Monday, December 12, 2011

The Loss of Special

Driving yesterday afternoon, perhaps four o’clock or so, I came to a particularly stubborn red light…the kind that makes you wait for a mythical flow of traffic in the opposite direction that isn’t really there and seems like it never was or never shall be.  But I digress.  You see, almost immediately after I stopped, a big black SUV pulled up next to me, just a few feet beyond me actually, so that when I glanced over I was looking in the second row of seats.  There were two computer-size screens mounted in the roof and they were each playing “A Charlie Brown Christmas” for the two kids harnessed into the back seats with more protective equipment and nylon strap restraints than the Apollo astronauts had to hold them in place.  And I felt sad for those kids, just a little, because I don’t think they’ll get to know what special really is.

Let me explain.  When I was a kid, something like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was what you would call special, meaning that it aired once a year - on CBS, if I recall - and that was it.  If you had the school Christmas concert (back when there were such things) or a CYO basketball game that night, then it was “Wait ‘til next year” (a mantra that would come in quite handy in the life of a Mets fan).  But the absence of DVDs and digital downloads and all things “4G”, meant that there was such a thing as special.  Of course, I sound like a curmudgeonly old man in saying all this, but I heard a U2 song on the local “Oldies” station the other day and I’m pretty sure Turner Classic Movies recently aired “The Breakfast Club”, for cryin’ out loud.  So allow me this rant before I’m put on the ice floe and set adrift once and for all.
Things that used to be seasonal are less and less so in these days of hyper-convenience.  Walk into any supermarket and you can have practically anything you want at any time of year…whatever fruit or vegetable you want, shipped in from halfway around the globe where they actually are in season.  Want to see any movie, listen to any piece of music?  It’s just a download away.  Wait a few minutes (seconds if you’ve got 4G!!), and there it is.  You can watch “Dances with Wolves” right there on your three-inch phone screen.  Or listen to Mozart’s 40th Symphony on the very same device…hell, make it your ringtone while you’re at it!  I suppose the convenience of it is meant to make up for any of the artistic splendor that might be lost in translation.

As a kid, I remember seeing my father reading a book and coming upon a word with which he was unfamiliar.  So he put the book down, walked over to the bookshelves, pulled out this massive unabridged dictionary we had, and proceeded to flip through its pages until he found the word in question.  Then he wrote the definition down on a scrap of paper and inserted it into the book he was reading before resuming.  I guarantee you my father remembered that definition…maybe for the rest of his life.  There was something in the attaining of it that made it a true acquisition.  But such a simple action is already a thing of the past.  And in this Age of Everything, with all the information we could ever want and a thousand times more at the touch of an “app”, what is lost is the very essence of exploration, of learning, of process.  Of special.  And that’s too bad.

For the record, I once saw “Dances with Wolves” at the Uptown Theater in Washington, D.C….70 mm of wide-screen magnificence enveloping the audience.  And I once heard Mozart’s 40th performed at the Kennedy Center.  Special.  Like an apple pie in the fall.  Or a peach in summer.  Or “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, once a year.  If you didn’t have a basketball game instead.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting premise. "Specialness" is predicated on scarcity, for sure, and the conveniences of modernity have eliminated the need to wait for peaches or apple pies or Charlie Brown seasonal specials. But all your examples are related to consumption, which surely is an important (and almost primal) component of the human experience, and one that very well may be diminished through ease of access and elimination of scarcity.

    What about another essential (and in my opinion more important) component of the human experience: expression? How many more creative opportunities and outlets, enabled by technological advances that make it easier to consume, do the children in the backseat of that SUV benefit from compared to children just 10 years ago?

    The technologies that so many denigrate because they cheapen the act of consumption serve also (and more importantly) to encourage the act of creation. This tradeoff is a no-brainer.

    I can collaborate with peers in New York and Singapore and Oslo and Beijing on open source software that millions of people consume everyday. I can create my own music and share it or sell it online for others to consume. In addition to consuming Wikipedia content, I can also contribute to it. I can work diligently on and post a video, such as Marcel the Shell, to YouTube and watch it go viral; surely, having tens of millions of people enjoy your work must be one of the most rewarding of human experiences. And finally, I can respond to blog posts by a former teacher, who presumably also enjoys this creative outlet, enabled by technology, and hopes others are able to easily consume and enjoy it.

    I wouldn't worry too much about whether the kids in the back seat of that SUV will experience special. Their special might be different than your or my experience, but it will be no less meaningful.