Lately I’ve been pondering the state of the internet and wondering what the hell I’m doing here. “Here” meaning the act of presenting myself anywhere on it, given the massive growth of entities like Facebook and Youtube that encourage anyone to get on the web for any reason. Anything from simple pages or videos noting who you are in some small way … to videos of beatings and killings, or anonymous minions openly despising and attacking everything in sight.
In the past few days while putzing around the web, I’ve come across sites that feature full-on video porn as ads on a web page (i.e., if I was a 10-year-old boy wasting time on the web, these sites would be just as easy to stumble across while googling), the usual “faces of death” sites that gather home-made videos of extreme violence, kids on youtube purposely smashing gallons of milk in stores to get reaction shots of innocent bystanders trying to help after they pretend to slip on the spilled milk … in addition to the usual mistake of reading the “Comments” section of popular linked stories and realizing that there are a lot of sad, angry people out there whose main function seems to be showing the world how sad and angry they are (behind the veil of a screen name, of course).
Youtube, in particular, for all the good it does in terms of collecting so much cultural minutiae and artifacts, seems to also serve as a giant asshole magnet. I just saw the Drudge-linked story about a guy who plows snow in Lowell, MA getting fired for posting a video noting the impish joy he takes by plowing in cars after a blizzard. The last line of the article seemed to an imply a “so there” slant with him noting that he’s been receiving offers from Hollywood production companies to star in his own reality show.
This is the sort of vomit-inducing stupidity I’m talking about. The “reality” is that he’ll more than likely stay fired from his job, those offers will fizzle once the producers realize they can’t manage any sort of long-term interest in what he has to offer, this “got the world by tail” rush of confidence that he feels now for being a complete asshole and having other assholes acknowledge this will dissipate, and he’ll go through a very dark period … until he gets another comparable job to snow-plowing in Lowell, MA, maybe in Worcester?
Or the flip side, he gets his reality show, it’s a massive hit for two seasons that catapults him to D-level celebrity, the show’s ratings fade, but he’s used to that level of income and fame, the Wolf’s Head Motor Oil and Slim Jim spokesperson offers fizzle out, he becomes despondent, turns to crystal meth, realizes the show didn’t last long enough for him to leverage his minor fame into a celebrity rehab show, and he finds himself worse off than when he was simply canned by the borough manager in Lowell for being an asshole on youtube.
Of course, the real culprits here are the Hollywood producers, who are sitting in their high-end homes in Beverly Hills, thinking, “Ah … another piece of white trash for us to exploit … beefy fortyish white guy with bad facial hair, a nose ring and an attitude … he’ll fit right in with all the other beefy fortyish white guys with bad facial hair, a nose ring and an attitude that we’re already making a fortune from, as we present assholes to the world that people can either look down or, unfortunately for all of us, deeply relate to. If he doesn’t already have his head shaved and a healthy series of forearm and neck tattoos, we’ll have to expense it.”
The only thing more godforsaken than shit like this on youtube is shit like this on cable TV in the form of reality shows that take perverse pleasure in reducing American life to the lowest common denominator and rubbing our noses in it. I cut off my cable TV a few months ago (switched to a Roku box and a Hulu Plus/Amazon Prime set-up that cut my monthly cable bill in half) mainly because I recognized that these depressing “in your face” reality shows have overtaken nearly every cable channel. I don’t want to watch trashy people yelling at each other on TV … I see enough of it in my every-day life.
There’s never been a better time to disassociate yourself form popular American culture. Because if it gets worse than this, we might want to break out A Clockwork Orange to get a glimpse into how the world is going to be in another decade or two. This is devolution. And it’s all related to this sickly desire so many people have to be famous, for essentially nothing.
One thing I’ve learned from my extremely minor brushes with fame: it’s an empty experience without money. And I mean enough money to live well permanently. Because if you do find yourself famous in any larger sense, one of the first things that will occur to you will be the need to isolate yourself from society in general, as your privacy will be reduced to next to nothing. And the only ways to isolate yourself will be to disappear into the wilderness, thus removing yourself from your fame, or to have enough money to buy property in exclusive, high-income communities that most people will not be able to access. I’m sure the average celebrity can tell you what a drag his life becomes when this sense of privacy we all take for granted is completely annihilated, and the simple act of walking down the street without drawing attention to yourself becomes impossible.
I’d suggest any of us engaged in any sort of artistic activity, at some point, probably very early on, wanted to do this for the attention, for that feeling of fame. Some of us obviously still do. I remember having a conversation with a fellow writer at the NYPress, just after our editor had been unceremoniously canned on Christmas Eve, about what it all meant. At that point I was in my mid-30s and starting to lose the desire to have my name in lights; the other writer was in his early 20s, having a pretty good run with the paper and parlaying that into a book deal.
His take was that he wanted to do this so his name would live on after he died. My take was even if your name lived on, what would you care, you’d be dead. Shakespeare? He’s dead. Would he be glad to know there are people centuries later reading an enjoying his work? And a thousand times that number who felt tortured trying in vain to understand his writing in English classes they were forced to take for liberal arts credits? And a million times that number who are so fucking stupid they don’t know or care who William Shakespeare is?
For me, it came down to recognizing my self worth, a long slow process. It took years, and a lot of those years were tied up in writing and a burning need to succeed at some level in that world. It was probably around that time in my mid-30s when I was taking a good look around at my fellow writers and realizing we were doing it for the wrong reasons. That we recognized we had some innate talent to do this thing, but we were far more driven by our egos, to be dominant and visible in this sense to the world, to be writers, who understood so much that we needed to impart our wisdom, then hopefully receiving wealth and status for being so enlightened.
Well, it was also around that time that Dad passed on, and I think that drawn-out experience, while harsh, underlined a lot of the questions I had about fame and self worth. In short, whatever he had taught me about the world, mostly through example, started to sink in with him no longer there to guide me. I stopped writing much of anything for a good year or two, emulating his quiet “just go to work and stop complaining” attitude. And then I realized, no, this is what I’m good at, forget about being famous, or rich, I know how to do this, it’s the one thing I have that makes sense in the world. I can work in offices and make money, like any other cog in the machine, but writing is the one thing I can do to distinguish myself from everyone else in the world.
Of course, now I find myself as an infinitesimal distraction in a world of Facebook and Youtube! Everyone sees their voice as being just as valid as anyone else’s, which is the main mistake of this culture. We’re not all equal in that sense. But what can you do. I could uncover the secret to the universe, right here and now for you, gentle readers … but ultimately only get a few dozen pages views … while a video of a baby biting his slightly older brother’s fingers get hundreds of millions of views.
I guess that’s some kind of warped frontier justice. The path of least resistance or work. People are looking for truth in moments they can have spoon-fed to them, not in taking time to reason through questions they have, or make sense of all the crazy shit they’ve gone through in their lives. It’s much easier to step outside yourself and acknowledge the intimate idiocy of kids or family pets doing stupid shit, which we all have filed in the memory banks of our own lives. And I hate to say it, but that’s on the plus side of the internet, never mind all the genuinely dark and disturbing garbage floating around out there.
All this isn’t some new paradigm that we must take an “adopt or die” attitude towards. We’d be better off leaving it behind, and I’m surely going to make a point out of wasting less time on the web. It’s nothingness on a scale so large it makes something like Johnny Rotten in 1977 spewing out predictions of “no future” seem as sentimental as Bob Hope and Shirley Ross sweetly crooning “Thanks for the Memory.” So much of the internet really is no future. It’s mass stasis, constantly looking back at these moments that aren’t ours, or pretending we have friends that we really don’t, but magically do because a website encourages us to be lazy enough to wish it so, while the site exists solely to gather marketing data on everyone who uses it. I guess it's better off to remain innocent of that latter truth. Just stroking a neurosis, the same way you’d stroke a cat. Johnny Rotten had a pretty good future.