Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Sucker of the Year: Us

As you probably already know, Time magazine has unveiled its "Person of the Year" award, and you're in luck: You've won! Yes, we've all won, all we good, digital-code-mainlining Americans, and the magazine's gauche corporate logo tie-in cover, complete with YouTube font, is here to let us know.

Time rarely strays from the Important White Man selection, and well they shouldn't: The award is for whoever or whatever has most influenced the events of the preceding year, and whitey is normally that person, although sometimes you'll get a Gandhi or a Mohammed Mossadegh (two years before we took his ass out). Occasionally we've seen groups or abstract individuals represented (Hungarian Freedom Fighter in '56, U.S. Scientists in '60, the Middle Americans in '69, American Women in '75) and The Computer won in 1982 (all 64k of it).

It's easy to scoff at the feel-good propaganda and thumb-twiddling, awkwardly-late zeitgeist pronunciations that pass for the POTY. It's also interesting to note how much more mild-mannered it's become since the days of pronouncing Hitler, Stalin, and the Ayatollah Khomeini POTYs, albeit super-evil nefarious ones whose asses we ultimately kicked (well, maybe not Khomeini's).

Yet I think that the POTY can tell us something important about the collective American psyche, if such a thing exists. Especially since the Iraq War began, the award has taken on an increasingly revealing character, one which up until this point had expressed a sort of Holy Trinity, a triptych, of American power and the latent, subconscious, demotic flipside to that power. In 2003, for instance, we had The American Soldier, which in itself displayed the power of the U.S. military and in its selection was a possible attempt to mitigate the fact of sending our troops to die for nothing. 2004's pick, Bush, was, along with the trend of selecting the Presidential election-year winner, a declaration of our central domestic power, the Leader, and in its strategy a sublimation of our shame in re-electing this blatant simp. In 2005, when the war was really beginning to go badly, Katrina had laid us to waste, and no amount of POTY awards could obviate the fact that we'd chosen a band of morally bankrupt imbeciles to lead our country, we found refuge in the Good Samaritans, those do-gooder capitalists who could right all the wrongs of the world with their millions and billions. 2003-2005 thus gave us an absurdly accurate portrait of the powers--military, political, corporate--that matter in America.

How could Time possibly top this triad? Quite easily, it turns out. All they had to do was to show us our place in this whole schema, and in the most unintentionally insulting manner possible. This article has to be read in its entirety just to glean its full vapidity and almost fascistic sense of ethical resignation.
The "Great Man" theory of history is usually attributed to the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who wrote that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men." He believed that it is the few, the powerful and the famous who shape our collective destiny as a species. That theory took a serious beating this year.
I simply cannot wait to find out how that theory took a serious beating this year, a year (see the NSA scandal, the Military Commissions Act, the continued, intransigent direction of the war) in which I would have found it more likely that my own father turn into a giant sprig of parsley than someone declare it an exception to the Great Men of History thesis.
To be sure, there are individuals we could blame for the many painful and disturbing things that happened in 2006. The conflict in Iraq only got bloodier and more entrenched. A vicious skirmish erupted between Israel and Lebanon. A war dragged on in Sudan. A tin-pot dictator in North Korea got the Bomb, and the President of Iran wants to go nuclear too. Meanwhile nobody fixed global warming, and Sony didn't make enough PlayStation3s.





...Oh, excuse me, I was just having a laughing fit over that PS3 remark, coming so tactfully as it did right after the references to three wars and the hundreds of thousands of corpses that come along with them, many of them children's. Now, wait for the "but," wait for the "but"...
But look at 2006 through a different lens [read: complete cretinism] and you'll see another story, one that isn't about conflict or great men. It's a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It's about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people's network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes [this clause is meaningless].
You'll note the first instance of the language of "democratic revolution" in that "many wresting power away from the few" remark. Jesus Christ...
The tool that makes this possible is the World Wide Web. Not the Web that Tim Berners-Lee hacked together (15 years ago, according to Wikipedia) as a way for scientists to share research. It's not even the overhyped dotcom Web of the late 1990s. The new Web is a very different thing. It's a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter. Silicon Valley consultants call it Web 2.0, as if it were a new version of some old software. But it's really a revolution.
World-changing (and changing-world-changing?) revolutions that have to be explained to you really are revolutions, we swear.
And we are so ready for it. We're ready to balance our diet of predigested news with raw feeds from Baghdad and Boston and Beijing. You can learn more about how Americans live just by looking at the backgrounds of YouTube videos—those rumpled bedrooms and toy-strewn basement rec rooms—than you could from 1,000 hours of network television.
Interestingly, both YouTube and network television are considered better ways to "learn more about how Americans live" than, say, meeting and interacting with fellow Americans. It seems that you're going to be learning from a screen no matter what, but at least now it's an exciting new screen!
And we didn't just watch, we also worked. Like crazy. We made Facebook profiles and Second Life avatars and reviewed books at Amazon and recorded podcasts. We blogged about our candidates losing and wrote songs about getting dumped. We camcordered bombing runs and built open-source software.
Homeless man: I haven't found work in a year. Can you spare some change?

Man at coffee shop on laptop: Jesus, can't you see I'm working like crazy? I'm making "The Final Countdown" by Europe the background music to my MySpace profile. If I can work so hard, why can't you?
America loves its solitary geniuses—its Einsteins, its Edisons, its Jobses—but those lonely dreamers may have to learn to play with others. Car companies are running open design contests. Reuters is carrying blog postings alongside its regular news feed. Microsoft is working overtime to fend off user-created Linux. We're looking at an explosion of productivity and innovation, and it's just getting started, as millions of minds that would otherwise have drowned in obscurity get backhauled into the global intellectual economy.
I've spent ten minutes trying to think of something to say about this paragraph, which means writer Lev Grossman must have spent two, although he might have received help from Thomas Friedman on that last sentence.
Who are these people? Seriously, who actually sits down after a long day at work and says, I'm not going to watch Lost tonight. I'm going to turn on my computer and make a movie starring my pet iguana? I'm going to mash up 50 Cent's vocals with Queen's instrumentals? I'm going to blog about my state of mind or the state of the nation or the steak-frites at the new bistro down the street? Who has that time and that energy and that passion?
At this point I'm beginning to question this whole exercise. Is this a joke year? Or have we really elevated the mundane to the level of earth-shaking? Both? Even if they've one-upped their critics by being both, does their hip irony make them any less stupid? Or have they caught me in a bind: I'm blogging my state of mind, therefore entangling myself in their whole twisted system? Can we even think ourselves outside of Web 2.0 anymore? Or has it become the very ground of and sole possibility for critique? The situation screams out for Baudrillard. Or, like, finishing this shitty article.
The answer is, you do. And for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game, TIME's Person of the Year for 2006 is you.
I doubt if the Bolsheviks ever came up with a more congratulatory speech to the Russian proletariat after they seized the means of production. And all we had to do was forsake television in order to videotape our pet, all the while ignoring the daily atrocities of 21st century life. Dude, YouTube is fucking sweet. Plus, I totally Tivo'd Lost, anyway.
Sure, it's a mistake to romanticize all this any more than is strictly necessary. Web 2.0 harnesses the stupidity of crowds as well as its wisdom. Some of the comments on YouTube make you weep for the future of humanity just for the spelling alone, never mind the obscenity and the naked hatred.
The ontology of the crowd is an amazing thing. First, it was (rightly, or at least accurately) depicted as an angry group of people, most likely threatening to the powers that be. An entire literature of tropes has sprung up in this respect concerning the "ignorance of the multitude." Now thousands of solitary Americans, furiously pecking away at their keyboards in their middle-class homes, can still be conceptualized as a "crowd," and are still considered in need of a good, anti-ochlocratic harangue now and then. Will we still be giving lectures about the stupidity of the crowd when people live their entire lives in front of a screen? When they never leave their homes? When stupidity is firmly entrenched and crowds are inconceivable? Is this the greatest achievement of Web 2.0, a success which other totalitarianisms could only dream of: Groupthink without the group?
But that's what makes all this interesting. Web 2.0 is a massive social experiment, and like any experiment worth trying, it could fail. There's no road map for how an organism that's not a bacterium lives and works together on this planet in numbers in excess of 6 billion. But 2006 gave us some ideas. This is an opportunity to build a new kind of international understanding, not politician to politician, great man to great man, but citizen to citizen, person to person. It's a chance for people to look at a computer screen and really, genuinely wonder who's out there looking back at them. Go on. Tell us you're not just a little bit curious.
Take the third to last sentence. Now subtract everything after the word "screen": "It's a chance for people to look at a computer screen." Yup. See, we have discussed Web 2.0 before (complete with sweet Fishstix/Kushakov exchange). The internet is an opportunity, no doubt about it. But unless it is your means of livelihood, it is simply a mere means. If you meet your spouse on the internet, or organize a meeting on the internet, or stay in touch with your friends on the internet, there's nothing disrespectable about that. But the end is your spouse, the meeting, and your friends. Hypostasizing the mere act of looking at a computer screen as the most heroic thing one can do amounts to nothing; it is a weird hagiography of everyday life, a bit like congratulating Americans for buying automobiles at the turn of the century (certainly a "revolution" in itself) or moving to the suburbs in the '50s. Yet Time wants to tout the internet as something more than consumption, although I can guarantee that probably 99% of all Web 2.0 "usage" is consumptive. We are making the solitudinous internet the alibi (literally "elsewhere") of politics, art, and friendship--the interactive spheres of human existence--at a time when the world despises us for the very narcissism Time extols. And in our haste to discuss everything and do nothing, we leave our most despicable traits intact. If President Bush had been more tech-savvy, and perhaps more politically astute, rather than encourage us after the September 11 attacks to go out and "buy," he should have told us to blog about it.

4 Comments:

Blogger Robot said...

I find it hard to disagree with what you´ve said. I might concur that there really is a revolution going on, but if so, this is one of the worst articulations of it I´ve ever read. I first heard of this year´s Person of the Year award when I was listening to a roundtable on my revolutionary iPod between a Time editor and George Will. You can really count on intelligent conservatives being awesome at some things, and Will -reserved, but clearly infuriated-more or less expressed his disgust for Time´s decision (though for likely different reasons than you do, given that he seems to prefer rule by elites).

One other thought is that this narrative of the surging internet masses coincides with what is otherwise an undeniable neoconservative narrative of the Great Man. Mainly, that is, the Evil Great Man. Note that when neocons (and a boatload of other journalists for that matter) talk of bad regimes they almost never talk about totalitarian systems, or mass-psychological explanations, or sociological explanations. Instead, we´re fed this constant interpretation of The Bad Guy Theory. Pinochet, Ahmadinejad, Saddam, Kim Jung-Il, Robert Mugabe, etc. These new dictators (as opposed to those under Fascist and Communist regimes) are discussed as if they exist in an absolute vacuum. Needless to say this is a really bad way to think about history, much less dictators. I do find it interesting that Time has now tried to construct the absolute antithesis of the Bad Guy Theory.

3:18 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

I find it hard to disagree with what you´ve said. I might concur that there really is a revolution going on, but if so, this is one of the worst articulations of it I´ve ever read. I first heard of this year´s Person of the Year award when I was listening to a roundtable on my revolutionary iPod between a Time editor and George Will. You can really count on intelligent conservatives being awesome at some things, and Will -reserved, but clearly infuriated-more or less expressed his disgust for Time´s decision (though for likely different reasons than you do, given that he seems to prefer rule by elites).

One other thought is that this narrative of the surging internet masses coincides with what is otherwise an undeniable neoconservative narrative of the Great Man. Mainly, that is, the Evil Great Man. Note that when neocons (and a boatload of other journalists for that matter) talk of bad regimes they almost never talk about totalitarian systems, or mass-psychological explanations, or sociological explanations. Instead, we´re fed this constant interpretation of The Bad Guy Theory. Pinochet, Ahmadinejad, Saddam, Kim Jung-Il, Robert Mugabe, etc. These new dictators (as opposed to those under Fascist and Communist regimes) are discussed as if they exist in an absolute vacuum. Needless to say this is a really bad way to think about history, much less dictators. I do find it interesting that Time has now tried to construct the absolute antithesis of the Bad Guy Theory.

3:18 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

George Will has now written an entire column about Time's turd, and I actually don't see much of a difference between him and me. There is a sort of conservative streak running through the article, talking about how "genius is scarce" and we feel a sense of "entitlement" to self-esteem. But I wouldn't disagree with that either.
Meanwhile, Will points out much the same things I did, such as the fact that by "you control the Information Age," "control" means nothing more than that we are equal to create content for the internet. Also, we get, "Most bloggers have the private purpose of expressing themselves, for their own satisfaction. There is nothing wrong with that, but nothing demanding or especially admirable either." Bingo.
And then there's this gem: "George III would have preferred dealing with 100 million bloggers rather than one Paine," which is almost exactly like my final sentence, except of course that Will doesn't see the parallels (or does he?) between George III and our own W.
My gripe is with Will's lede, in which he says: "They were in a populist mood and named the largest possible number of Persons of the Year: Everybody." Actually, this is inaccurate. A populist mood would have entailed a group like "the angry middle class," or "midterm election voters" or, even more specifically, the new brand of populist Democrats who got elected. If Time had gone all abstract on us, the winner would have been, "Us." However, there's a big, obvious difference between "Us" and "You," especially when the you is some guy dancing to the "Chicken Noodle Soup" song on YouTube.

Your comments on the Evil Great Men thesis are right on. Interestingly, Chavez and Ahmadinejad use the same rhetoric about America ("we have no problems with the American people, we think all people are good, their leaders are bad, etc").
Also, I think that if you push some people hard enough, you will find that they do have an opinion about the "masses" of these countries. For example, John Derbyshire wrote an article for the New English Review this summer about "collective responsibility," tentatively suggesting that populaces who don't actively throw off tyrannical regimes might therefore become complicit with them, and thus we would be justified in bombing whole populations, as they did in WWII:

http://olimu.com/WebJournalism/Texts/Commentary/TheyThePeople.htm

He asks whether or not the North Koreans understand freedom and, by extension, whether the Iraqis do. Similarly, you will find a lot of people who think that either Chileans "needed" Pinochet to save them, or that the leftists in Chile "deserved" their execution and torture. Now the situation is flipped and we actually don't give a damn what the people want, only what is good for them.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Josh the Hippie Killer said...

I'm convinced that TIME's decision was based on a discounted price they got on reflective aluminum foil print.

7:23 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home