I am tired of being told how truly wretched things are to become.
As a word of warning I should say that if you were planning on reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or to a lesser degree Number 9 Dream, you might want to stop reading now. Even if you’re not the sort of person who tends to care about spoilers, I would feel guilty about ruining either of these books for you. Because none of them are bad or without merit. None of them are undeserving of the praise they’ve lapped up. What warrants examination is the level of warmth each posits, or fails to posit, in a future that really isn’t all that far away.
Egan’s future is not hard to imagine. Security cams omnipresent, the equivalent of a slightly upgraded smartphone in the hand of everyone over the age of two, vague notions of threat floating in the backs of everyone’s mind. The book only came out two years ago; she’s not pulling a Blade Runner by imagining this level of technological or security obsession. Where she gets depressing is in her portrayal of the people who inhabit this environment that differs on the whole so mildly from our own. Texting she interprets as the end of literature. Smartphones as the end of innovation. Digitally-distributed media as the end of warmth between people, whether it be between two lovers or a parent and his child. There is no room, in Egan’s future, for a persistent respect for anything artful, be it literary or musical; no space for those who demurr from the kinds of interaction that appears to be favored by the whole. Beginning the book as she does in the late 80s punk scene, her message is clear and bitter: the punks were the last of the last. They resisted in their masses that which everyone after them would bow down to.
The idea that only in numbers, in organized movements delineated by similarities in music and clothing and color of hair, can people be anything other than what the dominant image dictates they should be, is absurd. It’s gratuitously nostalgic. “Only my people could resist! Only my people knew what resistance meant! You fools with your text messages, you have already caved to the will of your corporate overlords!”
Calm down already!
Parts of Egan’s critique I understand. She paints a particularly horrific picture of parenting in the future, where the tech-crazed brat cares nothing for the intimacy or advise or wisdom or love of its parent, and is filled only with wrath until the “pointers,” the smartphones-for-babies, have been provided. At which point social interaction shuts off, we gather from the 20-somethings we see elsewhere in the futurescape, for good. I’ve seen expensive jogging strollers carrying two toddlers and two ipads, and I’ve winced, sure. That kind of excess, and the parental giving-up, makes me cringe. I probably wouldn’t want to raise a child in the future Egan posits, but then I wouldn’t want to raise a child today, either, for many of the same reasons. Nor would I want to raise a child in the 60s or the 50s or the 1890s, because I know the agency and self-worth I’d have to give up to do it, and I have zero desire to sacrifice that. Egan, I think, shares this view, but she won’t admit it to herself. If she did, she’d realize that maybe she couldn’t do it, but others could. There are those capable of producing tenderness and warmth that can’t be eclipsed by a screen, no matter how technologically advanced. I am not one of those people, but I don’t think everyone’s a carbon copy of me. Egan refuses to set aside the syllogism. “I couldn’t do it. Therefore no one can.” So her future is one of screen-crazed children and adults who would rather text each other in more or less L33t-speak across a table than make eye contact and exchange full vocalized sentences. Egan’s future is depressing and, emotionally, unimaginative. Perhaps she had a crappy childhood. Or a crappy adult love life.
Contrast this to David Mitchell’s Number9Dream future, which is no less technologically adroit or camera-clad. Here, still, what moves even the badness in the world is human. Human desire, human resentment, human failing. It is still recognizably human in a way Egan’s drooling, domineering infants are not. Or look at the middle chapters of Cloud Atlas, where despite a totalitarian technocracy and nebulous notions of biological “fixing” and fabricants, there are still those who will smuggle ideas and desires between the cracks of society; who evade the brushed steel boot of the state to persist on in their human endeavors. We see proof of this in the next chapter, the one set in a post-apocalyptic world that comes long after the state has fallen, where–surprise!–humans are continuing to struggle on as humans, however primitively Loving and fighting and fucking and dying. I do not mean to idealize humanity, because it doesn’t need it. It just is. The knee-jerk cynical failure to see that is one of the lasting grudges I bear against cultural figures I otherwise respect and admire. It’s not that the present state of things, or even the future state of things, should remain untouched by satire or critique. It’s that people become blinded by cynicism; they only speak in snark. There is no warmth left in them, and there is no screen or phone or twitter or facebook feed to blame for this. It’s their own doing.
When the Late Show fiasco went down last year and Conan O’Brien lost his slot and then his show, I didn’t start paying attention until late in the game–until the final week, actually. Cable-less and not overly fond of the late night talk show format anyway, there was no reason for me to notice, though I felt vaguely bad for the man as an underdog. Even the last week, as I learned more about what lead up to it and who had aligned with whom, was more entertaining than emotionally stirring for me. But amidst all the stunts and tearful farewells and skyrocketing ratings, something he said on his last broadcast on the Late Show stopped me cold. There’s no way I can quote it without it being corny, so deal:
“Every comedian dreams of hosting The Tonight Show and, for seven months, I got to. I did it my way, with people I love, and I do not regret a second. I’ve had more good fortune than anyone I know and if our next gig is doing a show in a 7-11 parking lot, we’ll find a way to make it fun…To all the people watching, I can never thank you enough for your kindness to me and I’ll think about it for the rest of my life. All I ask of you is one thing: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”
He spoke out against cynicism. This icon of youthful idiosyncrasy and this exceedingly brief darling of antiestablishment fervor stood there with a stuffy nose and asked people not to be cynical. Ordered them not to be. Said he hated it.
That was awesome. That was unprecedented. I loved him and his show in that moment. I am as entertained by sarcasm as the next person. It’s witty; it’s smart; understanding it makes you feel like you’re on top of things and doling it out makes you feel sharp. But it’s so draining. The constant negativity. I know so many people who used to play with their words like kids playing with penknives; now all they do is stab them continually into people. Themselves, their spouses, their kids. Doesn’t matter. It’s not kind or genuine or warm; it’s stifling and hopeless and–if you care for none of the other adjectives; if you’re too cynical to give a damn about them–it’s trite. Cynicism is old. It’s tired. It’s done. It’s killing you. And it’s killing we who have to bow down to it when we seek you out for warmth, for friendship, for the gathering of hands around a fire that should be, that can still be, of the human spirit.
So cut it out.
There’s more to the future than tyrannical toddlers praising The Man with iphones, I promise.