I sit here, in my apartment in San Francisco, on a dull and lonely Christmas eve. I am listening to Jethro Tulls' "Songs From The Woods", specifically, "Cup of Wonder". It always cheers me up, because it brings back two pleasant memories...my first War (Pennsic, that is) and the class I took in computer graphics in college, where I got to spend many hours on the weekends alone in a dark room in the library basement, playing with a computer system which cost my college some 20 grand and which today is considerably less powerful than a Gameboy.
Earlier today, while waiting for my vegetarian 'chik nuggets' (Don't ask. Please, don't ask.) to finish nuking, I caught about half an hour of a documentary (if you can believe it) on 'Gilligans Island', a show I, of course, grew up watching in reruns. Shortly afterwards, I settled down to enjoy 'Chik Nuggets' and french fries (except that they were baked...does that make them French Bakes? But I digress.) while watching "A Charlie Manson Christmas" on South Park.
(Excuse me a moment. I have to play 'air flute'. Jethro Tull does that. Now then...where was I? Oh yes...)
Yesterday, I watched "Terror Of The Autons", the first appearence of "The Master", the greatest Dr. Who villain. I have come into Dr. Who fandom late, but I'm amassing quite a collection of videotapes. Soon, I'll probably have to move to DVD.
Earlier this weekend, I needed to find out a trivial fact about gaming history for a trivial debate online. Fortunately, the entire run of "Dragon" magazine up to issue 250 is on CD, which I own, making the research trivial. I also spent some time playing (and losing!) a hopelessly addictive game called 'ADOM'.
I know what you're thinking. Has Lizard flipped? The shopping list thing was dull enough, now, he's telling us about every boring minute of his banal life? Screw this, I'm going to the Gary North page or something!
Oh, ye of little faith. (Good! If you have little faith, you've been paying attention to me!)
All these things have a common thread running through them, a phenomenon so subtle and omnipresent no one seems to have noticed it as a phenomenon. I noticed it over two years ago, but refrained from writing about it here because I thought it was an idea that might actually be worth getting paid for. However, no one seems to want to buy, so, I'm posting now to stake my claim to what will be one of the major memes of the 21st century.
The word actually has something to do with gardening, but when I stumbled across it, I knew it was the perfect word to describe what's happened to society -- starting with Gutenberg, accelerating with radio, and moving to warp speed with TV, VCRs, and especially the internet.
Everything I mentioned above is an aspect of a 'sea change' in how human culture evolves. Indeed, the very term 'sea change' comes from Shakespeare -- a man who died five centuries ago, yet who is better known today than he was in his own era. His words and images ripple through our lives, saturating it so completely that it is not entirely an urban myth that a particularly dim student, upon reading Hamlets' soliliquy, replied "What's so great about this Shakespeare guy, this is just a bunch of cliches!"
He died 500 years ago. But he still shapes our society.
I wanted to hear some music I had enjoyed in college, 15 years ago. I pushed a button, and there it was. Fifteen years from now, it will still be there. Fifteen decades from now, it will still be there.
So what? Big whoop, Lizard, you've discovered the record player. Yippee yahoo. I hear this 'light bulb' thing is pretty keen, too.
But you see, my dear member of the peanut gallery...a century ago, I couldn't hear any music I wanted with the push of a button, even though the rudiments of the technology were there. If I wanted to hear music, I'd have to go to a concert -- and each performance would be subtly different. I couldn't rent Branaghs "Henry V"...I'd have to see it live. Everyone who saw the play would see a slightly different version, a thousand Henrys saying their lines with a thousand different cadences, a thousand different sets, a thousand different staging patterns.
But now, we can all watch the same Henry. A thousand identical Henrys flicker on the screen, and whether you watch it in Kew or Katmandu, the cadence is the same. And the actors who will play Henry in another generation learn from this version. Some will rebel against it. Some will seek to better it. Others will not even consider it. But they'll all be shaped by it.
Chaucer lived as far from Shakespeare as Shakespeare lived from Jefferson, and Jefferson lived from us. But you cannot read Chaucer in the original without a lot of help. You can read Shakespeare and Jefferson, though, unless you've gone to a public school where they taught you that feeling good about yourself was more important than getting the right answer, but, again, I digress.
What happened? Gutenberg happened. He froze the language, locked it into cages of paper. Shakespeare learned to write from learning to read, and what he wrote was used to teach the next generation to read, and so on, and so on. Jefferson read Shakespeare. So did I.
Each generation imitates the one before it...first in writing. Then...
In the paragraphs above, I used two phrases you almost certainly didn't even notice:"Warp Speed" and "Peanut Gallery". They are from "Star Trek" and "Howdy Doody", respectively. You might or might not know their origins...but the odds are good, you didn't need to in order to understand them. As with Shakespeare, the meme infestation is complete.
Gutenberg froze the words. He cemented grammar, congealed spelling. Now, language mutated only by vocabulary, but also by pronounciation, until radio and 'the talkies'. Then, we began to grow up hearing an established, 'proper' way to talk, apart from those of our parents and community. Girls in New york learned to talk like Valley Girls. Dialects became cultural, not regional, and could be put on like sets of clothes.
But even this wasn't the final brick in the wall. Language froze, but content evolved. The Shadow knew, but he got cancelled. Everyone loved Lucy, but she went off the air eventually. But then came reruns...and we all grew up loving Lucy. And so will our children. But they'll have something even more...by the time the Naughties are over, pretty much every work of radio, cinema, or television which still survives will be digitized and available on demand. The entirety of human culture, if it can be called that, will be streaming to your screen for a modest fee. And it will never, ever, go away. No more Alexandrias.
Lets go back to the beginning of this essay. Let's look at the things I mentioned, and think a bit about the implications. Gilligans Island went off the air before I was born (or maybe slightly after), but it's a major part of my childhood memories...and the memories of every successive generation. The title of the South Park episode is a pun on a program which ran, for the first time, in the year I was born, but which has run continuously since then. Indeed, South Park is rife in cultural references. I had no interest in Dr. Who until almost a decade after the last episode of the long-running series was telecast..but I'm able to watch it at my leisure, just the same.
ADOM, the game mentioned, includes many monsters and conventions taken from Dungeons and Dragons...as do nearly all the 'cutting edge' online games. The quirks and pecadillos of a polearm buff from Milwaulkee have become the defining idioms for an entire genre of entertainment, so completely that someone claimed, at one point, that TSR couldn't copyright D&D because "Wasn't it some computer game first?". I kid you not.
Getting it yet? I shouldn't be able to join in the fun of watching a thirty year old TV show...at least, it was not something any prior generation could have done. But we do it reflexively, and no one has stopped to wonder what it might mean. People who count how many pies Tom throws at Jerry never think about the implications of three generations of children watching the same cartoons...
Every society draws on the previous society, every culture is shaped by its past. This is nothing new. But we don't have a past. We have an eternal, and ever-growing, present. It is one thing to have, say, Isaac Asimov influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs infuenced by Jules Verne...it is quite another to have Star Trek, Star Trek:The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager all coexisting. I am waiting eagerly for the day when the characters on "That Seventies Show" settle down to watch "Happy Days".
"It's the Gilligans Island of the 90s!" "It's just like All In The Family, but with Asians!" "It's sort of a cross between 'Mork and Mindy' and 'Mr. Ed', with a bit of 'Hill Street Blues'. Everything is something else in new clothes. The people programming the next generation of games grew up on the last generation of games...and so on. We do not create, we reinvent. Supermans parents come back to life, Lex Luthor becomes a businessman, the Bizarro world never existed. Lightning Lad becomes Livewire. James West becomes black, James Bond just reincarnates more times than Dr. Who
This wouldn't be so bad...originality has always been the rarest of all commodities. But the old stuff is here, too. We can see a half-dozen incarnations of the Addams Family or Scooy Doo, from the earliest to the latest, and debate which one is the best. Scooby Doo, eternal champion, the continually reincarnated. We have never had to deal with a culture that just won't go away. I do not know what it will do to us, but I know it needs to be looked at.
It's not that this is necessarily BAD. I am no technophobe or luster after the non-existent 'good old days'. What bothers me it that is has become so prevelant and ingrained that no one has acknowledged it as a phenomenon. Do you want to know the future? Picture a dog chasing a ghost who turns out to be mean old Mr. Benchley...forever.
Permaculture Addendum I:One of my many (for very small values of 'many') fans pointed out that a likely effect of the permaculture archives will be that only small slices of the past will be in vogue at any one time, that, in a sense, each generation will define itself in part by which pieces of history it recombines. While this is possible, I think it more probable that society will fracture even faster and further than it already has, with the permaculture providing enough raw material for countless microsocieties. We already see this with web rings devoted to the most obscure and abstruse of topics. And please note something important -- it takes very little time for any discussion group on any topic, from Transformers to Transgender, to become a community which has value to the inhabitants far beyond the actual topic.
Permaculture Addendum II:Another correspondent (that must be both of them) reminded me of something I'd meant to include in this essay, but didn't. Notice that the creation of forms in new media happens during the first generation of that media. The second generation of creators grew up on the first generations work -- and imitates it. I do not mean to 'put down' these creators by the use of the word 'imitate', because they usually go into the media intending to place their own stamp upon it, to 'stretch the bounds', to show the world what they can do with these tools. And they do. But they bounds they're stretching were built by the people who came before them, who came from different media. Stan Lee reinvented the comic book in the 1960s, and Alan Moore/Neil Gaiman et al did it again in the 1990s, but they both did it inside forms established and cemented in the 1940s. Why did Jack Kirby draw comic books? He needed a job. Why do modern comic book artists and writers join the industry?Because they grew up with comics and wanted to make them. And they did, creating their versions of the comic books they loved. They might make heroes into villains, they might add beautifully twisted revisionist retellings of classic tales, they may create beautiful, wondrous, works of mythology and archetype that continue to move the soul upon each rereading (As Sandman#8 does to me. The first appearence of Death is marvelous, and the issue is, oddly enough, the most profoundly life-affirming work I know. I rank it up there with Kiplings "Hymn To Breaking Strain" as a sure way to lift me out of obsidian despair.), but they're still doing it in forms and formats laid down in the time of their grandparents -- and the 16 year olds reading Sandman and thinking, "My God...this is what I want to do with my life! I want to tell stories like this!" will follow in those 60 year old footsteps.
Look at television. The earliest days of TV were filled with wild experimentation in show length, content, placement of commercials, etc. But by the early 1950s, economics and creative pressures had created all the modern genres, set the running times, etc. As original as, say, 'All In The Family' was in terms of covering social issues, it was still a sitcom in a sitcom framework. Perhaps the closest thing to a new genre in TV is the 'reality program' -- I weep for humanity.
The web is currently in that same early stage. There is no second generation of Internet creators -- yet. But when they come to age in the late naughties, they'll create as they saw in their youth. They'll skate on the edge -- but the edge is being built now, and they will never, ever, fall off it into the truly new -- until a new media is created.
Parmaculture Addendum III:Perhaps the simplest, and best, example of permaculture is the QWERTY keyboard. Is Dvorak, or some other layout, better? Maybe. Will it ever catch on? No. Everyone learns on QWERTY, and there's no incentive to unlearn -- and since 'everyone uses it', it's what everyone learns to use, in their turn. An infinite cycle. It will never be broken, so long as we have keyboards.
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