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Database identity and the joy of being processed

Wouldn't it be a better world if we could pretend that this writer was joking? She is joking, right? The New York Times is doing a little edgy satire in their Modern Love column. I know narcissism is the coin of the Modern Love realm, but consider how poorly written this column is. Clearly this is parodic:

My life goes like this: Every morning, before I brush my teeth, I sign in to my Instant Messenger to let everyone know I'm awake. I check for new e-mail, messages or views, bulletins, invitations, friend requests, comments on my blog or mentions of me or my blog on my friends' blogs.

Next I flip open my phone and check for last night's Dodgeball messages. Dodgeball is the most intimate and invasive network I belong to. It links my online community to my cellphone, so when I send a text message to 36343 (Dodge), the program pings out a message with my location to all the people in my Dodgeball network. Acceptance into another person's Dodgeball network is a very personal way to say you want to hang out.

I scroll through the messages to see where my friends went last night, and when, tracking their progress through various bars and noting the crossed paths. I check the Google map that displays their locations and proximity to one another. I note how close Christopher and Tom were last night, only a block away, but see that they never met up.

I log on to my Friendster, Facebook, MySpace and Nerve accounts to make sure the mail bars are rising with new friend requests, messages and testimonials.

I am obsessed with testimonials and solicit them incessantly. They are the ultimate social currency, public declarations of the intimacy status of a relationship. "I miss running around like crazy w/you in the AM and sneaking away to grab caffeine and gossip," Kathleen commented on my MySpace for all to see. Often someone will write, "I just posted to say I love you."

I click through the profiles of my friends to the profiles of their friends (and their friends of friends, and so on), always aware of the little bar at the top of each profile indicating my multiple connections. A girl I know from college is friends with my friend from college's best friend from Minnesota. They met at camp in seventh grade. The boyfriend of my friend from work is friends with one of my friends from high school. I note the connections and remind myself to IM them later. On Facebook, I skip from profile to profile by clicking on the faces of posted pictures. I find a picture of my sister and her boyfriend, click on his face and jump right to his page.

It's juvenile on purpose. Every paragraph starts with the word I because she's mocking the self-centeredness of her generation and it's supposed obsession with me-media, isn't she? She laughing at the fact that teens today have become an entire generation of glorified ham-radio operators.

I wish I could believe she was joking. But I think NYT published this precisely because she's serious, and because it would alarm people like me and bait us into reactionary declarations of a generational crisis. See, the article brays, you can't possibly hope to understand the youth of today; they're invested in things you wouldn't care about even if you knew they existed. And that's true. I don't have a cell phone, let alone a network of cell-phone-obsessed friends who ping me with every mundane detail of their lives. I've never sent a text message through a phone, and frankly can't understand why you would, especially when they often cost more than talking through it. So I don't consider the cell phone I don't have to be my companion, as Nokia hopes I will. I don't want my friends to make public declarations of their fealty to me on my profile pages and I don't want a running count of people who are willing to associate themselves with me. I don't need to expand my friendship roll the way I seem to need to expand my iTunes library. I don't want my idea of "friend" to be so cheapened that I can have thousands of them. Friends aren't little counters I use to measure my potential reach in a word-of-mouth marketing campaign; they aren't things I amass to keep track of my own greatness. I don't need a computer to rank my friends or score our level of intimacy. I don't need to throttle their access to me the way Netflix throttles how many DVDs I can get a month. I don't want to have friends to justify being able to use technology, rather than have technology enhance the few friendships that matter to me. And I don't crave the feeling of belonging so much that I'll join whatever Web group is out there to join. The column seems to mask its desperate need to belong in bravado, with a reverse-psychology-style embrace of technological dependence and pride in self-regarding shallowness, in presence for its own sake. (It is probably not coincidental that as social networks grow, actual friendship has receded to the point where "Nearly a quarter of people surveyed said they had 'zero' close friends with whom to discuss personal matters.")

What most leaves me on the far side of the generational gulf the NYT wants to evoke is my general desire not to want to conduct my friendships in a environment where they can be stored and scrutinized as data. The essence of friendship is its immeasurablility, not its publicity. I don't want a database for an identity, nor do I want it for a community. I don't want to run statistics on my social life. I don't want Nielsen ratings for my friendships, I don't want to apply marketing tools to them to see how they might be tweaked, to see how I might reach a better demographic, socially. I don't want to meter the amount of attention I receive. All of that seems counterproductive, unless I decide to run my personal life like a firm and decide that I need to promote myself the way Proctor and Gamble promotes its toothpastes. But as the NYT column gleefully points out, "Every profile is a carefully planned media campaign." But people can't always live up to their online marketing campaigns for themselves. Perhaps the online existence of theoretical people who would make perfect friends leads to more social isolation; we end up rejecting the flawed friends we have in reality, where their inadequacies can't be concealed or filtered out. Meanwhile social networks serve to encourage us to continue to package and market ourselves, to reify ourselves as we reify others into raw numbers ready for accounting principles. We make ourselves into data so that the information-processing capacity of the consumer economy can be used to process us that much more efficiently, squeezing out of us whatever it most requires for its sustained growth. Articles like this aspire to teach us how to enjoy that feeling of being processed.

(Thanks to AdPulp for several of these links.)

Music

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Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

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Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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