Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A different kind of conspicuous consumption

Patton Oswalt says, Wake Up, Geek Culture. It's Time to Die. He touches on a few things I have been pondering lately, which is the increase in cultural consumption that has occurred within the past few years--or, as he so adroitly points out, the way in which we are consuming popular culture. There used to be very few TV shows that people watched religiously, and discussed with their friends. Shows that, if someone said, "Oh, I don't watch that," you would say, "What's wrong with you?!? You don't know what you're missing!" The first show like that was I Love Lucy. If you were scheduling to go out to dinner with someone, it could never be at the same time as I Love Lucy.

The show of my generation like that was The Simpsons. When I was in fifth grade, some kids actually had a kind of Simpsons discussion group that met during recess every Monday, to talk about the Simpsons episode that aired the previous evening. (This, of course, was nothing like a book club where they talked about the biting social commentary--it was more like, "Oh man, that part was really funny.") As the show became syndicated, it was possible to watch The Simpsons every day, sometimes up to four times in a single day. When I got to college, if a person wasn't able to converse in Simpsons references, it usually meant they had parents who, at some point, strictly controlled what they watched on TV.

Today, you can watch any TV show you want, any time of day. On that note, we are going to take a brief diversion.

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People sometimes talk about how bad TV has gotten in the past decade, pointing to the surfeit of crap reality TV that is out there. TV has also, in other respects, gotten really good in the past decade. Setting aside the several original series produced by Showtime and HBO (The Wire. There, I said it.), there are plenty of shows that are far better than what was around in the 90s. To me, the only things that come to mind are sitcoms, since it is one of my preferred genres: Community, Children's Hospital, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and The Office, to name but a few. In animation, there has been Avatar, Adventure Time, and quite a few things on Adult Swim.

I think that was has happened is that instead of trying to make their shows appeal to as broad of an audience as possible, producers are trying to make each show appeal to a particular audience in the best possible way. When you form a devoted following, you get people who tune in every time the show is on, regardless of what else is on, whereas before, you might have gotten people who watched your show simply because it was the best thing that happened to be on at the time. (Also, there are now shows you have to pay attention to while you watch them, and shows where you can do housework and only half pay attention while missing nothing.)

What brought this into stark relief for me was when I recently watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Its fans will talk to you about all the things that are so great about it, while its detractors will talk to you about all the things that are bad about it. From time to time, both of them are correct. It has interesting storylines where characters make tough moral choices... but it will sometimes have entire episodes where the characters play hot potato with the idiot ball. There is a lot of fluff and filler. And this is because the show was probably aimed at trying to capture both the audience who likes "good television," and the audience that watches whatever crap happens to be on right now.

If Buffy were made today, I think that it would have half as many episodes per season, and have at least 50% less filler. It would be more watchable for some people, while some of its most die-hard fans would probably be upset that you cut out all of the rich social drama (which was really just people yelling at each other for five minutes, over a misunderstanding).

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So, we now live in a world with lots of great television shows. And video games. And movies. And books, good god, there are books everyone is reading! With the power of the internet, we can find out all of the cool things there are to consume in our spare time. We can also see our friends having conversations about these things, and we think, "I would like to be able to participate in that conversation. I will go find out what it is they are talking about." (I might just be speaking for myself, but I don't think the power of implicit social pressure should be denied.) But each one of those TV shows will require several hours of your time to watch all the way through. The movies, two hours apiece. The video games, 10 hours or more. The books depend on how fast you read and what books you are reading, but reading a George R. R. Martin novel will require no less than 10 hours of your time.

Now you are spending every possible minute of your spare time doing nothing but consume popular culture, and it's not enough. Unless you quit your job, and make your life all about media consumption, there is never going to be enough time for all of it. The further problem, as Patton Oswalt says, is that you are never taking the time to reflect on these things and absorb them. In a world where we never have to watch the same show twice, we are missing out on the value of repeated viewing that made some of us conversant in Simpsons references.

This means that you have to make a choice in what you are going to consume, and stop worrying about the fact that you haven't consumed the thing your friends are talking about.  I am trying to take this even further, and want to take the time to rewatch some of the shows I have enjoyed the most in the past five years (yes, The Wire, but also Adventure Time). If we don't try to slow ourselves down, I don't think it will be quite as bad as Oswalt says, but it doesn't seem like something I want to be part of. All I can see is a future of image macros that reference 10 different intellectual properties at once.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How to have a replacement for a personality

Developing a personality is hard. Where do you even start? You don't have that kind of time, to say nothing of the humility it requires. Instead, you can have something to talk about, with anyone at all, without ever having to dig down inside to find out who you are! It's so easy! Here are some things to get you started:
  • Wear a fedora. It's, like, the coolest kind of hat there is. People will compliment you on your snazzy hat, and then you can tell them about all the other hats you have at home. You'll wish you had an extra head, so you could wear two snazzy hats at once.
  • Start using Linux, which is like the fedora of operating systems. It's better, in fact, because while there are only so many things you can say about hats, you can talk to anyone at all, as much as you want, about Linux. Do they not use Linux? Tell them why they should. Do they already use Linux? Tell them they're a goddamn idiot for using Red Hat, when everyone knows Ubuntu is the best distro. And who the fuck uses Pine anymore? You get the idea. Also, if you learn enough about Linux, you could probably get a job in IT.  I mean, like, maybe. I don't know. Linux people and IT people talk the same kind of gibberish to me, so it seems natural.
  • Wear a utilikilt. For too long, men have been shut out of the benefits of wearing skirts. Now you can wear a skirt that is not only manly, but has a system of pockets like cargo pants. Tell everyone you know about how liberating it feels to wear a utilikilt, especially if you're not wearing underwear with it. Oh yeah, did I mention? It gives you an excuse not to wear underwear, something else women have bogarted for too long.
  • Learn a lot of jokes. You won't ever have to say something in a conversation that isn't a joke.
  • Learn a lot of random trivia. The quick and dirty way is to pick up one of those giant trivia books, and read it cover to cover, maybe keeping it in the bathroom to read while you're on the toilet. You can also do this, of course, by reading lots of non-fiction, because those books are frequently peppered with interesting asides. If it's interesting enough for you to commit it to memory, then it should be interesting enough to tell someone you just met. Hold on, did they say something about space shuttles? Now's your chance to talk about Richard Feynman testifying before Congress on why the Challenger exploded! Also, speaking of Richard Feynman... yeah, once you're talking about Feynman, you can talk about anything.
  • Start making things out of duct tape. You can even make a fedora out of duct tape. (I don't recommend a duct tape utilikilt.) Don't make those foam-padded boffers, though. Those are dumb.
  • Take up some old lady type of crafting, like knitting or needlepoint, and make video game-related things. You don't even have to play any video games--just pay attention to what video games other people are playing, and making jokes about on the internet. I've never played Portal, but I'd make a needlepoint of the companion cube, and have it say, "The cake is a lie." If I did needlepoint. Anyway, if you had something like that on your wall, everyone would tell you how awesome it was.
These are just some ideas. You might find a new and creative way to get by without a personality! There are no limits! Maybe you want to do nothing but consume popular culture, so that you can talk about those things with other people. Start with The Wire, because, seriously, everyone should watch that show.

Now, not everyone who does the things I just mentioned is trying to replace their personality. Many of them have brilliant, shining personalities, and when you touch on that point of common interest with them, it will allow you to spend a lot more time around them, potentially leading to things like meeting their friends, going to their parties, and having one-night stands with any female they know.

But that guy with the duct tape fedora and the utilikilt? He also uses Linux, and he thinks he's hot shit just because he uses Gentoo. That is some bullshit. Go tell him how much of an asshole he is.