Children, Let Me Tell You About A Time Before
Before you’d get instant alerts about an accident on East 34th Street. Before you’d change plans to meet someone while on the way to meet them. Before you could read, listen, watch anything you want, whenever you want, endlessly. Before you knew that a proportion of the people out there were queer, and that the people near you that said it was wrong were themselves wrong. Before you could look anything up now, right now, instead, hours hunting through card catalogues and indices. Before you’d make things from suicide labor so cheaply from superfuture Chinese nanotrash. Before you carried everything with you, in a tiny glowing rectangle.
It wasn’t so great. I would rank friends by those who had a zero in their telephone number. Dialing a zero all the way around gave you a sore index finger (use a pencil). And some people had trouble ending a phonecall, which could spiral into Beckett-like verbal tactics and parries.
Not that we’re without problems now. The same instant sympatico can be the same instant extremism, or the same instant problem of collusion or exclusion. Although those things have always existed, rather than being hidden, they are now more apparent. Not apparent, that’s not the right word. Inevitable. Unavoidable. Unignorable? Nothing is ignorable now. You thought you didn’t know about something, you wake up, suddenly you know almost everything about it, as if the internet whispers under your pillow. You can no longer not know about it. Although of course there’s someone who knows more about it, and they’re listening, and they’ll tell everyone you know very little.
This is my argument, things are generally better. Not completely, not unequivocally.
(What I miss: someone has handed you a small flat piece of plastic with grooves in it, they lean forward with a conspiratorial air, almost anticipating a secret handshake, and they utter, quietly, and with the utmost conviction “this is amazing you have to hear it”. Because there were fewer things, and those things were never instant, this was one of the most supremely interesting and joyful experiences you could have. Discovery was hard work.)
We are the last generation to remember a time before cheap anything machines. Like the people who remember what it was like before the telephone, or motion pictures. Or people who remember a time before the horseless carriage or before mechanical clocks (“we never had a work week like you kids, because we never had clocks”). It’s a weird contraposition, which makes the modern consequent outlined with a kind of mental fuzz, a constant bit of meta that places it in time. I am used to typing on a screen, but I always think of my dead beloved Royal I would clack out words late at night no one else would read. When I see friends’ children extend themselves so frighteningly naturally into a device, a digital space, without hesitation or worry of consequences, I feel ancient, as ancient as a man must’ve when he realized that the neighbors had built Stonehenge. (“Feh, back in my day we didn’t need giant stones. Ridiculous.”)
Things are better. Everyone makes things. Everyone says things. And those occupations which used to be limited and specialized about the specialness of making or saying are radically changing. So I feel bad for the folks confronted with that. But the train, it keeps a-rollin. Remember that your revenge will be a time 30 years from now, when today’s teenagers complain they recall a time when nobody needed eye implants or memory extensions or portable EMP devices to fight off the giant killer robots.