Sunday, May 4, 2008

Read all about it

"An American will never meet, or even know the names of more than a handful of his 240,000-odd fellow-Americans. He has no idea of what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity."
-- Benedict Anderson, "Imagined Communities," 1983

When Anderson wrote about the origins of modern nationalism, he selected the newspaper and the novel as cultural touchstones that exemplified man's ability to visualize himself as part of a unified mass of people who share a common understanding and experience of the world they inhabit. This "imagined linkage" of "print-capitalism ... made it possible for rapidly growing numbers of people to think about themselves, and relate themselves to others, in profoundly news ways."

Today, of course, we need no literary devices to lend the impression of simultaneous experience; thanks to the Internet, we are instead having simultaneous experiences all over the place. We hear a 28-year-old obscure folk song in a VW commercial, Google "VW commercial song," and before you know it, Nick Drake has posthumously sold more records within a month than he had during his entire career. But strangely, this ability to connect with anything at any time has proved largely to be an isolating experience rather than one that, well, connects us. 

"Connect" is the great verb of the Internet, but for the most part, we are not connecting with other human beings or with anything that can be described as a community. We are mostly connecting with our own needs and desires, largely anonymously. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, we are mostly checking e-mail, looking up information, getting maps and driving directions, shopping, checking the weather, reading the news and gathering information about hobbies or other personal activities. We are also downloading proprietary forms of entertainment, often at no charge, something that is technically illegal but widely practiced, like drinking during Prohibition. 

Participatory activities, such as posting comments on a blog, instant-messaging, social networking and online discussions, rank low on the list, indicating that the adolescent frenzy for Facebook, MySpace and the like hasn't spread out enough through the general population to make a dent. Even when we are in ostensibly "social" online environments, however, we can (and do) avoid actual contact with other people. We can hide our online status, set ourselves as "busy," or lurk on message boards. We can be anonymous, even duplicitous, usually with no negative consequences. So much for simultaneous experiences. 

Earlier technologies, including radio and television, influenced our ideas about simultaneity just as novels and newspapers had earlier. Families gathered 'round the old wireless set or the 10-inch TV screen to share a common experience, if a silent one, that was no doubt being replicated in thousands of other homes at that same moment. We still have these experiences, of course; it was television that brought most of us the disaster of Sept. 11, 2001's World Trade Center attacks, and a generation of people will refer back to this moment the way Baby Boomers talk about Kennedy's assassination. But the experience has become dilute, its power weakened. Chuck Klosterman references this dilution in his 2005 essay, "Here's Johnny," in which he argues that Johnny Carson "was the last universally shared icon of modern popular culture." Klosterman argues that Carson's "Tonight Show" was "almost in totality, the entire construction of watching television late at night. Everybody knew this, even if they didn't own a television. It was a specific piece of knowledge that all Americans had in common."

This could never happen today, Klosterman says, and I happen to agree with him. We still have newspapers, and radio, and novels and television. But what we lack are unifying phenomena. Newspapers pump energy and resources into websites that attempt to mirror other online successes, making the paper product something of an archaic afterthought. Everything you encounter, from soda pop to car commercials to fast food, seems to have a Web tie-in, however ridiculous. 

Perhaps this is the end, then, of nationalism as Anderson described it. Perhaps without this understood unified narrative, we also lose any sense of ourselves as being in this whole experience together. However culturally insignificant "The Tonight Show" may seem, it was an experience shared more universally than anything we can imagine today.

Time does not change us. It just unfolds us.
-- Max Frisch

No comments: