Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Age of Personalization

This post on MetaFilter, and the subsequent exploration of the Rockship 7 show website, got me to thinking about my youth, and how the world is different. I was listening to the Rockeship 7 theme music (go ahead and click it so you can listen as you read) linked from the site, and it triggered my response to the MeFi thread: "that cymbal crash [at 1:42 into the music] was the beginning of the day for every weekday of my early life, and is heralded the promise of each new day."

Two things jump to mind, as a follow-on to that music.

First, listening to this 6-minute piece of music, entitled Air Power by Norman Dello Joio, one listens to a pre-Vietnam era vision of our nation and its military. This is the military that just fifteen years before had saved the world from Hitler and Hirohito, bringing in an age of prosperity. When we were jolted out of our smugness by Sputnik, our military was there to answer the challenge (as issued by JFK) of not only equalling the Soviet accomplishment of launching a satellite, but topping them by putting a man on the moon! The music conveys this naive sense of trust in an honest government, an efficient military. This music conveys America at its most optimistic moment.

Second, it occurs to me that our world of instant communication has irrevocably altered the pace of our life. We can watch news whenever we want, listen to music whenever we want, watch cartoons whenever we want. We can get it all, all the time.

When I was younger, there were three commercial networks, PBS, and eventually an independent station. That was it in our local market of Buffalo, unless you had a good enough antenna to pick up Toronto. You had to watch what was on, when it was on. It seems limiting, almost un-American now. But we began our day with a local children's television show, Rockeship 7. That cymbal crash I alluded to earlier was, without my realizing it, part of my morning ritual. We didn't always get up early enough to catch the very beginning of Rocketship 7, but on those days when we did, that cymbal rewarded us for getting up, and signaled to us that we were ahead of the game- the day could bring anything!

We would get home want watch Commander Tom, the afternoon version of Rocketship 7. Those two shows were the bookends around our school day. Then there were other blocks of time- the afternoon movie, the evening news, the game shows, prime time and the late news. Then, it was time for bed, simple as that.

Saturday and Sunday had similar rituals- the Saturday morning cartoons, college football, then it really was time to get out and get some air. If we had one of those antennas on the roof, there was Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday night. On Sunday, there was Rocky and Bullwinkle, then church, then either NFL football or a movie. If we actually got up early enough to go to the early Mass we'd be home in time to watch Skippy the Kangaroo before the movie started. Then, at night, there was Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, where "Stan" was the proto-Steve Irwin- the guy who had to manhandle that week's insanely wild animal. And finally the Wonderful World of Disney. Our family further added to the ritual- on Sunday we went to Grandma's where my Dad and Grandpa took on my Mom and Grandma every week to play pinochle. So Disney was often punctuated with bidding, counting and scorekeeping. (They played viciously for dime stakes every week.)

There was a certain cycle in the day. It was dictated by TV, but it wasn't limited to TV. There was a comfort in the routine..... in fact it was almost a ritual. The ritual was regimented by the television. Radio was a part of it, but in the 60s and into the 70s, TV was it. Now, if we want to watch something, we can have it whenever we want through any number of outlets. Broadcast, cable and satellite TV, with more channels than the stars. DVDs let you have permanent copies to enjoy at your pleasure, whenever you want. If you can't find what you want, or it's too seedy for broadcast, time to go to the internet and download it. Or even better, participate in it- talk on a forum, type in your blog, play an online game.

What does this do to the life of the average person? We've reduced our lives to split-second sound bites. We don't talk person-to-person anymore, even with our own families. In fact if the four of us are in a room, there are probably five different things playing, each person wearing headphones so we don't have to deal with each other. This isn't the age of Globalization, it's the age of Personalization. Each of us has an inalienable right to our Own Private Idaho.

What a pity.