Anyone else getting the sinking feeling that no matter what you achieve in life it’ll be quickly lost in the spiraling eddy of data-overload that now engrosses every aspect of our lives like an inverted super-massive black hole relentlessly vomiting out “information” instead of sucking in? Just me? Lucky you…
It feels like if we find the cure for cancer or world peace or life on Mars, it’ll be tweeted out between headline of government shut-downs, unpunished financial scandals, Kardisgustian baby gossip, and the network’s fall line-up of prime-time dogshit– where wicked, sexy people do devilishly sexy things that leave us hanging till next week’s devious, sexy, wickedness.
“Hey, d’you hear about the cure for cancer?” You’ll hear on a street corner, though not in LA cause everyone’s in a car with the windows up, and not in New York, cause everyone’s wearing a headset. “Now way! That’s awesome! Hey check this Vine video I made. It’s only a few seconds…”
Yes, cancer’s cure will trend for a day before being knocked out of the cycle by the utterly banal, because trends, by definition, come and go. And with 160 character limits and 7 second running times, nothing sticks for long before it’s eclipsed by new infinities of trivia.
(* Incidentally, need investors for a start-up I’m calling, Twigger. Send messages one character long, and make viral videos with negative running times. That’s right, you’ll actually get time back after watching a Twigger vid.)
It’s not that time’s speeding up these days. It’s that we can’t focus for as long as we used to. Every smartphone communicates in the language of the instant. iPhone updates happen “Now” and then “Just now”, and then “1 minute ago.” Then “5 minutes ago.” If ten minutes goes by and you haven’t updated it says, “Ancient History”.
But all this is old news. Polemical rhetoric about technology robbing us of deeper experiences has already filled the shelves of virtual bookstores and not un-ironically, they’ll all get lost, (after a marketing blitzkrieg of time-sensitive expletives declaring how NOW these books about NOW are).
We’ve entered an era where there’s too much supply and not enough demand, and it applies to everything from cars and online sex to independent movies to remote data storage. Too many choices, option, alternatives. So a battle ensues in every area– to be heard, needed wanted, demanded– and the effect it creates is the worst trend of all: false urgency. The gravity with which all this trivia is spewed is detestable.
I swear if I get duped by another mega-brand commercial I’m gonna pluck my eyes out. You know what I’m talking about, cause it’s happened to you; the moment when you’re focused on something worthwhile, like reading, and your attention gets pulled to an illuminated flat screen.
You can’t tear yourself from the images ’cause they’re beautiful and they move in quick succession, evoking emotions you don’t have time to quell. Then, the music kicks in, scoring the escalation. It’s symphonic and powerful and, against all odds, you find yourself somehow invested in what you’re watching, even though it’s only been 14 seconds. You’re caught up in a narrative as gorgeous as a feature film, and you can’t wait to find out how it ends.
Have you seen the one about the woman trying to get to the airport in a storm? Her husband’s arriving and she wants to be there for him, so she drives, cautiously, as a storm closes in around her like some kind of sexual predator, slapping its phallic branches against her wet windshield and splashing fluids under her wheels.
Swooping crane shots and edgy POV angles raise the tension with every frame. The score soars with symphonic bursts and eerie thriller sound FX. The spot is nothing short of Hitchcockian, at this point. And I’m sitting in my living room on a sunny Sunday, trying to enjoy another miserable Giants shutout, and suddenly my heart is in my mouth. Is this poor woman gonna make it?!
Oh god. She’s dead! I’m beside myself with grief. I think about how my own mother is getting older and has a hard time driving at night. I want to call her. I should’ve already! What is my problem? Why am I not more grateful for everything she’s done for me? I’m a selfish little prick, that’s why. I hate myself.
Then, a big, bright logo illuminates the screen: BRIDGESTONE! Our tires represent sexual equality for bad women drivers.
The woman, now safely in the passenger seat, smiles at her Wonder Bread eating husband. The rain has stopped, ’cause men control the weather, and they’re safely on their way to anglo suburbia, where they’ll make love missionary style, and sleep on 300 count sheets. Oh, and 20% off all tires at Pep Boys. Sale ends tomorrow!
I mean, holy shit, did I just go through all that for a fucking tire spot? And what was the budget for that extravaganza, twenty million? Thank god for local cable channels still making awful commercials that don’t elicit my deepest primordial empathies. Thank god for casting cross-eyed guys and women with not-quite-perfect teeth. I wouldn’t buy carpet cleaning services from anyone else.
I confess, as a storyteller, I take pride in the principals of drama. They’ve been around since the first caveman realized what made his fellow Neanderthals lean forward around the fire. What is it exactly that keeps people interested?
Aristotle advises that the best way to move an audience to catharsis, (meaning purification) is to evoke a primary concern: death usually does the trick. But there are degrees of death on the storytelling scale; near death being a close second, a serious threat just after that. Then fear and danger in general. Followed by the ticking clock of some urgency to achieve a goal… you get the gist.
The problem is that everyone with a platform to tell a story today does as well. There’s a collective (and non-stop) need to craft compelling narrative, whether you’re a college kid in Dayton, or a local newspaper in Westchester, or a multinational conglomerate enslaving third world workers. Whether you’re selling hair replacement products or children’s books or edible dildos, the goal is to “fight for eyeballs” through some form of urgency, and it’s maxing out our capacity for authentic emotion connection.
The result is s plague of bad story-telling that reaches from individual Facebook updates, to the White Press corps. Instead of authenticity, it’s surface manipulation. There’s only so much bandwidth in the human psyche, and a lot of entities are competing for it. The result is a cat which chases its tail. And the hard changes that would result in some form of personal or national catharsis are foregone for superficial stories of exceptionalism that are lost as fast as they’re spun in the imminently rising sea of zeros and ones.
How do we escape the insatiable velocity of the NOW? The only answer seems to be, individually. Only by voluntarily tuning-out can we make authenticity a virtue again; one that could spread virally to the tribe, and maybe become a collective value. It’s a local movement that’s already started to happen. Just think how threatened you are when you hear someone isn’t on Facebook. It’s like saying I don’t believe in God in 1500’s Spain.
When the ancient Greeks had their week-long theater festival in 500 BC, by law, the market place was shut down, as were the courts and the Athenian Assembly. For that entire week, it was about gathering in the theater with the singular demand of focusing on the centuries old ritual of honoring of the god Dionysus. It’s almost hard to imagine something like that today, where our government shuts-down for the exact opposite reason: they can’t agree on what the story is.
You can bet the merchants were pissed about the revenue loss. They were too fucking greedy even then to open their eyes and see the cultural benefits of hitting pause for a few days. The festival brought in merchants from across the ancient globe who were so impressed with the city that they returned again and again to experience the magic (and spend lots of drachma). The theater festival brought the entire polis together around powerful stories, and that tradition is what elevated the Hellenic culture into the Golden Age.
The Greeks understood one thing we’ve forgotten: the culture with the best stories dominates. This is the product the Greeks continued to export long after their empire fell, a product we still buy today. One wonders, in between detergent spots, what our 7 second culture will leave behind for the future? 3000 years from now, what of THE INSTANTANEOUS will remain?