it works with pretty much anything: From Mark Sanchez's color-coded wristband to Joe Biden's insistence on riding Amtrak each day, you can make everything sound like a Matrix scenario. I think it's because we're all so dependent on routine but none of us wants to admit it. Everyone likes to think that they're Keanu Reeves, when, really, we're all a bunch of, uh, some other guy from The Matrix who is not Keanu Reeves. (But not Larry Fishburne, he was pretty badass.)

And what of that cabal of bright young things who are watching all the disruption with more than an academic interest? Who is more Matrixy then they? If the future, as I suspect, is one of less gaudy but more frequent rewards-call them microrewards-who will have time to unplug, to read for pleasure, to think deeply? Change, it seems, is a forced march to small payouts for brief efforts.

But I could be wrong. I usually am. I was walking to the Awl offices this morning and I saw a poster for Lady Gaga's Fame Monster. As you know, I have found the success of Lady Gaga not only inexplicable but almost personally offensive. Like, they're making Lady Gaga a superstar to spite me, Alex Balk, because I cannot understand her at all. The entertainment industry is sending me a signal that I have now aged out of anything they might be interested in providing me. This morning, however, gazing briefly at that poster-it shows two iterations: her blonde version and then the dark-haired version with the fucked-up makeup-it suddenly all became clear: Lady Gaga is dance music's version of Marilyn Manson. People from every generation want pretty much the same things, just in contemporary packages. So maybe there's hope. Or maybe that's more forced optimism. All I know is someone has probably already made the Gaga/Manson comparison, but I'll be fucked if I'm going to Google it to check. Because I am old, and sometimes the old ways really are the best ways.

83 Comments / Post A Comment

KarenUhOh (#19)

This calls for a listicle. Should that be capitalized? Who cares! It's a new world:

1. The only rule is that there's no rules; but that's always been the rule;

2. You guys had way too much time on your hands this weekend;

3. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

KarenUhOh (#19)

4. Ray Stevens had his own TV show. Jerry Reed. Pink Lady and Jeff. We've been playing this End Times game for a hell of a long while.

HiredGoons (#603)

I use 'Friends' as a litmus test for, well… friends.

I have been telling my friends and colleagues who are all spooked and freaking-the-fuck-out that it is simply one of those turns in the wheel of history that necessitates the establishment of new institutions. It is a shaky time, and a lot of things are being completely gutted or obliterated – but one can also choose to look at it as clearing the slate.

riggssm (#760)

Marilyn Manson is to Trent Reznor as Lady Gaga is to ________.

I'm gonna retire to the restroom and think about this for a solid half hour.

Madonna? Too easy?

Moff (#28)

I'm pretty sure she is the new incarnation of Madonna. And after a week of paying attention to her, I'm pretty sure she is kind of a genius, too.

NominaStultorum (#1,638)

I read a YouTube comment (…I know) suggesting the answer might be Cyndi Lauper. The more I think about it, the more merit I see in it.

What fascinates me is that, from what little I've read, L.G. believes that the right comparison should be to Andy Warhol. And just the suggestion that she's perpetrating an intentional exploration of the low/high, trash/art, pop/culture collision and actually Saying Something About The Way We Live Now — however facile — probably makes her one of the most interesting things going these days.

metoometoo (#230)

I also think she's kind of a genius, and also way more talented/creative/interesting than Madonna. And I like Madonna.

What's not to like about a pop star who strives to emulate people like Andy Warhol and David Bowie? It's certainly better than a lot of the watered down, generic crap out there.

January (#2,262)

Agreed with Moff – she's a genius. Can't stand her.

hnice (#2,311)

i came to the gaga = manson realization this weekend, too. it explains everything.

re: the analogy,

manson : reznor :: gaga : santigold? thom yorke? major lazer? st. vincent? it would need to be someone equally disturbing, but less product and more producer.

HiredGoons (#603)


It's akin to the lodges in Twin Peaks.

QueenWasp (#926)

I think our generation, such as it is, is keenly aware of being stuck in the middle. At least, those who have the desire to be aware of such things (and that is a big distinction).

Our parents were able to be all Big Chill/30something, navel gaze-y about their mid-life transition, but we are too self-conscious to do so as a group. It's almost as if in an increasingly connected and close world, we are isolated from each other! *(insert Matrix joke here)*

Or not. I do enjoy being able to complain about both the Boomers and the Damn Kids.

reeraw (#2,299)

tl;dr â€" oh wait, if i scroll down, i get the listicle version. good to know typos & lego'd matrix scenes will pull us through. (although i sincerely feel listicles > link curation. can you algorithm listicles? i don't think so!)

re: gaga â€" she's kinda like tommy stone, minus the brian slade back story. (eek, even the velvet goldmine reference is a decade old!) so yeah, just give me ri ri's haircut already.

KateAurthur (#1,216)

Balk, that is exactly how I feel about Lady Gaga: I do not understand her at all. I get the music part. The her part? No! Also related: yesterday I was with a 21-year-old who had to do a Google image search of John Belushi to figure out who we (the 40-year-old people) were talking about.

Moff (#28)

I think the secret is that she's surprisingly uncomplicated, actually. And I'm not sure what it says about people our age that we're so flummoxed (because I have been too) by a pop star who basically (1) sings about sex and dancing and (2) wears weird costumes.

metoometoo (#230)

Seriously! I don't understand why people find her so hard to understand.

Moff (#28)

I dunno! Once I started listening to the songs, it got a lot simpler, but honestly, until then I really was kind of scared and baffled. It's weird, but at the same, it's kinda refreshing and pleasing that an artist can still inspire a reaction like that.

metoometoo (#230)

I guess I just find her easy to relate to. If I could sing or dance, I'd probably attempt something similar, because I like things that are fun and interesting and quirky and unexpected.

It is always easier to be afraid than to understand, or at least accept. Watch movies like Hackers or War Game, and you will see this pattern over and over : old men who don't understand what young people do.

You have two solutions in this situation. Either, you really try to understand what is happening by living it fully, at least for a while, or you decide that you own ways suit you quite well, thank you very much. What is not acceptable, as this article does, is try to conjure half-baked fantasies of a kind of youth revolution through information anarchy, fueled by arrogance and callousness. Because this is how you become irrelevant. In a bad way.

About Lady Gaga : it's Hairography.

sailor (#396)

I'm from your parents' generation and contrary to popular belief, we actually aren't dead yet.

But one thing I know: Feel exactly the same way about Gaga as you. So certain verities either transcend generations, or prove that enhanced perception doesn't necessarily depend on chronology.

sailor (#396)

PS: Thanks for the Matrix thing. Needed an update for the always inadequate passive aggressiveness of *whatEVER*.

Antonia Capet (#2,372)

This could have all been predicted, and perhaps avoided, if we all paid closer attention to the growing popularity of trucker hats in 2002. It was there that everything culturally started to go wrong.

Alex Balk (#4)

I think I read about that on Gawker.

Antonia Capet (#2,372)

I think you WROTE it on Gawker.

Seriously, once we started to accept "twee irony" as a valid form of self-expression, it was only a matter of time before meaning, as a construct, spiraled out of our control. It is like a straight line from trucker hats to Juno to stonewashed skinny jeans to The Hills to Lady Gaga. We started accepted that cultural representation doesn't have to mean shit, it can just be an empty game for bored hipsters, and then words lost their power and life became a listicle.

metoometoo (#230)

I enjoy twee irony, and I have been able to find a great deal of meaning and substance in things like like trucker hats and skinny jeans and The Hills and Lady Gaga. Just because you don't "get" something doesn't make it inherently meaningless.

Antonia Capet (#2,372)

Oh, please to verbalize the deep substance and meaning. I'm genuinely interested to understand.

metoometoo (#230)

Well, I have written over 7500 words about The Hills on my blog, if you're interested in that kind of thing.

But in general, I'm not saying that there's "deep substance and meaning" in every random cultural phenomenon, just that things aren't necessarily empty and meaningless just because they are self-referential or ironic. I don't think it's any more difficult to find significance in contemporary cultural detritus than it ever was. The ironic edge is just an amusing defense mechanism, but if you look past that it's still the same old shit, really.

Antonia Capet (#2,372)

Well, they are all desperate because they're all "look at me! Do you get it? Do you get it? It's a joke! I'm the joke! Ha ha!"

Besides that it's so stupid and tribal. All those people wearing trucker hats and skinny jeans are just as tribal as anyone else in society. And they all want to be different – SO DIFFERENT – in exactly the same way as all their friends. It's a total ripoff because it wants to be original, but it isn't. It's all sad, mashed-up recycling of previous trends with nothing added.

And now you! Why are these things meaningful and full of substance, please?

Antonia Capet (#2,372)

And, regarding the recycling: it's also recycling previous cultural markers without adding anything new. The skinny jeans are EXACTLY the skinny jeans of the 80s. Lady Gaga is lukewarm Madonna, doing the same old sex trade, adding nothing new. If people are going to recycle something, they should at least make it different. This is just stupid re-chewed pablum spit up again for people who haven't exercised their chewing (read: thinking) muscles.

metoometoo (#230)

Personally, I strongly disagree that nothing is added when these trends are recycled. First of all, cherry picking trends from various eras that appeal to one's personal aesthetic, and combining them in ways that they have never been combined before, is new, and is a more personal and interesting form of self expression than simply relying on whatever trends happen to be current at any given time. Many trends of the past couple of decades hold no appeal for me, I'd much rather dip into the past than continue in a relentless pursuit of novelty for its own sake. Should a particular type of pants that I find flattering and aesthetically pleasing be off limits because of the year that I happened to be born?

And these things are enhanced and improved. The skinny jeans now are absolutely not the same as the skinny jeans of the 80s, the tailoring and materials have become much more sophisticated, allowing for a more comfortable and flattering final product. There is no way that my J Brand Japanese denim jeans are comparable to the jeans that were available in the 80s. I think that Lady Gaga is much more compelling than Madonna, because she is so conscious of the artistic contributions of those that came before her.

We all construct meaning for ourselves, I can't tell you how to find meaning in culture. If you choose to see repurposed trends as empty and meaningless, that's your interpretation, but if others are able to construct meaning for themselves, who are you to say that isn't valid?

I know this isn't a satisfactory response, and I'd love to go on, but I don't have time to figure out my own thoughts about how the anxiety of influence plays into this because if I don't get some work done ASAP my boss is going to kill me.

metoometoo (#230)

Oh but one last thing: check out the new Bergdorf window displays for an example of a gorgeous and original interpretation of a theme and aesthetic that has been used and reused countless times already:

Antonia Capet (#2,372)


So, first, I want to make the distinction between "twee" and "irony" and "twee irony." There were times of twee (the 80s) and times of irony (the 90s) but we are now in a time of twee irony, which you can capture by walking down a street of brooklyn boutiques or copying the dialogue to Juno.

Second, recycling is not a problem. But every generation that has recycled has added something to it. This one has not. I am sorry to say that your skinny jeans are, in all respects, exactly like those of the 80s. I know, because I wore them in the 80s and they are the same pants. They are. A couple of fibers here and there don't change it.

Third, I read your blog and was entertained, and so I will give the Hills a pass. Juno remains incriminated, though.

Antonia Capet (#2,372)

Also: I "get"it. I just ALSO find it meaningless. It's all so…desperate.

metoometoo (#230)

What sort of meaning do you find in the pre-trucker hat equivalents of Juno and skinny jeans and The Hills and Lady Gaga? What is it that makes these things so much more desperate than earlier elements of popular culture?

Antonia Capet (#2,372)

See the thread above please. Looking forward to your ideas on why these things have meaning.

hman (#53)

The only Roger Miller I was familiar with before reading this was the one from Mission of Burma. Am I gonna be alright?

Alex Balk (#4)

No. Listen to some Famous Original Roger Miller NOW! You can probably find some on the Internet, if you know how to do that torrent thing the kids are talking about.

hman (#53)

Thanks MG, Matt and Balk – so much homework to do tonight!

MatthewGallaway (#1,239)

Same one. After becoming disillusioned with the fame and fortune (stupid game, game he plays) wrought by 'King of the Road' he moved to Boston and founded the post-punk band.

Matt (#26)

Little known but true: "That's When I Reach For My Revolver" originally had the working title "Do-Wacka-Do, Pt. 2" (I read this on the internet).

joeclark (#651)

s/who is… then they/who is… than they

We do not all gloss over the typos.

Alex Balk (#4)

I was so hoping you would do this! You made my day.

joeclark (#651)

Gagaâ€"Manson: Globe and Mail on Saturday.

Balk may wish to explore how the concept of “digital native” includes old-media types who were online before, during, and after the invention of the Web.

Antonia Capet (#2,372)

@maryhkchoi It's like the Matrix.

Moff (#28)

Those of us who are, like, 30 or somewhere in that neighborhood really are in a weird spot. Just as we reached the point at which most past generations could say they were getting a handle on shit, we have to cope with Google Wave. And it's a little scary, because we're only halfway to retirement, at best.

But will "retirement" still exist when we reach the age when that concept has traditionally attached?

Moff (#28)

I'm sticking with freelancing just so I don't ever have to wrestle with that kind of heavy metaphysical issue.

HiredGoons (#603)

This is a very serious question of mine.

Mary HK Choi (#1,469)

I just turned 30 and I have to say, this beatific smiling at the horizon while elegantly marveling at the youth shit makes me SO ANGRY. We have been selected to be the ones to get CORRECTED on and there's no way I'm going to feel hopeful about it. I mean, we're all basically fucked, right? We're going to kill ourselves working with nodes stuck on our faces and hearts, laying down the train tracks, and right before we keel over and die FEELING EVERYTHING they'll finally figure out who to charge what for what and how. Ambient information doesn't have to useful, someone WAY smarter than me just needs to hurry up and unlock the algorithm and MICROPAYMENTS AIN'T IT AND GOOD LUCK WALLING THE GARDEN. SO MUCH RAGE.

Moff (#28)

I would recommend prayer, but people always think I'm joking. Whatever — I just hit my billing goal for the month, so haters can EAT IT.

Okay, so maybe we're being corrected on more or something, but hasn't every generation gone through some sort of correction thing that felt FUNDAMENTALLY GAME-CHANGING (tm YM or FEK or whatever)? I mean, Progress Marches Ever Onward and all that shit, so it's really just gonna keep getting worse and worse for us and The Youngs. Ain't it?

Or maybe I'm just feeling bleak 'cause it's getting dark at 4:00? Ask me again in July!

Moff (#28)

@Dotty: I submit that it is different this time! We are living through a technological paradigm shift, and this one is happening faster than any before it, and we have more bombs that can blow up whole cities now.

At the same time, I am pretty sure that most of most people's days still consist of them getting up, doing the same shit they did the day before, and feeling more or less OK about it. So the paradigm shift is not, like, total.

Antonia Capet (#2,372)

@maryhkchoi Right. It's like The Matrix.

@Moff: Yes, yes. But I submit that we are entering the era of rapid technological paradigm shifts becoming the paradigm!

Up is down! Black is white! Dogs sleeping with cats!
And cetera.

So… More of a same-as-it-ever-was-going-forward type thing? I would say that I should give this more thought, but that presumes that "more thought" is still a viable concept.

cherrispryte (#444)

In terms of obtaining and processing information, this all blows my mind when it comes to academia. Being constantly plugged in and having the world at your fingertips is one thing when you're living your life and, you know, reading about whatever you're interested in, but doing research and writing papers when you can literally get access to every thing ever written ever is beyond ridiculous. I was trained in middle school to write papers using freaking notecards and researching using microfiche. This did not at all prepare me for the onslaught of information that is Google Scholar.

riotnrrd (#840)

I kind of had the opposite experience in graduate school. My advisor, watching me google and download PDFs of people's theses, mentioned wistfully that is his day, he had to write to the authors and hope they would mail him a xerox copy of their typewritten thesis. Although I was intimately familiar with how the internet has changed the cost of disseminating information, etc., I was still a bit sunned that anybody could get scientific research done at the speed of freaking bulk post. Viva la future!

Antonia Capet (#2,372)

Also I am angry because when I try to read a book now, I have to try really hard.

Alex Balk (#4)

Seriously. I find that if I read a book now I need to keep the computer open so that I can run and check something related to something I've just read. And I'm not even talking about non-fiction, it happens with crap like John Grisham.

garge (#736)

With books, I still seem to have the discipline to make a list on the title page of things to touch back upon later, including words I don't know because I am a dumb … when I find time to actually read.

What's more literally retarded is that I can't even watch plain television without a laptop next to me to cross reference everything.

Antonia Capet (#2,372)

Oh, my reply should be here but it is below as a new discussion. Dumb. I also have to try really hard with the Internet.

garge (#736)

I keep thinking your name is Antonia Carpet.

Baroness (#273)

I do that as well when I'm watching old movies on TCM- some actor looks familiar and/or fuckable, and I'm tapping up iMDB on the iPhone.

Summoning info instantly is powerfully addictive. I remember life before it, but if I were time-machined back I would probably die of boredom and frustration. There's certainly some sort of endorphin thing, crack-hits of instant knowledge and novelty, that would be difficult to quit.

Antonia Capet (#2,372)

I'm more of a hardwood kind of girl.

No, it's Antonia Capet, like the post-French Revolution "citoyen" name of Marie Antoinette.

Antonia Capet (#2,372)

Baroness, I think the difference is that back then someone else would know who that actor was, or everyone would get into a debate, and it would be good fodder for conversation. The silent-iPhone-tapping takes away the excuse for conversation.

Antonia Capet (#2,372)

I do those things too, you guys. And yet I am no smarter? I think this is because nothing that means anything is allowed on the Web. The Web can provide only trivia.

On the bright side, maybe our nation will become awesome at Jeopardy!

elecampane (#1,877)

I am Older than Balk, and totally uninterested in/unaware of Top 40 pop, but took to Lady Gaga as soon as I saw her performance of Paparazzi from the VMAs (also key parts of Getting Gaga: watch her Jonathan Ross interview and performance, and any/all of her acoustic performances of her songs). I think that the getting Gaga/not getting Gaga divide might depend on how much one has soaked in the waters of contemporary art/art history, because she visually as well as verbally quotes from that pool as often as she works her Iggy Pop/Courtney Love variant on David Bowie/Madonna. She seems like a *genuinely* queer entity ("I kissed a girl, got her pregnant, and will wear the placenta for a hat")â€"and uses her position in public eye to some good ends in addition to $$$â€"and there is something of UHID in all her veiling, something of "Peepshow" in "Teeth."

Abe Sauer (#148)

We are also the last generation who will ever have made it to 14 with any feeling of awe, mythology, mystery, or excitement about sex. I think this is BY FAR the largest takeaway (so far) from this informationized future.

HiredGoons (#603)

I will ALWAYS be in awe of sex.

slinkimalinki (#182)

*call me.

HiredGoons (#603)


Mindpowered (#948)

Eh. We're no more hyper-sexualized than the Romans.

Ubiquity of imagery does not equal a kind of omniscience about sex. It'll still be as fumbling, embarrassing, and awe inspiring as it ever was.

Baroness (#273)

The printed smell of pornographic magazines.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Does a "sticky pages" joke make sense to anyone under 25?!

garge (#736)

Or how about scrambled porn via cable box?

I wonder if they will also suffer having lots of imitating-mainstream-porn sex, which would be very, very sad.

mcconnellpdx (#2,326)

…on the flipside. My 13 year old son (who is a computer geek and gamer) came to me this morning and quoted from MacBeth, which he is reading in a soft cover, annotated version. I'm sure there will be a name for these types of kids who "dabble in the ancient ways of information-gathering."

BoHan (#29)

I'm not being smug or anything but I'm older than most here, and yes I have been CORRECTED, over and over again, and if there's one thing about the digital age that drives me insane, it's that the young'uns seem to have no grasp on recent history whatsover. It's nice to be all young and doey-eyed and sadface over everything, but IT HAS HAPPENED BEFORE. Is this the worst one or the last one or the ultimate one? Maybe for media, maybe not for others.

But the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 was a terrifying thing, probably as close as I'll ever get to Thunderdome. And I've lost my ass in at least three different recessions, 1983, 1987, and 1991. Plus there was the whole AIDS thing that completely shut down life for the entirety of the 1980s and early 1990s.

So gees people, yeah it's bad, but get some perspective for christ's sake. This could be the big one, but I doubt it.

Mary HK Choi (#1,469)

hold me.

missdelite (#625)

Welcome to the death of patience.

"Change, it seems, is a forced march to small payouts for brief efforts."
Not sure what this means but I kinda like it.

Also: I'd totally retweet this, but so. many. words.

Trevor Jackson (#1,792)

HA. I did Tweet this quote and link, but lacked the room to make the joke about how the very act seemed to prove the quote.

Matt H (#45)

This is pretty genius: "Everyone likes to think that they're Keanu Reeves, when, really, we're all a bunch of, uh, some other guy from The Matrix who is not Keanu Reeves." (Except for the "uh," which I guess is just necessary.) But it also rings like an admission of defeat of sorts, which makes me a little sad.

Manson-Gaga comparison first made here. Badoosh.

rojax (#2,384)

1100 plus words and I'm still waiting for the point.

Atencio (#399)

This is a great post, mostly because the point is arrived at quickly (the evolution of how we process information, and the expectations for how that information should arrive) and then there's a Matrix joke and a Lady Gaga reference thrown in for the view count jacking.

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