“Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline –an excellent read in its way, a real page-turner–I just finished reading it at 3am earlier this morning—I’ve slept most of the intervening time, but my eyes won’t focus today. See—that’s the difference between age and fatigue—fatigue is something that fades quickly, whereas the limitations of age are more holistic—don’t read an entire book in one day (I was surprised I still could.) if you want to use your eyes for something the next day, and maybe the day after.
Also, the book is set in the near future, but concerns the nineteen-eighties in an OCD-‘Best of the 80s’-treasure-hunt that is central to the tale. I started in the mid-nineteen-seventies (pre-PC, pre-Windows, pre-WWW) with mini-computers—new sensations in the small-business world, particularly the easily computerized industries—insurance, real estate, mailing lists (yes, this was before e-mail and its evil twin, spam, too). But they were still using up an entire room—an air-conditioned room, too.
The micro-computers that started showing up a few years later are now known as PCs—and the first way to hook them together was a Local-Area-Network, or LAN. The first modems had misshapen foam cradles which held the old phones’ receivers and worked by analog audio beeps and chirps. My first PC had a two-megabyte internal hard-drive—it couldn’t hold a single hi-res JPEG by today’s standards.
Back then, everything was B&W, just letters and numbers, logic and calculations. When I first saw Windows 2.0 I asked what the point of it was—I was told it made it easier for people to use a computer. I replied that people who didn’t understand how to use a computer weren’t going to have any more luck with a GUI (Graphics User Interface—aka ‘Windows’—except for Macs). What I failed to realize was the pressure digital-era literacy would force on us all—suddenly typists needed to learn Word Perfect and bookkeepers had to learn Lotus 1-2-3 (early spreadsheet software).
I spent my late teens and early twenties learning computer-literacy and computer maintenance systems that vanished practically overnight, sometime around 1985, and was replaced with home-video games that killed the arcade industry, the WWW, which killed the LAN and WAN industries, and MS Office Suites, CorelDraw Graphics Suites, and Roxio Audio-Visual Suites (and their Mac equivalents)—all of which killed the individual programmer-maven job market. Hot-shot coders were supplanted by Nintendo, Microsoft, Google, YouTube, Facebook, I-Phones and other industrial-sized app- and mega-app-creators.
So the 1980s digital watershed as experienced by the writer (I’m assuming) came around the time I was losing the ability to indulge in childish things without embarrassment. For instance, Matthew Broderick, a central figure in the book, is much younger than I am—and I won’t get into how depressing it is to see him graying with age in the present day. Yes, boys and girls, if you live long enough, even the sci-fi makes you feel old.
By 1980, I was in my mid-twenties—this made me a generation older than the oldest man in the book. So, I’m reading a sci-fi thriller set in the near future and all I feel is ‘old’—that’s just so wrong. But enough of my whining… let’s discuss.
Society used to imply a fixed point of geography—but no more. The way I see it, any place or time that has fixed morals applicable only to that place or time, is a ‘society’. For instance, Commuter Traffic is its own society—indeed, commuting has at least three societies—the drivers, the bus and train-takers, and the walkers.
Walking the sidewalks of mid-town Manhattan during the morning rush seems very cattle-like, especially to the people in its grip. But it actually requires a very heads-up approach—you need to watch the whole 360 degrees around you, your pace should be brisk but not breakneck, and the only real crime is to behave as if it weren’t rush hour, when personal stopping and going and distraction won’t impact the entire flow of the press of people all around such an out-of-place fool.
Walking is usually the last step in the journey. And there are many who go by subway—but in my relative inexperience, I leave its description to someone more inured to its ways. Nevertheless I have spent years on both of the other circuits, ‘driving in’—and ‘taking the train’.
Taking the Saw Mill River Parkway into Manhattan’s West Side Highway is not for the faint of heart. Its lanes were designed for the days when it was truly a scenic parkway—and for cars which topped out at, maybe, 30 mph. It’s modern reality is a cross between Disney World’s Space Mountain and the Grand Prix—hurtling cubes of steel, inches apart, doing 60, 65—and some of them are in a bigger hurry than the rest—these restless souls try to pass other cars as they go and will push their driving skills to the limit. This forces anyone in the lane beside them to be just as razor-sharp in controlling a vehicle that may not have the road-hugging quality of a BMW.
Taking the Harlem-Hudson line into Grand Central has had many changes since my day—the locomotives were diesel, there was always at least one smoking car and the night-time commuter trains had a bar car, which was an automatic smoker. The seats were upholstered but badly sprung—and larger. But some things remain the same—the etiquette of boarding as a group, of sitting beside a stranger (don’t read their paper—get your own!)
And the strange race for pole-position when debarking at Grand Central. This took planning. Firstly, one had to rise when the train had neared its platform, and move towards the doorway. If you weren’t first in the doorway, there was no way you would have a chance to sprint towards the exit ramp with the other contenders. The choice of when to rise was a personal one—some rose quite early and simply stood in the doorway for a good ten minutes, others waited until the last minute and relied strongly on line-cutting bravado. Once the train stopped, there were maybe fifty yards of empty platform which the prepared passenger sprinted across, hoping to avoid the human condensation that made that exit a twenty minute delay for those who took their time getting off the train.
This was the most cattle-car moment of any commute—people actually touched each other while we crowd-shuffled towards the open terminal beyond the platform gate. This was a world-class pot-luck situation—the people who crushed against one could be very attractive or quite repellent, even odiferous. There was no logic to the Brownian motion of the crowd—you couldn’t position yourself to mash against someone of your own choosing.
Eye contact, personal space, split-second go/no-go choices made at traffic-lit corners or when spotting an unmarked traffic cop car in the work-ward rally—all these and more were self-imposed by the natural human reactions to the different intimacies of rush-hour mass motion. And, not surprisingly, all these societies have a night-time, complimentary society, with different rules respecting the fact that everyone is in an even bigger hurry to get home than they were to get to work that morning, but with the luxury that no one got fired for getting home late.
These societies have a geographical ‘location’ (if an unsupervised racetrack can be called a location) but they come into being for a few hours in the morning and again at night, each time fading away almost as soon as it peaks, barring delays and bad weather. The ‘train stuck in a blizzard’ has a society, too—which only comes sporadically and can skip whole years at times.
Talking on the phone is a society—or, again, several societies, based on context. A phone conference, a sales call, a relative calling to gab, a friend calling with an invitation—each one has its own little head-dance and body language. And we could hardly leave out Facebook or the internet in general, when cataloguing the many sub-societies we join and quit all through our days.
These were my musings on Society this morning after I read the New York Times Art Section article reviewing the Oscars and the reviews others gave it, particularly PC groups that disapproved of the irreverence and insensitivity of the jokes and songs—and of Seth McFarlane, personally. The Times article pointed out the discrepancy between the Academy’s need to bring in ratings, especially from the younger demographic (call it the “Family Guy”-factor) and to appear sensitive to the community-watchdog groups that have been attacking “Family Guy” since its premiere in 1999.
Seth McFarlane is a media juggernaut with three (yes,3!) TV series now in operation: [Family Guy (1999–2002, 2005–now), “American Dad!” (2005–now), “The Cleveland Show” (2009–now)]. His ‘tastelessness’ finds favor with a younger audience because it embraces (as far as a TV show can) the new Internet society—which has few editors and even less censors. This younger entertainment society accepts the crassness as ‘bold honesty’ of a sort (which dawned, IMHO, upon the Seinfeld episode when Jerry, et.al. all repeat the phrase “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” until the defensiveness of PC-speak becomes its own post-modern joke/attitude).
PC-abandonment is the new humor in this society—if it makes old people like me wince, it’s funny. And television, in many ways, is still bound hand and foot by wincing old people. These dinosaur-people miss the point—we joke because we love—and we love ourselves—even our bigoted, foul-mouthed selves. And we won’t pussy-foot around about it anymore. Any old geezer that can’t let go of the militancy that served human rights so well in the twentieth century can’t help but be scandalized by our new-minted idols, like Seth, who are comfortable making a joke about Lincoln being shot in the head without being suspected of hidden racism or some twisted fundamentalism.
I would like to join in—but I’m too old and set in my ways to reinvent myself as an aging hipster—besides, comedy was never my strong suit… But my point is this: we have two major societal paradigms that are at something of a disconnect—Network TV and the World Wide Web. I can’t get in the spirit of it—for me, half the fun of a show is watching it when it’s aired. The feel of live TV—even scheduled, recorded, first-run TV shows—is lost for me whenever I have to find the show on the cable-box’s VOD menu—but my son watches all his ‘TV’ online, using our Netflix account. And I grew up admiring martyrs to the cause of civil and gender rights—I’ll never be able to speak lightly of those momentous changes that informed my lifespan.
I can handle Seth McFarlane, Matt Stone, Trey Parker, Matt Groenig—all the new-wave, internet-capable entertainers, but my laughs are a little repressed by the sheer effrontery of their attitudes. When I was a boy I wondered why it was so hard for my parents to see my point—now I understand—by their standards, I didn’t have a point. I wasn’t seeing everything through their experiences, I was seeing everything as new and without emotional context. And now I’m trapped in my memories of what our children see as ‘history’, if they notice it at all. Paperless, wireless, unconventional families, uncensored entertainment, the disintegration of traditional religious institutions’ power to shape people and events, access to everything—information, encyclopediae, maps and navigators, definitions, language translations, 24-hour news cycles—all the things that have remade what was once my stable little spot on the Earth—our children take them as givens—the same way we took drinking from our lawn hoses for granted (back when people still felt safe drinking from ground wells).
So, in the end, Seth McFarlane did a great job hosting the Oscars—he also did a terrible job—it depends on your age.