And that was just it: Instead of the internet working against our real lives in provocative ways, it became an extension of them. The looking glass was now a mirror; instead of reinventing us, the web simply provided more of us to the world, and more ways to take advantage of the world around us. We speak of Yelping and checking in on 4Square as if these were activities, when they are simply the day-to-day cataloguing of our lives—or, even worse, a grimly detached version of modern life in which we aspire to be ourselves. Mediation presents itself as a friendly tool when in fact it creates distance between us and the ordinary.
Why exactly did people take Steve Jobs’s death so hard? I don’t much care to argue over whether or not this was the appropriate feeling to have, or whether another death was more deserving of this emotion. The fact remains, they did. The easy answer: Steve Jobs was a Great Man whose influence over contemporary culture is virtually inescapable. Through brute force alone, and pressure exerted by the world around us, the heart responds. I wonder, though, if it doesn’t have to do with the nature of Apple products. The iPod’s triumph—and to some degree, that of the snazzy Mac before it and the nascent iPad since—was to create a singular, personal space by means of a technological vessel. This effect was transitive, if backward; the metal and plastic were imbued with the memories and associations that music, in digital, context-less form, bundled up in one place. Those were the rules of the game, the order of things, and they were embodied in the device—stylish, elliptical, and slightly frivolous—that made this sound-space possible.
It makes perfect sense that Jobs himself would be, so to speak, taken personally. He was the one who allowed them to live more fully through technology. They created this version of Apple and its leader, but without the cues provided by technology, it wouldn’t have happened. Are we happy? Thank Steve Jobs. Does technology render us that powerless when it comes to matters of lifestyle and identity? Then thank Steve Jobs for that, too, out of a fealty that should leave an odd, acrid taste our mouths. Even if you’ve never owned Apple once. He’s gotten to you somehow.
Very soon, sez The Sun, it may be impossible for iPhone users to record (but maybe not just photograph) a show. Chris Weingarten called it “the best news I’ve heard all day.”
Admittedly, there’s something deeply obnoxious, if not sinister, about the sea of smart phones that has become as much a part of the audience as the audience itself. The rapidly aging man in me wonders why (I think I’ve said this elsewhere) the kids today need performance mediated in this way. Apple’s move is about rights, promoters, and broadcast, but it’s also a quality of life measure for some concert-goers. If some people so badly need to experience live music via device—whether watching it on a screen, getting off on the idea of watching it later, or watching themselves watch it—it lends an air of detachment, even displacement, to shows.
Note: I never go to them anymore, which is why, when I do, or when I see this happening in footage, I find it all the more unsettling.
At the same time, documentation does imply that something significant is happening. I’m taping this show? Wow, it must be really worth taping. It’s circular, but at the same time, the public record, and our own memories, are often functions of what happens to have been preserved. Capturing any and every show seems to say “fuck it, everything is great and beautiful and important and I am totally stoked just to be here!” That is probably a healthy, if foolhardy, relationship to have with the world; it certainly leads to a more complete public archive of, say, a band’s performances (or, individually, one’s own life). Everything is great! Every minute is worth living and believing in!
For those of us who fall on the other, fussier end of this spectrum, the brave labors of compulsive documenters make for a better selection of material from which to cull. Curating, and criticism, open up like never before. Yet it’s the “compulsive” aspect of it that’s so troubling.
Completism in itself is not a bad impulse. At some point, though, the world of the compulsive documenter falls away, and the act of documentation becomes more important than its substance. What matters is the recording “I”, and that “I” is essentially bathing in its own self-regard. The space between brain and technology overrides that between technology and performance. “Watching themselves watch it” is bad enough, but when this activity, or taking a shit-ton of photos, just becomes a way of asserting and insisting upon one’s ego through the production of digital files, the audience hasn’t merely made itself into the focal point. It’s ceased to be an audience at all.
Every house I grew up in had at least one study in it. This was never really the right word for them—”study” suggests a Victorian contrivance, intended to prove a point about the manhood of the mind. These were simple, sometimes cramped, rooms set aside for weekend work, consisting of a desk, a chair, a computer (later, a modem, too), a telephone, some office supplies, a trash can, and maybe one framed print on the wall for color. Back then, space was the basic currency of the home office, unless the goal was to project a power that may or may not have actually existed in the real workplace. Physical space was the staging area for the mental.
Today, space could scarcely be less important. The desk has been replaced by the desktop, which now merely describes a metaphoric space within our laptops; paper is a hindrance, and with hard drives even a virtual trash can; my wallpaper changes weekly and each shift is like an office makeover. The professional set-up has been collapsed into a single small, portable device bounded only by preference. Technology no longer needs to be accommodated. Now, it is waiting on us. As convenience reigns supreme, the onus to work (to work in order that work might get done, rather) falls on us.
We are the moody, faulty, imperfect technology. That’s not to say that laptops don’t break, or that writer’s block didn’t exist in 1974. Garrets could be chilly like a motherfucker. Yet optimization and consolidation have both resolved many of snares that arose from the typewriter, the rotary phone, and the desk stuck in where it fit. Today, we are the problem, losing this particular space race against ourselves. It’s the burden of convenience, reflected back as responsibility. Instead of “where will you put that shit and how will your back hold up and is it kind of quiet,” we’re left with the wholly ambiguous “work habits”—sometimes, a window out into the realm of self-improvement and personal organization. The home office has become an ambient state, devoted wholly to making our damn brains work a little harder.
“I work at home” has shifted miraculously over the last decade—which, incidentally, ropes in my entire post-college life. It’s been a sign of changing times; a viable, common sense alternative; an unthinkable luxury; and a euphemism for unemployment. In that, it’s a lot like my line of work, which is hard to spit out in conversation whether you go with “writing” or “writer”. “Writing” is dangerously close to “warriors of content”, or a wholly unprofessional state of Being. Shouting “writer” without any context sounds like I’ve been revising a historical novel about my great-uncle’s flight from a Cossack bandit gang in the latter part of the Crimean war, complete with an appendix explaining several varieties of cannon.
Some swear by silence, yet that raises a basic problem: if silence is context, then really, the mind is left alone with itself. This allows for bouts of intense concentration, but can also lend itself to self-involvement, worry, delusion, and all those other aberrant states that creep up when you’re trying to go to sleep. There needs to be an anchor, a feeling that work is real and you are real and so is everything around. The at-home worker is abstracted enough; what he needs is more distraction and imposition, not less. Otherwise he just might float away, never to return.
Talk radio offers the illusion of companionship; a simulated peer group; and maybe even some odds and ends that will find their way into a project. Yet the yappin’ of others has an expiration date, and within months, or days, this forced excavation of information and empathy is little more than white noise. Movies and records present an especially appealing option: What if working at home could be part-task, part-recreation? The problem there is obvious: multi-tasking really involves letting one’s attention flit back and forth. Crucial scenes zip by unnoticed, and that emotional sweep of music, dulled. When I first learned how to drive, I was shocked at how quickly my favorite albums were reduced to mush by repeated listenings. It takes a certain kind of record built for the road.
And that easy, formulaic movie? The movies, however small the screen, are escapism’s clarion call. You will be knocked off course and sucked in. Even the worst movies are not, at the moment, disposable.
The answer, for me at least, is trash television. Police procedurals, with their spring-loaded narratives, are a coach, not a temptress. The History Channel’s many great offerings on the subject of aliens, the Crusades, and future pestilence offer up examples of empty, but frantic, brain activity. No one wants to ride the train alone, but at the same time, without the worst kind of company, you might never find your way off.