“And I had to wonder... Are we controlling the cell phones, or are the cell phones controlling us?”
After Gossip Girl was over—I recapped and analyzed every episode of the show, for all six seasons—my beloved Editorial team at TWoP suggested it might be a good idea to take on the new show from that production team, The Carrie Diaries. I didn’t need to think too hard before I said no.
Part of it is that I have beef with Sex & The City—for giving scores of bright young girls the idea that my life is an audition to be someone’s Pet Gay—but honestly, the majority of it is that I don’t have a lot of patience for period pieces.
And the reason for that has to do with futurism, basically, which is what I really want to talk to you about.
I love Mad Men, yes, but Mad Men approaches its era as the topic itself: it’s a period piece in the truest sense. (Which ends up, paradoxically, making it more relevant than it would be if it tried). I’m a huge Jane Austen fan, and can even get a little stroppy about people going postmodern on her (except, of course, for the flawless Clueless). But I found myself searching for words to describe the feeling I’m talking about, when walking out of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy last year. It was a period piece that seemed relevant, somehow, at the same time, but also: If they had cell phones, that movie would have been ten minutes long!
Instead, the story stretched out over numerous decades and wars and relationships. And it was fun, but not something that really turned me on intellectually, and I didn’t understand why until hearing about The Carrie Diaries: It was the exact opposite of everything that made the earlier show matter. A teen show without cell phones is an exercise in nostalgia and Gen X self-regard, and I couldn’t in a million years be bothered to watch a teen show set up that way.
Which got me thinking (“I had to wonder...”) about the fact that we, generally, tend to privilege the era from which we’ve come. If you grew up with records, well, vinyl probably does sound better—and for reasons that have little to do with science. If you can’t work a VCR, you’re probably my grandmother. And so on.
Me, I’ve never been good at nostalgia. I maybe have some form of cultural ADD. But I do think there’s a point at which you have to consider this point: That a teen show about pre-cell phones is not a teen show at all. That we’ve been party to, midwives of, a sociological sea change that is much, vastly bigger and more different than most of us look directly at, because part of us still lives in high school, or college, or whenever we felt most relevant.
Take for instance the common cry about technology pushing us apart, this image of all the people in the cybercafé tapping away without looking at each other. That’s true, to a certain extent, and I guess it’s cozy to imagine those same people sharing their feelings and their aspirations—with strangers—but honestly: A hundred years ago if I wrote you a letter, by the time you actually read it I’d have had three children and one of them would be dead of cholera.
So are we pushed apart by technology? I don’t think it’s as simple as the pushmi-pullyu dichotomy culture critics would usually have us believe. I would say, more properly, we are becoming bilingual, and some people pick up on languages more quickly than others—while others, regrettably, resent the idea of different languages altogether.
There are people who, when confronted with a person who doesn’t speak English very well, feel like they’re being victimized by the circumstance: Not “we are going to figure this one out,” but “why can’t you just speak English?” And then too, there are people who hear groups speaking in a foreign tongue and feel alienated: Not “what a mellifluous sound,” but “what an irrelevant bunch of nonsense.”
We live in two worlds, now, and look at them with two sets of eyes, and listen to them with two sets of ears, and mediate them with multiple languages. Some of us are going to be natively better at it, some of us are going to try harder, and some of us are going to sour-grapes the whole thing and stick to a Nokia candybar from 1997. But the fact remains that the world is different, that a separate world of information and communication has been laid over the top of it, and our response to those true facts are our choice.
If you know your Jack Kirby, you’ll be familiar with Motherbox, the “little wonder” who connects the heroes of the Fourth World to the aleph, the centerpoint of existence. She’s about the size and shape of a cell phone, actually, and her purpose is to make sure they’re never, ever alone. She provides news, comfort, company, communication—even transport. They don’t worship her, but they rely on her. She is their connection to everything not currently in their environment.
If I’d told you fifteen—even ten—years ago that some day incredibly soon we’d all be prancing through life hanging on to little Motherboxes that contain the sum total of human knowledge, always accessible, always-on, you’d think I was crazy. You’d go back to arguing about who that guy was, in that movie, and in the end you’d agree to disagree because it would be too much hassle to actually find out. When was the last time that happened to you?
My friend Will recently emailed me this crazy Japanese manuscript from the 1500s, fascinating and funny and timeless, and wondered in the email why this wasn’t in the Cloud yet. Which is a funny question that could only be asked in the world we’re living in, but has an even more insane answer: The number of documents not on the internet will never go up. Which isn’t to say that everything will eventually be accessible—there are plenty of financial interests concerned with keeping that from you—but that the number will only ever continue to approach zero.
There’s a legend that the Tarot deck was created before the burning of the Library of Alexandria, just in case: That all collected human knowledge to that point in history was encoded, compressed down into symbols and esoterica, in the hopes that humanity’s search would continue. But you know what, SOPA and PIPA aside, nobody’s ever going to burn our Library down. It only gets bigger and bigger: It only ever approaches infinity.
Not to engage in hyperbole (snerk), but that’s about as huge a change as I can imagine. It means—and this is the sci-fi part, the futurist part—that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants, more than we ever were before. The amount of time spent reinventing the wheel, or doing without knowledge, or making up facts—“When you don’t know anything, everything’s up for debate”—only ever approaches zero, from here on out.
And if that means having to demand the attention of a teenager who’s more interested in their phone than in your boring story, I see that as nothing more than a cause for celebration. Be more fascinating, by all means! But don’t get jealous of the world alongside our own, and don’t be jealous that she speaks its language natively. It’s right there waiting for you. For us.
Jacob Clifton is a freelance writer and critic based in Austin, Texas. He currently recaps The Good Wife, Bates Motel, and Defiance for Television Without Pity.com. Check out jacobclifton.com, Twitter and Facebook.