[23 June 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in the world of the ongoing conspiracy between the nu-media and post-modern technology. The Alamo Drafthouse turned a well-known policy against texting in their theater into a 24 news cycle rallying cry, taking their clever PSA on the subject and making it the latest lamentation against ‘kids’ and their cockamamie entitlement. Then, critic emeritus Roger Ebert tweets a simple statement on the death of Jackass star Ryan Dunn and faces a soapbox backlash so great that he has to backpedal… if just a bit. In both cases, the meta nature of the current culture has turned cannibal, simultaneously feeding and eating itself in a way that suggests inevitability, or implosion.
I, for one, am ambivalent on the whole Ebert situation. I wrote a reactionary piece on the death of Dunn, and found myself genuinely moved by the outpouring of affection across the social network. I also felt a bit of apprehension, using the tragedy as a springboard for something a little more philosophical and less sympathetic. In the Twitter world, where your thoughts are severely hampered by character length and audience expectations, Ebert merely cut to his own personal chase. My interpretation of the tweet—where I first heard about Dunn’s passing, by the way—was that he was using the well known drunk driving motto with a slightly snarky reference to make a real point about the senselessness of what had happened.
Not everyone saw it that way. Almost immediately, sides were taken in the discussion, broken down along lines that were more generational (and in some cases, snobbish) than reasonable. Older members of the media, those who’ve long rallied against Dunn and his brethren’s daredevil buffoonery, found truth in Ebert’s words and accented the negative. They used his statement as a kind of implied group think, a combination of “get off my lawn” and “that will teach you whippersnappers.” Instead of reading it as a simple criticism of another senseless (presumed) alcohol-related fatality, they turned it into a cranky “I told you so.”
Naturally, Ebert was going to face repercussion, especially in this instant reaction/demanded response scenario of 2011. After all, members of the Jackass clan - Bam Margera, Johnny Knoxville, Jeff Tremaine - weren’t going to apply logic to the pain they were feeling. The loss was too great. This was a family member, a person with whom they shared some of the best and most memorable parts of their life. To assume they would side with anyone or anything other than their own immense and truly understandable pain is preposterous. Margera, specifically, has a right to shake his fist at God and ask “why?” Dunn was more than just a partner to the famed skateboarding wild child. He was a constant presence in his life and family dynamic that can and never will be replaced. He was a brother. Anything remotely sounding like criticism can and should be met with vehemence and vitriol.
Yet I find the whole Ebert tweet back and forth feuding incredibly silly. Since we stopped filtering the marketplace of ideas and let every conceivable opinion come into play - no matter how irrational or thoughtful - the sense of entitlement (there’s that word again) has become viral. Interactivity has gone from a game few played to a business model everyone demands. It’s like the sea of camera phones filling in the spaces at a rock concert. We have the technology and we defend our sometimes selfish prerogative to use it. In the case of Margera and the rest of the Jackass gang, the current cultural clime is perfect for this kind of instant access. Why wait for a press release or an on-camera statement when you can whip out your IPhone and let the world instantly understand your grief? It’s needed and necessary.
With Ebert, the situation is a bit more suspect. Again, he has the same immediate access claim as anyone else. When you give the entirety of the planet such an ability, you can’t then rescind it for some or limit ideas you don’t like. Similarly, when you use the limited frame of reference that is a clever computer application, you can’t expect to have your real intentions understood. This is not some impractical Luddite ideal. Without inflection, without the firm face to face (and the nerve to speak without the implied anonymity of the Internet), it becomes blather, part of the contemporary dynamic that believes in staying connected no matter the cost.
Which brings us back to the Alamo Drafthouse and the pissed off patron who can’t understand why her texting is being targeted. For those who’ve heard the PSA (based on a phone message left by this disgruntled client), she argues for her rights, her indiscriminate use of said technology, the jerkiness of her accusers, and the reception she’s received elsewhere in Austin, TX. Following her logical stream, she owns a phone which allows her to stay connected with her bevy of equally outfitted friends, she believes in her God given, Constitutional right to text, other businesses in the area have “accepted” her actions, and as a result, the Alamo is just being “difficult” because…well, because they are assholes. Of course, almost none of this is rational. It’s based on assumption, misinformation, and a massive misapplication of the notion of individual freedom.
This, to me, is the biggest dilemma facing future generations. As we remove the veil of privacy around ourselves, as we open up our once secret domains to all manner of technological innovations, we will face the inevitable intrusion that comes from same. The fact that a packed Friday opening of a major motion picture contains a viewership jacked in to their own self-created social networks can’t be good for the product up on the screen. Even worse though is the notion wrongfully believing we can do anything we want with said science. Portable radios are compact and convenient, yet few would tolerate that kind of commotion during a movie. Similarly, the bright screen of a smartphone is akin to bringing another media device into a theater. If we can ban cameras and TV, why not devices that mimic same?
In my own professional life, I have occasion to call for “no cell/smart phone” situations, mandating that those who are participating in this particular activity turn off their devices for at least the one to two hours its takes to complete their task. I always add the following - “...and if you can’t be away from your friends/business/family for that long, perhaps you should be doing something else.” The dirty looks I get are stunning in their severity. You’d swear I had just explained that I was taking their children/pets away and selling them into slavery. Instead of recognizing the reason for the request - 60 to 90 minutes of uninterrupted concentration and focus - and realizing it’s needed, tech trumps everything. It’s the reason our texting queen felt compelled to vent at the one voice that challenged her choices. It’s also why, days after stating the obvious, both sides of the Ryan Dunn drama are still jockeying for online op-ed position.