The Spectre of Future History
This week in THE LEDGER: after a meandering setup about content for old people, a look at Buzzfeed’s crazy new web show, Future History
Have you ever had that feeling when some goddamn tweet pricks the edge of your consciousness, and the pang just hangs there, like a subcutaneous stinger, pestering you for days? I speak not of the latest Kanye witticism, but of this choice specimen, which has been needling me, gnat-like, since first poking my feed:
Ouch, that stings. Or as the kids like to say, It me.
As Rian diagnoses it, the onset of this affliction, in which one develops an inexplicable interest in historical content, begins circa The Big 4-0. In my case, some insidious microbe entered my bloodstream around this age, and immediately began eradicating all prior hobbies and interests. My inner child — once capable of contemplating ambitious pastimes like “brushing up on my French” or “maybe learning to play the mandolin” — died a sad quiet death. In its place, I was bequeathed a recreational interest in such robust topics as Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile on Elba and the efficacy of the Trojan Horse.
This ailment explains why, today, my podcast app bulges with three-hour yarns about Rasputin, and my Kindle teems with tomes on medieval kingdoms. Ye olde TiVo has erected a stockade of PBS programming, from Civilization (1969) to Civilizations (2018), and just the other night, I casually advised a friend, “Yes, of course American Experience is magnificent, but the finest deep cut is their Roman Empire series.” WHO. THE FUCK. AM I?
Despite these reservations about becoming a binger of historical content, I have found clever uses with my newfound pastime, and not just sweeping the ETRUSCAN CULTURE category in Jeopardy. (“What is aqueduct, Alex?”) Specifically, I am starting to see how our era, The Age of Peak TV, is changing how history works.
According to my timeline, the sea change started post-Y2K, when VH1 introduced a string of adored quasi-docs. In the giddy cinematic universe of I Love the ’70s/’80s/’90s, you could plainly see a new creation, one in which nostalgic rendering had seamlessly replaced historical portraiture. Within a decade, CNN added a middlebrow polish to the same concept, creating The Seventies, The Eighties, and The Nineties.
This trend has since accelerated, most blatantly with the recycling bin of the History Channel, but also in countless other projects, including the revisionism of Oliver Stone. This year, however, it may finally reach its zenith. 2018 sounds like just another random marker, but of course we found a way to rebrand it with zeal. For the remainder of the year, you will likely hear 2018 referred to as The 50th Anniversary of 1968. While publications like The Atlantic will use the marker to reflect upon the era, Peak TV will pile on new takes, including another CNN miniseries, 1968: The Year that Changed America, airing later this month.
Can you see the change? We no longer simply reflect on the past, but on the anniversary of the past. No one wants a humdrum description of 1968; we demand the 2018 version of 1968. History has become a lens for itself.
Buzzfeed—god bless their millennial souls—just launched the quintessence of this trend. Here is the trailer to their new web series, Future History: 1968, commemorating the same golden jubilee:
The big idea here is to retell the events of 1968 as though they transpired on social media today. One can almost imagine the boardroom pitch:
OK, picture this: MLK on Periscope, Leonid Brezhnev on FaceTime, an Uber ride to the White House, Neil Armstrong creating an Instagram story from the moon. Millennials will finally experience history as it was meant to be experienced: socially, in apps, on phones. It will be this generation’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
Of thirty forthcoming webisodes, three are currently available: Yuri Gagarin races to space, Lady Bird Johnson lunches with Eartha Kitt, and MLK is assassinated on social media. To give you a sense of the aesthetic, and hopefully save you a click, here are some of the visuals used in the MLK episode:
Not to be outdone by the youngsters, the New York Times could not resist the exact same impulse to wrap the events of 1968 in the interfaces of today. But in their repackaging of the 50th Anniversary, the primary interaction becomes the ominous breaking news alert, haunting our notifications:
What should we call this odd genre of content, where we rewrite the past within the UI of the present? How about, IIAs, or Intentional Interface Anachronisms?
Spend a little time in these IIAs, and you’ll see their purpose is less historical reflection than futuristic projection. The Buzzfeed series imagines a bold new world, one in which all media is delivered socially, in boxes, on devices. Every content nugget comes wrapped in the interface of precious engagement: likes, retweets, comments. (What, no claps?)
Future History is only viewable on Facebook and Apple News, creating the vertiginous effect of one interface inside another. But this is a familiar sensation of modern media: a widget inside of a page, inside of a browser, inside of an app, inside of a phone. Buzzfeed has essentially created UX porn, an Escher of chrome embedded in more chrome.
Or maybe, this is 40. History has become its own subject, all media is social media, and the interface of the future resembles a kaleidoscopic.
THE LEDGER is my weekly media diary. I was ungodly sick last weekend, so this edition is late. But here is a recap of quality links:
- Bloomberg: Palantir Knows Everything About You
- Vulture: Long Episodes Are the Manspreading of TV
- New Republic: Is Kanye West “the Ezra Pound of Rap”?
- Vox: We’re Underestimating the Mind-Warping Potential of Fake Video
- Aeon: You Thought Quantum Mechanics Was Weird, Check Out Entangled Time
- A future edition of THE LEDGER will surely compare these two upcoming shows: Follow This (July 9), a Netflix docu-series set in Buzzfeed, and The Fourth Estate (May 27), a Showtime docu-series set in the New York Times.
- Though it sometimes seems like Vice News has usurped its place as kingmaker, 60 Minutes still has the unique ability to create touchstone moments in culture. Two recent segments that break no reporting ground but seem to capture the essence of this historical moment: on the gene-editing tool CRISPR and a visit the MIT Media Lab.
- Kottke turned up a video version of The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, Nick Bostrom’s essay about aging.
- The best thing you’re probably not watching? Howards End on Starz. Exponentially better than the Merchant Ivory productions.
- On the Media: Ken Kesey’s Acid Quest.
Continuing our theme of the week, this one also stung, but in the good way:
Did you hear? I wrote a book! The Encyclopedia of Misinformation can be found at your local independent bookstore, but also here: MISINFO.WTF.