Our society is anxious AF about what the future holds. We‘ve grown up to be existential basketcases.
Take a generation. Raise it in an era when war is abstract, the inner life is broadcast, and hardware is no longer a valid excuse for why two humans can’t communicate. Endow this generation with godly omniscience, if only they cared to look it up. Give anyone who can afford a phone the unlimited potential to remember, create, record, and share. Whether or not “the cloud” is heavenly remains anybody’s guess, and while pondering this new reality is indeed a fun way to pass our mortal coil as we fall into utopia or dystopia, what I find truly interesting is just how much time we’ve spent pondering lately.
Where better to look for apocalypse, to set a watchman per se, to take the temperature of the age, to look for the geists in this zeit, to examine the existential angst of it all — the screens, the lights, the mirror, the machines — than on the screens themselves.
Gone are shows like Friends, Seinfeld, Home Improvement, and the Simpsons*. Those shows addressed the Gen-X need for, well, friends and family, something we had still been sorting out since women went back to work and masculine occupations were outsourced. We’d dealt with much of our familial insecurity by then (Family Matters, Full House, The Cosby Show, Married… With Children, etc.), but we still longed for personal fulfillment. All of us wished we were as handy as Tim Taylor or as well-read as Lisa Simpson. We wanted to go out for a sandwich with Joey, but be home in time to chat with Wilson over the fence or Kramer next to the refrigerator, after the kids were put to bed. Media doesn’t reflect real life; it airbrushes it and sells it back to us at a premium. We look for heroes who can muster the qualities that we lack.
So, if family, social belonging, and personal fulfilment were the greatest insecurities in the ’90s, what are our greatest anxieties today?
Stop me when you think you’ve spotted a trend. Westworld (the repercussions of opening an AI themepark), Rick and Morty (an alcoholic, nihilist scientist and his naive grandson explore the moral problems of a multi-dimensional universe), Black Mirror (terrifying extrapolations of modern technologies)… nothing yet? Let’s try movies. Zootopia, Inside Out, The Jungle Book — all uncharacteristically deep and dark for children, all of which explore the crises that emerge in human nature when the self collides with society. A fourth animated film easily slides into the category of recent philosophical films, albeit more epistemological/existential and less social/political: Sausage Party. That’s right, we live in a time when even a stoner comedy about phallic food can’t keep out of Plato’s cave.
Our shows reflect the decline our institutions (House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Veep), the corruption at the centre of our reality (Stranger Things), and the resulting dissolution of the human project (Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead).
America’s dad isn’t Cosby anymore; it’s Louis CK.
TV (I wonder for how much longer it will be called that) seems obsessed man’s place in the universe. This medium (whatever it has all become: streaming video, the internet, social media) has become one of the key places where we go for answers both material and spiritual insofar as “finding the answer” has become synonymous with “Googling it”. Instead of the vision quest, we now television quest. The marathon has become the opposite of a marathon.
If 2016 was any indication, we are dealing with an existential crisis befitting of a species with the key in the door to unlimited technological ability. With the click of a button, any item imaginable can be delivered to any place you like. With the tap of a finger, a car can pick you up and bring you anywhere you’d like to go. I can take a picture of literally anything I see and share it with literally anyone I know. Thanks for the promotion, but we are completely out of our depth. All religiosity aside, we have become gods.
When the ancient Sumerians etched the first stories into tablets, did they know they were leaving immortal markings? Did the writers of Hindu scripture realize that later generations would receive it as holy, as something literally passed down by the gods? Did Shakespeare, Caravaggio, and Charlie Chaplin recognize the infinite many universes they were creating with every sonnet, brushstroke, and frame they captured? We live in a time when the immediacy of our condition surpasses its erosion.
Thank goodness for the humbling presence of everything this side of our reflection.