Video may have killed the radio star, but the internet killed, well, pretty much everything else.
I am not a technological Luddite by any means. I am supremely grateful for DC Cupcakes and Say Yes to the Dress, for the guilty-pleasure Katy Perry tunes on my iPod, and for the sociocultural phenomenon that is YouTube. I will defend to the death the situation comedy as social commentary, consider it a global crisis when Facebook is down for ten minutes, and I sent and received at least 160 text messages last night alone.
That being said, sometimes I wonder what life was like for those of previous generations, before modern technology transformed doing nothing from a weekend pastime into a way of life. Having entered the scene smack-dab in the middle of Generation Y (born in 1985), I do vaguely remember a time before the internet (we first got AOL, dial-up of course, when I was 11).It was a simpler time. I played outside with real, live friends — hide-and-seek, T-ball, Capture the Flag. I remember playing a lot of Operation, Battleship, Twister, Taboo, Balderdash, and Trivial Pursuit. I seem to remember reading books (and I mean real books printed on real paper, damn-you-to-hell-Kindle). Lest I wax too nostalgic, let me hasten to add that it’s not exactly as if I was walking uphill to school in the snow both ways in in the early ‘90s — there was still Oregon Trail, of course, and a little something called Super Mario Bros. on NES, and I definitely planted my little hiney in front of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Inspector Gadget every single damn afternoon. I even seem to recall my dad, engineering nerd that he is, trying to teach me to program in BASIC on our old Commodore 64 when I was about eight.
But I do remember, before my introduction to the Web in 1996, spending more time throughout the day interacting with real people and participating in real creative endeavors. Don’t get me wrong, I have always been a dynamic personality who could interact with and befriend the dead — but in 2011, having 1200 Facebook friends enables me to give just a perfunctory nod to each of them on a semi-regular basis without having to sustain any meaningful adult relationships. Similarly, I have always been a writer — but what does it say about me that my output from 1992-1996 was vastly more prolific than any body of work I’ve produced since – including when I was in graduate school studying English literature?
Perhaps I’m just looking for a smoking gun, but I blame the internet.
Sure, if you wanted to be an expert in useless trivia as a kid you could always go to the library and check out armfuls of books on the Titanic or the Battle of Gettysburg or the Salem Witch Trials or whatever it was that happened to catch your fancy. But it took a sustained, concerted effort to plumb the depths of the Dewey Decimal System, usually an encounter with a mean librarian or two, and the likelihood was high that you would stick with your given obsession for at least a week or so.
Not so today. I’ve been on medical leave since early March, so I am painfully, acutely aware of how much time playing on the internet saps out of my day and how little profit I actually derive from this wasted time. This isn’t primarily because there is nothing of interest on the internet, but rather because there is too much of interest on the Internet. “The internet,” Eric Schmidt opined, “is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.”
Personally, I can’t even trace the linear connection between one topic of interest and the next in my Web ramblings, but I do know that in the last week, I have read about depictions of McCarthyism in the American theatre, the lives of Shel Silverstein and John Nash, the criminal trials of Andrea Yates and Marie Noe, the filmography of the guy who played Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the dating history of Matthew Perry (Chandler on Friends), and common tropes used in 1990s sitcoms. A search through my browsing history reveals that I have Googled the following in just the last 24 hours: Higgs Boson, Stephen King’s The Body, Romper Room, Alec Guinness gay?, Nurse Ratched, An Officer and a Gentleman, Gabriel Garcia Marquez short stories, Girl Interrupted, “Bill Mumy kid from Twilight Zone,” Mary Jo Kopechne, “Demi Lovato and Wilmer Valderrama breakup.” There is simply no rhyme or reason to this erratic lineup – it reads like it was compiled by either a serial killer or an ADD schizophrenic on meth. All my spastic browsing serves to provide me with is a deceptively superficial amount of information about a wide smattering of subjects, which may serve me well in getting phone numbers, but “Mary Jo Kopechne Enthusiast and World-Renowned Expert on Sir Alec Guinness’s Sexual Orientation” is not necessarily what I want engraved on my gravestone.
“Dost Thou Love life? Then Do Not Squander Time, for That is the Stuff Life is Made Of,” Ben Franklin once observed (and a quick IMDB search will reveal that it’s also written on the gate of the plantation Twelve Oaks in 1939?s Gone With the Wind). At what cost have I obtained all this cocktail-party pseudo-wisdom? (And even that designator is generous, since much of what I do online — *cough* watching deleted scenes from no longer syndicated TV shows and horror-movie remixes of romantic comedies on YouTube *cough*- does not even qualify as pseudo-wisdom.) When I was 10 years old, I used to have long discussions about moral theology and Charlotte Bronte with my friends. Fifteen years later, I have long discussions about… Cracked.com? Retrograde motion, indeed. It seems to belie the truth of evolution of the species.
Many have recently lamented the death of literature, the fact that there has not been a “great” American novelist since Hemingway (or since Steinbeck and Kerouac, if you’re feeling generous). The fact that Stephanie Meyer is the best we have to offer an entire generation is as deplorable as it is sickening. But while literary critics have scratched their heads about this phenomenon to no avail, I should think the answer was pretty mind-blowingly obvious:
The people gifted with the passion, talent, imagination, drive, and attention-span to create world-shaping art are now spending their days watching reruns of Diff’rent Strokes on YouTube.
People like me and you. Sad, isn’t it?