My musings on different political topics relevant to America today.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

How Walkmans, VCRs, and Netflix Changed the World

Society is undergoing a social revolution. You probably have noticed, and have partaken, in this revolution.  The defining embodiment of this revolution is that stereotype we all know, love, and in some sense are...the hipster.  The defining characteristic of the hipster is a rebellion against the mainstream, whether it be music, movies, or walmart.  This rebellion is seen as fighting against "the man", aka, the societal elite, and propping up the "little guy."  This is done of course, by listening to obscure music that no one else has heard of, by watching movies no one else has heard of, and by shopping at get the idea.

The point I will be making is that this revolution is more than just hipsters.  They are just the most visible embodiment of this revolution.  However in reality its already touching all of us.  Technology has driven the way, introducing new platforms to digest entertainment, and as a consequence, none of us listen to music or watch tv the same as we did ten years ago.  Technology has also democratized the process of production, allowing a vast infusion of new entrepreneurs into the entertainment market.  Technology is transforming entertainment in a way we are just beginning to understand, for better or for worse.  I will not only argue that technology has created a new mechanism for absorbing entertainment, but that this new mechanism will inevitably result in the extreme isolation of individuals from society as a whole.

Before the 1980's, music was inevitably a collective experience, and so was television.  There was only so much music to listen to over the airwaves and tv shows you could watch.  Music wise, all you had was the radio.  TV wise, there were only a handful of channels.  This meant that the likelihood you had listened to the same music and watched the same shows as your coworker, friend, etc. was very high.  Likewise the likelihood that you watched the same shows and movies around the same time was extremely high because back in the day, you either saw it or you didn't.  Keep in mind, before the 1980's, vcr's did not even exist.  Yes there was "portable" music in the form of records, but even then everyone around you had to hear it, there was no tuning other people out.  The natural tendency of this arrangment was a naturally unifying/coercive element on culture.  Local dialects and cultures all faded and were replaced by the image of America we were sold by Hollywood.

This began to change during the 1980's.  In the early 80's vcr players and walkman's came out.  Vcr's meant that people could for the first time record shows and rent movies, therefore they could postpone watching a show or movie until a time more convenient for them.  This meant that the likelihood two people had watched the same episode at the same time declined, therefore reducing their common experiences.  For the first time, people were having to tell eachother, "Don't tell me what happens, I haven't seen it yet."  In addition the walkman allowed people to listen to music without other people listening.  This meant that they could listen to music without having to worry about what other people thought about it.  They could now listen to whatever they wanted, without any worry someone may overhear and judge.

The trend then accelerated with the dawn of the internet.  Pandora, Spotify and other online applications allowed people to explore literally any kind of music the world had to offer.  In addition you can do this from the privacy of your laptop, with your earbuds, isolated in your own little world.  Likewise applications like Netflix, Youtube, and Hulu allowed you to explore and view any type of video content you desired, again behind the protective castle of your laptop and earbuds.

In addition the means of producing entertainment have become more and more affordable.  Now fairly affordable applications such as Garage Band and Final Cut Pro...and Blogger, allow you access to most of the tools the professionals use, and even the hardware is dropping steeply in expense.  Now literally almost anyone can go and make their voice heard.

This insane expansion in technology means that anyone can listen to anything made by almost anyone. This inevitably is resulting in a disturbing trend of individual isolation.  I no longer can have any certainty you like any of the music I like, or watch any of the shows I like.  The only thing I know is that you have access to the infinite possibilities for audible or visual entertainment that I do.  Now the only things we can more or less guarantee is that we have both seen the same blockbuster movies.  Indeed, even that will become ever less likely, as people's tastes in entertainment continually moves farther and farther away from each other.

This trend is referred to in Academia as "Social Differentiation."  People are becoming ever less similar in opinions, outlook, and tastes.  Why?  People all now have infinite choice over what societal factors influence them and which do not.  So people actually have more power to determine their own identity than they ever have before, and they are taking full advantage of it, isolating themselves from everyone unlike them.  Even when we connect with others, we will more and more only connect with others in the limited ways we are the same.

If you dispute that people will naturally isolate themselves from those unlike themselves consider this.  It is uncomfortable to make yourself vulnerable to someone else.  If you don't know what someone thinks about something, you don't wish to reveal it most of the time.  Whenever we are with people we don't know, we tend to gravitate towards the things we can connect on.  Just picture when you attend a football game.  Whats the first thing you do? You find your team jersey and put it on.  Why? You put it on to indicate to others you are like them.  The jersey is your key to the team community.  If you see by someone wearing the same jersey, you both can bond over your common allegiance to the team.  Likely you will both spout your opinions about the quarterback, and list all the stats you know about the other team, and will forecast your teams' chances of victory.  Nevertheless besides that, you probably will not talk about much more because it wouldn't be safe too.  You disconnect yourself from them the instant obvious commonality ceases to exist.

The point I am making with the above example is that its natural to hide facts about ourselves we are not sure others will accept, and that we naturally only reveal select parts of our whole based off how much we trust them.  An online community makes this even easier, because now people can opt out of community with people at their work, school, etc., and find people online that are just like them...or at least like them in a limited sense.  Since there will be an infinite combination of types of people, it will be a futile endeavor for someone to try to establish friendships based off a coherent identity.  Thus people will have select "friends" that they know for select interests.  A person may have their board game friend, their Alternative-Electronic radio friend, their volleyball friend, and their Walking Dead friend, but they will no longer just have friends.  Gone are the days people just had a group of friends they did everything together, listened to the same music, and partook in the same activities.

Technology has ushered in a new social order that appeals directly to our individual impulses, creating an entirely new social order.  The old social order, in which the media exerted a uniting and coercive influence on culture, is long gone.  Now, media simply serves as a means of self expression in an increasingly culturally chaotic world.  The common culture Americans once shared is disappearing, and now we can only hope to sometimes connect to our fellow Americans, whenever our common interests happen to intersect.  In a sense, we are all hipsters now, lonely hipsters living just a couple yards from each other, yet having nothing in common.

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