Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Future, Popular Culture and Collective Consciousness

Watching Laurie Anderson’s “The Language of the Future,” the first allusion triggered for me is to the Simpsons episode “Treehouse of Horror” from the show’s second season. It’s a Halloween special, different from the other episodes in that the show is broken up into three horror-themed segments that do not follow the same rules of reality that the series otherwise follows. In the first segment, entitled “Bad Dream House,” the Simpsons buy a dirt-cheap house, only to realize that it’s haunted. The house is personified as a sort of poltergeist who makes the walls bleed, throws objects, and speaks to the family in that very same low, computer-modulated, molasses-dripping voice in which Laurie Anderson speaks, telling the family to kill each other with household weapons.

My diversion into the Simpsons is partly self-indulgent, but I think there is a point to it too. I think at first glance, Laurie Anderson’s story may seem apocalyptic – I mean, plane crashes are by their nature pretty disastrous. And it seems like technology is the cause of this apocalypse, alienating humans from one another, turning them into digital number-computing robots: for instance, the fifteen-year-old girl from the plane ride who was on the “same wavelength” speaking “Computerese” (an ancient form of l337 speak). But the point is not to condemn the “future” or “technology.” The video shows Anderson putting her hand on the machine to alter the pitch of her voice, which is really just a digital amplification of her voice. She clearly enjoys digital technology, she’s extremely passionate about it, and tied with language, it’s the most important basis of her entire art practice. And she does survive the plane crash.

So this is where the Simpsons come in. As I watch the video, I’m reminded of a piece of popular media culture forever ingrained in my head. As I type this and post it to the blog, at least one person with the same experience watching that episode will have shared a memory with me. Because we live in such a digital age, it’s easy to be cynical, to become irritated with the mass amount of TXTing, sexting, Facebook, MySpace, iPod, iPad, wires, wireless, and so on, to become nostalgic for another time, to look at the grass on the other side of the fence. But popular culture has the power to bind us together, to create a collective consciousness. This may seem good or bad depending on your disposition, but to me I see this as a wonderful thing. I don’t feel at all alienated by the technology around me, if anything I feel connected to every other person who watches “Jersey Shore.”

Perhaps all this fear of technology is because, at this moment in time, the concept of “technology” focuses so much on personal computers and cell phones, platforms where people send out their “online persona,” which is different than the “real” persona encapsulated in their bones and flesh. The truth is that both are equally “real” and “unreal” as one another. The rejection of popular media culture stems completely from irrational fear – fear of evolving as a species, and fear of evolving as a society. Look: if you’re not watching a YouTube video on a computer screen, then you’re staring at a stuffed rabbit on an airplane, or watching clouds go by, or stars in the sky. It’s all entertainment. In the past century we’ve experienced Elvis’s hips, rock n’ roll, dirty hippies, and violent videogames, and not one of those things has dismantled our society. Morals are changed over time, regardless of media, and to no one thing’s blame. It’s natural and it’s evolution.

There’s no need to fear the future. I mean, shit, “the future” is just a fantasy with a very specific aesthetic shaped by our culture’s science fiction movies anyway. Even Laurie Anderson plays up to it, with her robot voice, black “outer space” background and space-age suit, and general androgyny. “Digital” is nothing new. The alphabet, the abacus, DNA – they’re all digital systems. She says it herself: “It was a language of sounds, of noise, of switching, of signals. It was the language of the rabbit, the caribou, the penguin, the beaver.” The technological language of the future is analogous to the language of the past; they’re the same, just interpreted differently. We are no more or less alienated than we’ve always been. “There is no pilot. You are not alone.”

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