This year we sold our 1998 Jeep Cherokee. We got a new car, a hybrid.
I can’t get used to it. It does things like, you press the gas pedal? And the car starts moving. Whoa! In the Jeep, you’d press the gas pedal and nothing would happen, then you’d lift your foot and slowly but firmly press it down again, sometimes more than once. Like the car was saying “are you sure you want to get into this whole ‘motion’ thing? ‘Cause we’ve got all the time in the world.” And this new car, you can barely tell it’s moving because it doesn’t wheeze and quake and cough, you’re just sitting there with your foot on the pedal and the images in the window are gliding by – I think it’s a flying car. Welcome to the twenty-first century. The new car has all manner of space-ship knobs and buttons that can apparently make it warmer or cooler inside, I haven’t explored those yet, and one that makes the seat hot. Why am I so drowsy all of a sudden? Oh, because this chair is warming my buns. It also has a screen that says how many miles you can go on the fuel you’ve got, whereas the Jeep had a broken dial that would say “empty” meaning “start looking for a gas station sometime next week.”
The 1998 Jeep had a lot of problems toward the end, but the one thing that I never had trouble with was the cassette deck. I could pop in my old copy of Blaze of Glory in January and it would play it front to back to front till June, or whenever I decided to switch it out for another cassette. I never get tired of Blaze of Glory, it’s Jon Bon Jovi’s concept album about a Roman Catholic cowboy in the wild west, saddled with guilt for the hearts he broke and the lives he took. It’s a Rock & Roll masterpiece and a theological treatise.
The new car doesn’t have a cassette deck, obviously, or even a CD player. It considers them obsolete, and it thinks I’m hopelessly dated too. It wants to be friends with my phone. They’re both really smart. Maybe too smart, the car is so smart it can’t do the simplest things. I press a button to start it (no key in the ignition – the car looks at me like an old pervert, “you want to put what in where?”) and the car and the phone want to, whatever, braid each others’ hair and paint each others’ nails like a slumber party, and they want to help the old man pick some music. With the best of intentions – they want to share the full scope of global diversity, updated to the minute with the latest international jazz, pop, rap, rave, plus the spectrum of chamber concertos and Afro-Celt jams, bagpipe-didgeri-duets – everything from Mozart to Megan Thee Stallion. Would I like to spend a half hour looking through every album ever recorded? So I can pick the perfect song for my seven minute drive? Um, thanks, but could we just resume the album I was listening to before? All that stuff sounds great, viva diversity, something for everyone. But instead of hearing every song in the world once, could I listen to Blaze of Glory for the zillionth time? Oh! And if you’re so smart, maybe you can help me out with this – my cassette was slightly warped, which added a cool grungy distortion, can you do that?
No. I see. I see the problem isn’t you, it’s me.
I need to go to the dealership. The car is fine, but I’m an old rust-bucket – can you tune me up? Make me new? Like a hybrid, so I can run partly on batteries? Also I smoke too much. And pass gas sometimes – what can you do about my emissions?
Vine Deloria, a Native American author and activist wrote: “The twentieth century has produced a world of conflicting visions, intense emotions, and unpredictable events, and the opportunities for grasping the substance of life have faded as the pace of activity has increased. Electronic media shuffle us through a myriad of experiences which would have baffled earlier generations and seem to produce in us a strange isolation from the reality of human history. Our heroes fade into mere personality, are consumed and forgotten, and we avidly seek more avenues to express our humanity. Reflection is the most difficult of all our activities because we are no longer able to establish relative priorities from the multitude of sensations that engulf us.”1
I find that quote really frightening. He wrote it in the year I was born, 1979. So when he talks about being overwhelmed by “electronic media” he means the AM/FM radio and a television that had about six channels. He was already concerned about people losing touch, unable to sort through all those signals and think about what’s really important in life. And when he said “we avidly seek more avenues to express our humanity”… Wow. The internet was coming. First into our homes, and then it shrunk down to fit into our pocket. And all day long it buzzes and dings at us. I wear my phone on my belt. Because I’m a Dad. I don’t even notice it when it’s there. But I notice when it’s not there. I feel a little buzz at my hip and reach for it instinctively, like a cowboy in a gunfight. But sometimes my fingers just slap my belt – where’s my phone? And what was that buzzing in my hip? Oh, right, that was my biological alarm clock, reminding me it’s time to wake up to middle-age. Hit ‘snooze,’ get back to work.
Having the whole world in my pocket. Voices shouting, headlines in all caps with exclamation points, dramatic updates about what my uncle in California had for breakfast. Everything louder than everything else. News-flashes. Talking heads. Viral videos of ultra-violence in high definition. Ping-pong pundits who measure truth by loudness. Makes it hard to sort out what’s actually important. It can even make it hard to know what’s real – I heard the Anti-Vaxxers and the Pizza-vampire-hunters have teamed up now. Ten years ago I had a bumper sticker that said “1984 was a warning, not an instruction manual,” but that’s hopelessly out of date. Today I need one that says “Jabberwocky was nonsense, not news.”
We’re drowning in data. Blinded in a blizzard of cold hard factoids. Can’t see the forest for the trees. And I gather misinformation is more contagious than Covid. The human mind wasn’t made for this. Ronald Wright wrote, “We are running twenty-first century software on hardware last upgraded 50,000 years ago or more.”2 Our hardware, meaning our physical brain and bodies, haven’t changed since the stone age. Easy example, the human body was built for impact at six miles per hour. I walk, fall down, get up, keep walking. But put the body on wheels – roller-skates, bicycle, automobile, and an impact will break us. The human mind can hold an incredible amount of data – this plant is food, that one’s poison, I predict a mammoth will come lumbering through this canyon sometime today. But subscribe to twenty Twitter feeds and next thing you know, you’re… Actually I don’t know, because I’ve never used Twitter. I hear high-pitched chirping from my kids, the news is always the same: they just want attention, they want it now and loud is how they think they’ll get it. So I’ll confess I’ve never subscribed to a Twitter-feed because it sounds too much like adopting more children.
Clipped to my belt I have a whole world of possibilities, everything except the scent and excitement of the real world.
The Late not-so-Great Twentieth Century
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” So runs the famous first line of a book I never read.3 I still take most of my vacations there – when the kids go to bed and I’ve done my work, I spend the last forty minutes of the day in the 1990s. I watch Mystery Science Theater 3000, Northern Exposure and Frasier. They make wisecracks, I get the references. I think it’s because they make jokes about books and classic films, things I’ve read or seen or at least heard of. And they talk to each other. I wouldn’t watch a modern sit-com – how can you have a comedic situation when four people in a room are playing silent scenes on their cell phones with people in other rooms, or cities? Or other sit-coms, the cast of Frasier sitting around the living room with smart-phones, all watching different episodes of Seinfeld.
I watch late twentieth century television and I feel like I fit in. I didn’t fit in at the time (come to think of it I spent a lot of the 1990s hiding out in the 1970s, listening to records with big headphones on). I barely survived the 1990s, it was a decade of suicidal depression. On the other hand, maybe what kept me alive was being able to talk and laugh with people, take a long walk with someone and share deep feelings without being interrupted by buzzing updates. Plus being the fat kid everybody loved to pick on probably would have made me a local youtube sensation, and that would have been my… What, do I say “you-tomb”? How do you make a funny pun about a life-threatening viral website that sounds like a birth canal? I understand people used to call television “the tube” but that’s because it had tubes in it. Sorry, I just can’t come up with a good pun about youtibe, I’m totally youtube-tied.
The twentieth century was a very hard time for me.
I got bullied but at least I didn’t have to live with the shame of getting cyber-bullied. Wow, the birth of the internet was like Christmas for bullies. They must have felt like Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, like switchblade hoodlums who got the hydrogen bomb for their birthday. “Wait a minute. Are you telling me with this device I can harass people twenty four hours a day?” (I used to get bullied at school eight hours a day, it was a nightmare, but at least then the bullies had to recharge their bully batteries, go home and get battered by their parents – they didn’t send me postcards or messenger pigeons at night. Alright, ‘messenger pigeons’ is a bit before my time, but nobody ever got cyber-bullied to death by fax machine). And with the internet, bullies could victimize people with no chance of sudden reprisal. Once a big guy kept shoving me in the lunch-line, I threw a cup of fruit cocktail on his shirt. I don’t think texting an image of fruit cocktail would have been as effective. It’s a smell thing, he smelled like canned peaches for the rest of the day. And the crazy part is, the internet was invented by nerds! And they handed the ultimate weapon to the bullies.
This spring I finally came up with the perfect comeback to something the school bully said to me in the early 1990s. I’d say “I can cut this afro but you will always look inbred.” Isn’t it amazing that we all remember the name of our high-school bully? We had to, right? It was a matter of survival. And they were sad and needed our attention. Twenty five years later I remember his name! I tried to look him up on facebook, but I couldn’t find him. Maybe he was too stupid to use a computer, maybe he shoved the wrong person and got himself shot, or maybe he just doesn’t have any friends.
Last week I was in the classroom, getting my powerpoint set up, thinking through the lesson plan – Ghost Dance and the Massacre at Wounded Knee, trying to think of just the right joke to get my students’ attention (what’s the right joke to tell before teaching the Massacre at Wounded Knee? I can’t remember which one I told, but to tell a joke you’ve got to remember the punch-line and then assemble it backwards in your head, remembering the referents that will make the last line funny). Anyway, I had all this data buzzing through my brain and I remembered I didn’t have my tie on yet.
So I pulled it out of my pocket, put it around my neck, and… Nothing. I couldn’t remember how to tie it. I just stood there, looking down at the two ends. My brain reached for the information file, and couldn’t access it. Or maybe the file was so old it had recycled itself. “Don’t worry,” my brain assured me, “I can lecture on the Ghost Dance and write a book about Shakespeare, I can figure this out.” Nope, nothing. Hadn’t I done this hundreds of times before? I’d done it just the day before without even thinking. Ah! Then I remembered, “brain, shut up, back off and let the hands handle it.” And they did, the hands did it perfectly except for one moment when they fumbled because the brain tried to watch them, like employees in headlights, the stern gaze of management. “Brain, back off,” I distracted my mind with a question about the Ghost Shirt, so the hands could finish the job.
Sometimes our bodies have the knowledge and our brains just get in the way. My brain can’t type. I can look at a word processor screen, imagine letters, and letters appear! My fingers know the way, but if my brain looks at the keyboard I get completely lost. My brain doesn’t know how to kiss, or walk a straight line in a hallway, or comfort someone when they’re feeling down. It thinks is knows everything, but just ends up brain-splaining.
Like upper management it loves taking credit. A lot of our intelligence is in our hearts and bellies and swimsuit areas, but the brain takes all the credit (or gives all the blame when our lower intelligence leads us into trouble). Detectives solve cases with their noses and their bellies, then the brain shows up in the last scene to give a clever speech and fill out the paperwork. The brain is the last to know when we fall in love, then it shows up to give a Best Man or Maid of Honor speech about how this was the logical choice, it generates justifications.
When I first met Elizabeth in the summer of 2001, I knew instinctively we were meant to be married. I almost proposed the second time I saw her. But my brain got in the way, and I missed my chance. Four years later, when at last we were both single at the same time, I finally showed up and asked her to marry me. Smartest decision I ever made. Now I let her be the brains of the household. For the next car, Elizabeth wants to go all electric. Like you can plug an extension cord from your basement. I think it’s a great idea, but it makes me uncomfortable. Call me old fashioned but I don’t like the idea of people walking past our driveway, seeing a house and a car doing mommy-daddy things in the open. “Look away, children,” “but Dad it’s natural.” “I… I don’t know what’s natural anymore.”
It can be hard, steering through the media superstorm of the twenty-first century, we can easily get lost in the digital jungle. How can the human hardware adapt to the ever-evolving software of information technology? And can our stone-age brains keep all of these newsflashes in perspective? I don’t know. But maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe the answer isn’t in my brain, I should trust my guts and heart, my blood and bones.
1Deloria, Vine, Introduction to Black Elk Speaks (1979), p. xi
2Wright, Ronald A Short History of Progress (2004) p. 35
3Hartley, L. P., The Go-Between (1953)