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.