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    Can you feel me in stereo?

    If you live outside the BOS-WASH population belt, you may retain the quaint idea that Manhattan is where all the most obnoxious people in New York, if not the world, live. But a funny thing happened while I was in Tokyo: all the annoying people apparently moved to Brooklyn.

    The converse is not true, mind you. I know plenty of non-annoying people who live in Brooklyn. Some of my best friends live in Brooklyn. To paraphrase Tina Fey, I can see Brooklyn from my house. (Actually, it’s Queens, and I can see it across the river from 49th and 1st when I walk down to the bodega, but the idea’s the same.) Anyway, lately when I’ve come across some first-person feature article bleating about modern life and started to think, Hmmm…this character’s really annoying, the next sentence invariably says something about “my neighborhood in Brooklyn” or “down the street from me in Cobble Hill.”

    The most recent example is this, in which the author becomes the millionth city-dweller to lament how technology is draining the human interaction from daily life. Yeah, I know—what was I expecting from reading the “Consumerism” section on Salon, anyway? I live in hope.

    So, you know, Blockbuster’s about to go out of business, and now we all get our movies from Netflix, and there’s “community” instead of community. It’s the perfect chance to contrast one’s own depth and sincerity with the soullessness of his surroundings!

    There used to be four or five Blockbusters within walking distance of my apartment in Brooklyn. [Ruh-roh! – SRK] Now there’s one, and I keep thinking it’s closed until I peer in for a second and spot that one clerk slouched behind the counter. Odds are he’s either talking on his cell phone or reading Vibe.

    The electronic parameters of Internet relationships mean that you get to enjoy the benefits of other peoples’ enthusiasm without the accompanying melodrama. If you were ever part of one of the circles I’ve described, you found yourself wondering, at one point or another, “Why am I friends with this person? We have nothing in common but movies, and if it weren’t for that, I’d cross the street if I saw him.” Internet friendship means you don’t have to follow up an intoxicating geek-fest argument about Stanley Kubrick vs. Martin Scorsese with a two hour discussion of your friend’s latest workplace drama, or her recent breakup with that guy who always wore a hoodie and kept forgetting her birthday.

    The rub, of course, is that any friendship that satisfies the first part of that description and not the second isn’t a real friendship. Which brings me to the one part of Blockbuster’s slow fadeout that is worth lamenting: the sense that the human touch, or what’s left of it, is being lost. Mind you, I’m not talking about Blockbuster’s idea of the human touch, because the chain never had one.

    I’m talking about the pre-Internet experience of daily life, which was more immediate, more truly interactive: in a word, real.

    Sigh. People have been saying crap like this since I was a teenager. First, the Walkman was insulating us from enriching conversations with people we encountered randomly on the street. Then email was making our communications vulgar and superficial. Then cell phones were forcing us to be available to all callers at all hours. Amazon and iTunes killed the mind-broadening experience of stumbling into obscure stuff at hipster-approved independent book and record stores ages ago. Now its Netflix. We get movies by pointing and clicking, whereas Blockbuster used to be where we laughed, cried, argued, and began and ended relationships.

    I’m not kidding:

    Bland and aloof as it was, Blockbuster was a part of that — and for certain types of people, it was a big part. There was nothing special about Blockbuster as a business, but special moments did happen there, simply by virtue of the fact that the stores were everywhere, and they stocked a lot of movies, and people who wanted to see movies went there regularly, sometimes alone but more often in the company of relatives or friends.

    I had some involved, sometimes pivotal conversations while loitering in the aisles at the Blockbuster near my school or apartment or workplace, including one in which my best friend helped me talk myself into breaking up with a girl I was dating who was beautiful and charming but not remotely interested in any film released before the year of her birth. She fell asleep during “Dr. Strangelove.”

    “You’ve got to break up with her, Matt,” my friend advised me. “Hey, have you seen the Albert Brooks movie ‘Real Life’? Seriously. It’s one of the funniest films ever made.”

    That kind of thing never happens when you’re browsing Netflix.

    Of course, some of us like being able to get to a copy of The Eyes of Laura Mars without having to squeeze past some schmo bleating, “She’s got a rockin’ body, dude, but she just doesn’t get how much Bond means to me!” at his buddy, however precious the shared moment may be to the two of them. I find that with Netflix (and Amazon and iTunes and Fresh Direct), I get to spend just as much (if not more) time with my friends while spending less time hearing TMI from people behind me in checkout lines about, like, their bunion surgery. There are fewer places to browse among physical stock, but they’re not hard to find. The Barnes & Noble near my office on Union Square is almost always packed. And that’s not even considering the people who live so far from Brooklyn that the nearest Blockbuster was always far away, even at the height of its success. For them, Netflix must seem little short of a miracle.

    Seitz’s complaint is especially odd since, in that first part cited above, he acknowledges that in his pre-Internet life, he didn’t have genuine friendships with all his movie buddies, anyway. Is the idea that palling around in person made that more palatable or (perhaps more likely) disguised it better than just chatting online about subjects of confirmed mutual interest? I’ve never understood why people who find that technology makes their lives impersonal don’t just find ways to avoid using it. I regularly stop reading Facebook or (have you noticed?) posting here when I consider what’s going on offline more important. I try to respond to non-urgent telephone calls and messages in a timely fashion, but if I’m busy, I let them wait. When I feel like reading, I shut off the TV. If I felt like browsing through videos with a friend, I suppose I’d ask a friend to go to the video section of the bookstore with me. I don’t consider any of this all that hard.

    I assume Eric doesn’t either. He posts about hating videos contrived to prove a polemical point, but in his view, “I am not obligated in any way to create or watch videos.” No, indeed, although acknowledging that does mean forgoing the opportunity to get all windy about how one is too soulful for this impersonal age.

    14 Responses to “Can you feel me in stereo?”

    1. Leslie says:

      The real problem is always the person, never the tool. If it weren’t for the Internet I’d be able to talk to virtually no one outside of work about anything of any depth, most especially first principles. I’m alienated WITHOUT it!!

    2. Julie says:

      I’ve spent too much time with Albert Borgmann to be able to agree wholeheartedly, but in general, it’s how we use things that matters, not the things themselves. People are becoming more isolated from one another (and yet remain all up in other people’s business, but now it always seems for totally selfish reasons–maybe it always was–but now other people’s need to control your behavior is always about how it’s affecting *them* and not necessarily about how it’s some affront to morality itself). I read Dear Prudence on Slate a lot, and I’ve noticed that anytime there is a letter (and there very frequently is) about having some obnoxious coworker or neighbor who wants to have conversations the letter writer is not interested in, the comments section fills up with comments about how the LW should just ignore the other person. Nevermind it being bad manners; these are mostly Democrats who are supposed to support things like “community” and “compassion” and ignoring someone just because they’re annoying doesn’t seem to go along with either concept, at least not to me. I am also, because I live in a Mormon town, often asked how I can put up with these people here. I guess I’m supposed to dislike them and so separate myself from them, but they’re just people. Some of them are terrific; some are obnoxious. Maybe like Brooklyn. People are just people–eh, now I have that Depeche Mode song stuck in my head.

      Anyway, I do think people are becoming less willing or able to deal with people who aren’t similar enough to themselves. It’s not teh Interwebz at fault, though; it’s due to a wide variety of technological and demographic trends. The thing is, (e.g.) old people want to separate themselves from young people, and vice versa, even though I think (and can make philosophical-ish arguments to support my position) that it’s a net loss for society.

      Blockbuster v. Neflix is a damned silly example, though. Neflix v. some mom-and-pop video shop where the proprieters might have actually come to know you and been able to make recommendations to you for movies you might not have otherwise seen or something more along those lines might have been a more fair example, but those shops have been dead so long, the Brooklynite in question may not have even realized such a thing once existed. Maybe the author should browse Neflix with a friend, perhaps while IMing (do the youngsters still do that?). I’ve done online shopping with friends, and it’s odd because we had to keep sending links to the items we were looking at, but it was fun. Or one could Skype while Netflixing. Jeez. But I don’t know if Salon would pay for an essay about it. Maybe I should write one.

    3. Julie says:

      Woot! Sorry that was so long!

    4. Leslie says:

      I think your points are extremely well-taken, Julie. They really put meat on my statement.

      As for youngsters still IMing, my fourteen-year-old hardly uses e-mail anymore; all they do is text and update their status on Facebook. It’s a great way for them to meet up constantly, which they love, and it’s especially nice in the summer when they don’t see each other at school. (Don’t know what the situation is with youngsters that go to year-round schools.) That I can’t understand a word they text or appreciate their humor in no way undercuts the fact that they feel connected this way.

    5. Sean says:

      Leslie, if you lived in the Enlightenment Park section of BK, you presumably wouldn’t feel so alienated. You’d run into like-minded souls at…I don’t know, the farmers’ market or something—how these people who are gaga for community-forming actually go about it has never been clear to me. I’ve generally just tried to be open to making friends and to keeping up my end of the bargain when I do. It seems to work, though I may just be missing something.

      Julie, as always and like Leslie, I think your points are very well taken, and if the writer at Salon hadn’t taken the reductive line that he did, I might have enjoyed what he wrote.

      I do wonder whether people are really less willing to deal with others who are too different from them; maybe it’s more that, in this mobile age, we’re forced to deal with more types of people than we can easily manage. (I think that’s Amy Alkon’s argument in her newest book.) From another angle, are people really feeling more isolated in a deep, lasting sense than they used to, or do we just have more ways to convey our moods to a wider audience now? I’m not sure it’s possible to determine which it is.

    6. Julie says:

      It probably isn’t entirely possible, and I think it depends somewhat on what you’re comparing it to. I mean, I have a feeling that in general we’re more willing to deal with people who are different from us than, say, the Puritans who settled the Northeast were, but my feeling is that we’re less adept at dealing with people across generation gaps than they were, just as an example. And, for better or worse, families used to be more or less forced into each other’s company more than they are now. When I was a kid, my parents wouldn’t buy me a Walkman for the longest time because they wanted to actually talk to me and play silly games with license plates and such while we were on road trips. Now, I know a lot of families who have separate DVD players for the kids so that no one has to talk to each other at all on road trips if they don’t want to. Do they *feel* more isolated? I have no idea. But I would say they are anyway. Is that wrong? I think it depends on a lot of variables.

    7. Sarah says:

      I don’t know. Having an odd turn of mind and being part of an odd community — look, my mother in law thinks I write children’s books because “they have elves and dragons in it”; my husband’s co-workers think the whole idea I write future-set stuff is sort of indecent. Not sure why. I am, however, the red woman of Babylon for writing it — which is not concentrated in any one place in the world (though you probably have more of ‘us’ near you than I do, Sean, NYC being the center of publishing. Even if that too is changing) I find (if anyone is still with me after all these parenthetical interjections) that the internet enriches my life. Oh, sure, it’s not face to face friendship, but if I’m having a plot issue or if I want to discuss where ebooks are taking us, I can reach someone who “gets” it almost instantly.
      I DO try not to circumscribe my social interaction to writers or even science fiction and fantasy people. Which is why I take classes and get involved in various organizations. However, as a friend of mine who is also a writer says “this business is so crazy sometimes you just need to talk to somene who gets it wihtout explanation.” The internet allows me that and has enriched my social life a great deal.
      Beyond that, there’s the ability to buy an electronic book just before I go to bed, when I realize that nothing I already have appeals; to buy an audio book just before going for a walk or hitting the eliptical (it’s the only way I can exercise. The mind has to be amused). Oh, and the ability to check out a city I’m going to visit for a con, check out the restaurants and earmark them for various meals and make sure I don’t miss shows/museums. Heck, I remember doing this without it, back in the dark ages — ten years ago, say — and it involved a lot more wasted time and frustration. So — meh. I’ll keep the present. And the future. They can have the past.

    8. Janis Gore says:

      Funny how the people who rail about Walmart knocking out small businesses don’t do the same regarding Netflix. Or have you seen that, too?

      Towns that couldn’t support a bookstore often had a video outlet or two. The one I live in did (pop. approx. 5000). They’re both gone now.

    9. Julie says:

      Sarah, I don’t think the things you’re talking about are the same as spending 3 or 4 hours a day on MySpace or Facebook or whatever. I’m not arguing about the “richness” of online vs. IRL interactions; that’s a different issue. That’s why I said that it’s not like me or anyone else can just give a simple blanket answer. Certainly technology isn’t bad, but there is also no reason to throw out good things simply because we associate them with the past. And many people *are* throwing them away without giving it much thought at all. Obviously, that’s their right. But what effects various forms of technology are having on us–individually and collectively–is a very complex question and to some of us at least, the answers (yes, plural) do matter. I would prefer not to just trip blindly into the future; I prefer to consider where I’m stepping and why.

      Also, one of Borgmann’s pet examples is how central heating changed family life. But to explain what changes it brought is not to say that we should give it up. Nobody here is going to give up central heating, but we can still contemplate how it changed our family life and how we can keep the good parts of the time before central heating while still staying warm. It’s not an either/or. I am, in general, anti-dichotomy.

    10. Sarah says:

      Eh. Maybe it’s cultural, but it’s never occurred to me to give up old things just because they’re old, so I tend to see this sort of rant as a fear of the future. Perhaps that’s my own particular bias.

      My family was never as close as when we lived in a 500 sq feet railroad apartment. That was because we did everything — from running my mom’s business, to any work my dad brought home, to my and my brother’s homework in the kitchen. Yeah, that was lost when we moved to the house my parents had built. Yeah, I remember missing the “closeness.” OTOH the increase in number of bathrooms sort of made up for it. 😛

      I think what I’m trying to say is that there are always trade offs. And even if you aren’t giving one thing up, the… texture of life changes in such ways that makes it impossible. Of course, if we value the old form over the new, it’s always there. There are people who do that — renounce all modernity (individually. I didn’t mean Amish.) It takes will power and truly valuing the past. We didn’t have a TV till the older kid was eight because we thought we wanted him to do more… interior development. And we often feel we should have withheld till the YOUNGER was eight. I don’t oppose that. I also don’t think people who don’t do it should be made to feel guilty. I’m expressing myself very badly, but my view of this would be “to each his own.”

    11. Sean says:

      Janis, I think the high-minded types who work themselves into a lather over these things consider books intrinsically improving, while they consider most movies LCD trash. Whether people themselves miss the access to movies vs. books is a matter of silly things like individual preference and therefore not much of a factor. :)

    12. Julie says:

      Sure, to each his own. I don’t think any of us here want to force anyone to live any certain way. But there are very many people who acquiesce to technology without any real consideration for how the texture of their life might change, for good or ill (or, more usually, for good *and* ill). If everyone were giving real consideration to the tradeoffs they make when they incorporate new technologies into their lives, then they would be choosing their own balance. But on the whole, a lot of people are not really very thoughtful. I read so many articles these days about families who no longer feel they can wrest control over their lives. They fret about how to get their kids “unplugged” but it really isn’t that hard, or it shouldn’t be, if one has ever given any thought to it. If they’re fretting about it, then I would wager it’s because they haven’t given it much previous thought. For me, and I suspect for you, how I wanted to raise my kids was something I thought about very carefully *before* I had kids, and before I introduce any new technology to the household or to my kids, I think carefully about it. It is foolish to try to reject the future, but a lot of people (not you) are indeed throwing away good things (family meals, for example, or any homecooking at all, from what I read anyway) because they don’t take careful, thoughtful control over their use of technology.

      Maybe people who don’t should feel guilty. Guilt is a sign that you’re doing something wrong. I’m not going to be the one who *makes* anyone feel guilty, but if someone is feeling guilty, perhaps they need to step back and reconsider some of the choices they’ve made. I don’t feel at all guilty for letting my kids watch a movie while I was getting ready for work this morning, because it was a calculated choice I made. If I lost control over their TV habit, though, and let them watch it 5 or 6 hours a day at the expense of time spent outside roughhousing in the dirt or whatever, I would feel guilty, and I think I should feel guilty, because that isn’t what I want for them, and I would only be letting that happen because I would be being lazy, because it is way less work for me to let them watch TV than to make them go outside and roughhouse. Laziness on my part should make me feel guilty. That’s not an accusation against how other mothers mother; that’s about me and how I want my boys to grow up and how I have chosen to parent. I presume other parents have different priorities and so parent differently (and then I am always shocked to discover that many parents are just sort of stumbling along, not really making a lot of decisions about how they want their kids to grow up or what kind of family life they want).

      To me, this gets to the heart of the problem with the usual American idea of liberty. It’s all freedom *from.* But that’s the easy part (not that it doesn’t need defending–it does). Freedom *for*, meaning choosing how you live your life and taking responsibility for it, is harder, and most Americans–OK, well on my charitable days, they seem not to understand that that option exists, and on my uncharitable days, they seem to be utterly incapable of that. I’m absolutely OK with other people making thoughtful, considered decisions about how to live that are different from mine. In fact, I would expect that and relish it. I do have issues with people who just demand freedom from things and then are completely unable or unwilling to take the kind of considered action and responsibility that freedom entails (to use a somewhat trivial example, I have a growing dislike of parents who complain about the quality of the lunches schools provide–for free or very low cost–but won’t pack lunch for their kids). This isn’t a criticism aimed at you (or Sean). But it is a concern. It does end up affecting us all when people act this way. Sorry if this isn’t making sense–in my mind, it all ties together neatly. The thoughtless incorporation of technology (as opposed to the thoughful incorporation of technology) is just a symptom, to me, of a larger problem of failing to take responsibility for how one lives one’s life (again, not you personally). It is entirely possible that you have a more charitable view of people at large than I do, and if that is the case, then I salute you (not sarcastically).

    13. Sean says:

      Julie and Sarah, I agree that you’re not really saying things that conflict with each other. When people make minded choices and accept the trade-offs they’ve made, I don’t think any of us (here, I mean) would fault them for it. It’s when people want it all ways at once that they get tiresome. (Well, a good deal more than tiresome when the government sees an opportunity to step in and enact yet another nanny-ish policy. I don’t think Julie’s example was particularly trivial at all, actually.)

      As far as child-rearing goes, I can only draw from my experience on the receiving end. My parents said no often, from the time my brother and I were small. They loved us, and we weren’t deprived, but the point was made before we were old enough to get contentious about it that we weren’t going to get every little immediate whim gratified. The TV went off sometimes. We were told to have a glass of water instead of something sweet. And as a result, we learned that you shouldn’t just do the easiest thing that comes to mind all the time.

      I ran up against a different (ahem) approach on a plane one time a few years ago. The toddler across the aisle from me was fidgeting and kicking the seat back in front of him from the time we boarded the plane. I mean, he was a little boy. He was restless. He had his Gameboy, but he was clearly sick of it. It was time for Dad to take him to one of the windows and talk about how the big plane was going to take us way up in the air and how there had been guys swarming over the plane tightening all those little bolts you could see on the wing so it wouldn’t fall apart in the air. Or Mom could have explained that there would be time to walk around the plane after we were safely in the air, but right now he was giving her a headache with that racket.

      Instead, both Mom and Dad were busy gabbing with each other and would stop at intervals to look soulfully at Junior and say, “Honey, do you really want to do that?” They kept trying to get him to play another video game. I’m sure that now that he’s a preteen he’s Ritalin-ed to the gills, poor kid.

    14. Julie says:

      Oh, yes. Flying with kids is really hard. We avoid it, basically, although at some point, we’re going to have to take them back to Japan to meet the other family. My husband and I trade off, so that one person is just taking care of the kids and one person can read for a little while or something. Taking care of the kids during something like waiting at an airport is exhausting. Once in a while we look at each other and say, gee, maybe we should have brought one of those DVD players or a GameBoy or something, but we don’t have anything like that.

      I hear a lot of parents complain about how their kids don’t communicate with them, and it occurred to me that maybe kids were getting the message early on that their parents didn’t want to listen to them and maybe the lesson stuck. Someone told me once some bit of parenting wisdom that actually made sense: Start the way you intend to carry on. If you intend to have a child who communicates with you, you need to start by conveying the impression that you have the time and desire to listen.

      I think part of the problem with having kids in public, though, is that adults tend to forget that kids are not adults. Kids aren’t going to be happy sitting for long periods of time (and they shouldn’t be), and they’re going to start acting up. Parents need to accommodate that and plan ahead. We live out in the boonies, so we kind of live the way families in the 50s did, where our kids just run free outside much of the time. They are especially ill-adapted to the sedentary rigors of modern life, but they’re very happy and well-adjusted. No Ritalin here.

      Anyway, we’ve decided to homeschool now, and we start tomorrow, so wish me luck!

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