Watching ourselves watch each other

A couple of weeks ago I read David Foster Wallace’s essay on television and American fiction, “E Unibus Pluram,”* and I have been turning it over in my mind ever since.

One of the commonplaces of “communication professionals” in the age of social media is that the advent of the internet, and especially social media, represents a qualitative, epoch-defining shift in how humans communicate with each other. The old era of one-to-many mass communication, stretching from Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press to cable television, has now given way to a new era of many-to-many communication, in which anyone with a smartphone and a YouTube account can “go viral.”

I am old enough to remember the pre-internet era, and when Foster Wallace refers to television as “having its pretty hand around my generation’s throat,” I relate, even though I never watched much television. My parents (East Coasters who relocated to the Midwest for an academic job, much like Foster Wallace’s parents) strictly supervised my TV-watching habits as a kid: limited screen time, mostly PBS. They refused to get cable until well after I left for college. They blamed the rightward drift of the country under Reagan in part on television.

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Secret Histories of America

I was a true child of the 80s. I have very few memories that go back before 1980. In fact, one of my earlier memories can be definitively dated to the summer of 1980, as it is of vacationing with some family friends — true East-coast liberal elites — and overhearing them talking with my parents about how they couldn’t believe that Americans would possibly elect a know-nothing actor with retrograde right-wing views, but were kind of worried because the Democratic candidate was weak.

The popular music of the 80s was made exclusively by people who used too much product on their hair and too much electronic processing on their instruments. One the one hand, Top 40 hits were all made with synthesizers and drum machines, and on the other hand you had heavy metal guys whose guitars looked like lightning bolts and went through a battery of effects pedals: distortion, delay, compression, EQ.

The first concert I went to was when I was twelve, and I convinced my father to take me to Kemper Arena in Kansas City to see Nightranger, on a double-bill with Starship. I was pretty indifferent to Starship, but one of my father’s co-workers, who was a few years younger than him, heard that he was going to see Starship and insisted on lending him a bunch of old Jefferson Airplane records.

This blew my 12-year-old mind.

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