The dis-content of our times


I think I now have a name for it–for our era, the brave new world we’ve made for ourselves.  The clue came when I asked a neighbor kid, a college senior, about a blockbuster movie he had just seen. 

“It was great,” he said. 

I nagged him to tell me more.  “What made it great?”

“The special effects.”

I nagged again.  “Anything else?”

“The special effects.  They were incredible.”

“Incredible?”  Not to be believed?

It slowly dawned on me how old-fashioned I am.  When I watch a movie I’m still taken–or not–by its story elements, what we used to call plot, character, and theme in those  intro. to lit. classes we took decades ago.  Special effects–camera angles and lenses, matte, mirror and stop action shots, slow motion, rear projection and similar tricks of the trade–were nothing much to bother about.  Today such tricks look lame next to the computer-generated wizardry that has become the meat and potatoes of Hollywood and video fare.  In the old days we were taught that if the tricks were good enough they wouldn’t detract from the important stuff–plot, character, theme–by drawing attention to themselves.  Until very recently it didn’t occur to me that I should go looking for special effects.  Nor could I imagine that special effects could constitute content.

I plead guilty to innocence.  All movies, video games, TV ads, and books–and indeed all objects made by human beings–are engineered artifacts.  It is naïve if not perverse to be ignorant of the way this engineering, also called artistry or craft, manipulates our responses to a movie, novel, car, or toothbrush.  This is a troubling thought.  We’ve all been deeply moved by certain movies, books and works of art.  They change our lives in subtle but powerful ways, we say, because what we think and feel as real in them speaks to what we think and feel is real in us.  Though we’re usually not good at explaining why, we keep insisting that art is not the same as artifice, and that the difference has something to do with the distinction between authenticity and artificiality. 

For old fog-heads like me that distinction hangs on, if only in assisted living programs sponsored by retired liberal arts majors.

It’s clear that fog-heads have to move over to make room for a dazzling new era, one produced, directed, and storyboarded by cadres of hi-tech masters spawned during the Age of Aquarius.  This generation has redefined content by mainstreaming its thinking styles into the base of the new economy, advertising.  Though advertising is as old as prostitution, it has managed to give itself an irresistible face-lift by shifting attention from the value of products to its own production values.  Advertising is our most important product.  It’s our new Ford, Chrysler, and GM, and anyone who has seen the Olympic games opening ceremonies or watched a church spectacular on TV knows its content has worldwide market appeal.

What defines any transformative era is its economy’s impact on the spirit of the times, its manners, morals, and spirituality.  The TV nightly news is a good indicator of how our manners have evolved.  The news is well dressed, even tempered, civil, and almost always blonde.  And it’s clear that a new moral base has taken root.  To be virtuous is to be virtual.  If virtuality suggests a certain lack, it augurs well for the widespread acceptance of self-esteem levels the new masses enjoy.  If in olden days we were all sinners who fell short in the sight of God, nowadays we are also humbled as we watch unnatural depravity violently playing itself out on the screens of our choosing, while we enjoy the no fault exemptions that result from our being distanced from actual depravities.

New technologies also promise even fog-heads the objectivity required of those aspiring to the omniscience exuded by the world-wide web.  Souls who seek to know themselves now have access to multiple self-projection opportunities that can be instantaneously digitized and multiplied, all of them delivered by instruments that have no interest in rigging results.  Identity crises are efficiently resolved by accessing data bases that provide unflinching representations of personality profiles established by empirical indicators such as spending outcomes, enrollment in self-improvement programs, sports team affiliations, and the number of effective business habits we endorse.  By understanding ourselves not by what we think we think and feel about ourselves and the world but by how character manifests effects, both what is common and special about what we used to call “character” will be established by unprejudiced instruments of precision.  All characters will have character profiles.  

The spirituality of this new era, stimulated by various screens that project the will of a Source at once powerful and invisible, has increased and multiplied attendance numbers in congregations of faith.  The Source is not only ubiquitous but mysteriously present, and devotions to it may be expressed via its many incarnations–ordinary TV monitors, cinemascope, and I-MAX screens, but also via smallish hand-held devices destined someday soon to be no bigger than prayer beads.  Devotions directed to screens are channeled by three important factoids:  1) high definition, which sets the benchmark for the devotions’ relationship to content;  2) interactiveness, a process that minimizes the distractions caused by natural stimuli such as wind, water, sunlight and soil; and 3) speed, which saves ritual from the boredom of vain repetitions and visitations of doubt.

The organic relationship between the new content of our economy and our foreign policy and military challenges is already well established.  The Shock and Awe offensive in Iraq, for example, was calculated to produce a war theatre scene so engrossing that the enemy would be stunned into becoming a captive audience.  The deployment of drones into the theaters of Pakistan and Afghanistan foreshadows strategic re-enactments not unlike those we routinely see in Hollywood action movies and video games.  Though the drones as yet fail to provide visuals that have the immediacy and detail of a real-time close-up, what remains to be seen are drone armadas outfitted with sonic and visual displays programmed to win the hearts and minds of entire enemy population types.  This technology, able to fly without being required to endure the slow growth the walking stage of human development requires, is advanced in its infancy.  We no doubt will be shocked and awed as we watch its offspring take off.

Most fog-heads are certain that these changes are present, pervasive, and unprecedented.  Lacking is a name for the new era, something suitable for textbook publication that will speed marketing on its way.  Names for eras come and go–consider how passé labels such as Renaissance, Reformation, Age of Reason, Romanticism, and Modernism are–so only something really effective will satisfy the Source promoters.  Though I’m not sure it has either the right ring or a strong enough visual appeal, I prefer The Age of Special Effects, and I cite as my inspiration Henry David Thoreau’s chapter “Economy” from Walden.  There, as he meditates on the heaps of stuff for sale at the auction of a deceased deacon’s effects, Thoreau concludes that the dead man’s life had not been ineffectual.

As for a logo, I’m at a loss, even after doing an endless Google search.  A logo featuring Madonna and Laptop conveys some sense of what the new age is all about, though the image is too loaded down with a medieval association.  But I’m sure that some artist, given a proper incentive bonus, will conjure a more effective logo, something slick that grabs us without letting go.