I always think about David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest when I stream some audio or video or, more recently, download a public domain book. In one of those conversations in the book that feels like a musical canon or fugue--multiple speakers in conversation yet each part sounds oddly independent--Orin Incandenza rhapsodizes on how he misses discursive mass media in their current world of everything on demand. Beginning on page 599, speaking with a supposed survey-taker:
'I miss TV,' Orin said, looking back down. He no longer smiled coolly.
'The former television of commercial broadcast.'
'Reason in several words or less, please, for the box after REASON,' displaying the board.
'Oh, man.' Orin looked back up and away at what seemed to be nothing, feeling at his jaw around the retromandiibular's much tinier and more vulnerable throb. 'Some of this may sounmd stupid. I miss commercials that were louder than the programs. I miss the phrases "Order before midnight tonight" and "Save up to fifty percent and more." I miss being told things were filmed before a live studio audience. I miss late-night anthems and shots of flags and fighter jets and leathery-faced Indian chiefs crying at litter. I miss "Sermonette" and "Evensong" and test patterns and being told how many megahertz something's transmitter was broadcasting at.' He felt his face. 'I miss sneering at something I loved. How we used to love to gather in the checker-tiled kitchen in front of the old boxy cathode-ray Sony whose reception was sensitive to airplanes and sneer at the commercial vapidity of broadcast stuff.'
... 'I miss summer reruns. I miss reruns hastily inserted to fill the intervals of writers' strikes, Actors' Guild strikes. I miss Jeannie, Samantha, Sam and Diane, Gilligan, Hawkeye, Hazel, Jed, all the syndicated airwave-haunters. You know? I miss seeing the same things over and over again.'
Patton Oswalt touches on this in a Wired editorial titled "Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die" [ via Slashfilm ]. His main premise is that easily accessible culture has changed the fan from someone who scours book stores or record stores or rarity catalogs over years, to someone who downloads the equivalent in an afternoon. Appreciation without effort alters the relationship.
The problem with the Internet, however, is that it lets anyone become otaku about anything instantly. In the '80s, you couldn't get up to speed on an entire genre in a weekend. You had to wait, month to month, for the issues of Watchmen to come out. We couldn't BitTorrent the latest John Woo film or digitally download an entire decade's worth of grunge or hip hop.
I'm sympathetic with the impulse behind his thesis (before it goes very far afield around halfway through), but not necessarily with the pejorative conclusion. I was driving home yesterday with my Android on the dash showing me POV traffic via Google Maps and listening to streaming Radio Swiss Classic (a Joseph Haydn Symphony, I see, by looking up that timeslot on the internet). Fifteen years or so prior, I had a Newton that I'd only dreamed would have access to such "cyberspace" niceties, and my dreams were probably much paler than the wealth we ended up with. I worry some about the decadence of immediacy, but not yesterday. Yesterday, the immediacy and the realization that it doesn't even register to teenagers made me more interested in what the next wealth will be. We sorta saw this coming (remember that commercial from 10 or so years ago with the guy checking in to the dusty roadside motel and the attendant offering him any movie or recording he wanted for entertainment?) so we can probably see the next wealth coming.