U cnt run, U cnt hYde

20 11 2007

While I was covering a legion baseball game this summer, another writer — a sunburned matchstick of a man whose deficit of charm undermined his very impressive moustache — turned toward me after I received a text message and boasted that he would never pay for ‘those things.’ Realizing that he wasn’t talking to the woman next to me about the pair of half-spheres that hung from her chest, this comment struck me as peculiar, given that we both dealt heavily in text as a profession.

He went on to explain that phones are phones –– they’re used to talk to people. Not to write things to people, or get the internet. Faced with such logic, I brought up cars, which are adorned with such excessive and useless accoutrements as music playing devices and heating systems. He answered with an actual harumph.

But every statement has a little bit of truth in it, no matter the moustachioed mouth that delivers it. And this hesitance to step into these technological times warrants a bit of examination.

We’re not Generation X. We’re Generation XM. Wireless, we’re at once unbound yet tethered continuously to each other and all the electronic information the planet has to offer. We see ourselves as free. Physically, we are more than ever. But when we’re free together, we’re more shackled than ever. The expectation that you’ll be able to get in touch with anyone, at any time, also creates the same expectation placed upon yourself. We’re never out of range. Privacy is in a historically tenuous state.

Take the BlackBerry, an implement that seems to be in the pockets of virtually every person involved in every sort of business, legitimate or otherwise. People are fused to the contraptions, enough to start calling them CrackBerries.

When BlackBerry users can’t find the gadgets, the ensuing ritual is akin to losing one’s keys or kids. Sweat, escaping en masse through pores along the hairline. Eyes forced open. Hands, chaotically feeling in pockets, digging through jackets. Cursing.

It’s a common phrase now, even among those who don’t own BlackBerries: my life was in that phone.

Is it hyperbolic? Possibly. But more than likely, it’s true.

It is the distinct preserve of our generation to feel, because of this ceaseless connectedness, that we’re always missing something. Something’s always going on, and we’re just one phone call away from that. Opportunity doesn’t knock. It calls from an unknown number.

Take the Facebook ‘news feed’ — or Facebook in general. Facebook ‘news’ involves a mass of adjustments to interests, tastes and locations. But so does celebrity news, which has slipped into the regular newscycle on networks that specialize in war, politics and, uh, China. With the Facebook feed, we all become celebrities, all worthy of broadcasting whatever events in our lives we deem fit to an interested audience.

We are a generation of Watched People. We’ve grown up with a hawklike media that has blurred the line between noteworthy and arcane news, between fame and infamy. Virtually everything has equal airtime. As such, have we lost our abilities to separate relevant from irrelevant, and do those terms even mean anything anymore?

Much has been made of our culture of voyeurism. Less has been made about how it affects our daily lives to be the target of such vague and encompassing Peeping-Tommery. According to Thomas de Zengotita, in a 2005 Harper’s story called Attack of the Superzeroes: Why Washington, Madonna and Einstein can’t compete with You, we have all become ‘method actors.’

“This is the ultimate significance of all the technology: cable, satellite, the web, camcorders, video phones–all the usual suspects. They were the means to virtual revolution.

Coached by performer heroes, seeking the recognition to which they felt entitled, spectators pushed themselves forward as the technological venues opened up, and not only in what we call the “reality show.” Other reality shows, under other names, sprang up everywhere. What they all had in common was the celebration of people refusing to be spectators–all the mini-celebrities, for example, who dominate chat rooms and game sites, and the blogs, the intimate “life journals.” Think also of raves and flash mobbing, marathon running, karaoke bars, focus groups, talk-radio call-in shows, homemade porn, sponsored sports teams for tots–and every would-be band in the world can now burn a CD and produce cool cover art and posters.

Being famous isn’t what it used to be.

Has it ever struck you, watching interviews with people in clips from the 1940s and 1950s, say, or even just looking at them in photographs, how stiff and unnatural they seem? Even prominent people, but especially regular folk, the way they lean into the mike and glance awkwardly around as they say whatever they have to say in semi-formal tones, almost as if reciting; and the way they raise their voices, as if they can’t quite trust the technology to reach an absent audience. But nowadays? Every man on the street, every girl on the subway platform, interviewed about the snowstorm or the transit strike–they are total pros, laughing in the right places, looking directly at the interviewer or into the camera, fluid, colloquial, comments and mannerisms pitched just right for the occasion, completely at ease.

Method actors all.”

I tend to agree with de Zengotita. One of postmodernism’s chief tenets is the sense of an invisible audience taking in and judging/appreciating all of our actions. Postmodern fiction goes out of its way to acknowledge not only the reader — Dave Eggers ‘Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ even opens with a rather considerable discourse on possible themes you could take from the book, an ironic Reader’s Guide to the work — but to delve into the writing process itself. By nature, it is an art that is aware of being an art, like that picture of the hand drawing itself.

ge26drawing-hands-posters.jpg

 (something like that)

Life, too, has become an artistic process, just as hyper-aware of itself. “Why so serious — when it’s only your life that’s at stake. / Why so serious? Life is the art that you make,” sang Superchunk in its classic song, ‘Art Class.’  

And here, we suffer. The mediated experience, they call it, demands that we play constantly to an audience. Omnipresent cell phones, aim, Facebook and Myspace allow us to remain up-to-date with those we care for — an accessibility that should keep us more in touch with people who have shaped our lives than our parents ever could. But that accessibility is a two-way street.

It’s made us a society that sees introversion as a flaw, as if dropping out of the frenzy makes us unfit. More, it’s made us a society of stressed-out folks.

We demand perfection from ourselves, just as our media experience has demanded perfection from those actually in the spotlight. If unattainable (like perfection seems to be), we shrink, we cower from the attention. We try to hide from the audience that isn’t actually there, to allow those outside of us to see a dressed-up version of ourselves.

Image is, after all, everything. So maybe Big Brother isn’t some ominous force looking over us. Maybe it’s what’s in our TV sets, on our desks and in our pockets.

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