Traveling the Public/Private Divide

The Modern-Day Equivalent of the Car Stereo Conundrum
On a recent flight back to New York I sat across the aisle from a man in his early 20s who was connecting out of JFK on his way to Europe. “Even though the dollar sucks, tickets are cheap,” he told me. He had a friend who was already over there, and he was going to meet her in Amsterdam. He gave me a knowing smile, which I meekly tried to ignore. Halfway through the flight he began to watch a movie on one of those portable DVD players. Nothing remarkable in that, in and of itself, but I was surprised that he felt no shame watching a film with so much full frontal nudity on his 10-inch monitor. He was sitting next to a woman in her later 40s, and whenever I glanced up from my acrostics to check in and saw topless girls on his screen, I looked to this woman for a reaction. Usually she wasn’t looking at his screen, but sometimes she was, taking it in with an expressionless face that I interpreted as mutely disapproving. But he was engrossed in the film, and showed no signs of embarrassment.

Could he really be so unaware? Isn’t part of the point of watching DVDs in public the thrill of having strangers look over your shoulder, the thrill of knowing you’re being noticed? At first, the novelty of owning new technology makes whatever the technology accomplishes irrelevant. But the window for this ostentatious little pleasure of avant-consumerism is already closing; soon portable DVD players will be as unremarkable as iPods and cell phones.

Once the technology itself is no longer fresh, you might feel obliged to get one of these portable players gain control over what you’ll watch in those dull moments of confinement when entertainment seems a necessary distraction. The technology for that autonomous escape into a self-contained world of one’s choosing used to be a book, but as the written word becomes moribund, it’s only natural that books should be replaced by these book-sized video players. And initially I hoped the increasing ubiquity of these players might put an end to the infantilizing slates of entertainment airlines force upon you, and which are increasingly difficult to ignore. (It’s hard for me to do my acrostics in peace when an Ashlee Simpson video is flickering in my face and I feel like a creep for having my overhead light on in the darkened cabin.) Soon, air travelers will be responsible for their own entertainment, just as they have become responsible for their own meals.

But once we adapt to the autonomy that things like portable DVD players give us and we come to own the choices they allow us, it seems inevitable that we’ll begin to seek some kind of recognition for what we hope those choices say about us. In public, the portable DVD player becomes a kind of wardrobe accessory, with what you watch on it serving as a T-shirt slogan, an advertisement for who you think you are. You wouldn’t be unaware of what message your movie choice was sending anymore than you’d be unaware of the impression made by your tattoo or your cell-phone ring. Not choosing is simply another choice among many, with its own connotations. Pretending to be oblivious to the message you’re sending might just be your most pretentious message option.

With portable DVD players and cell phones (and Blackberrys, perhaps, and the rest of the gadgetry repertoire), it seems that technology’s main accomplishment is to obliterate the distinction between public and private. Under the guise of extending our autonomy and convenience, these new technologies force our once innocuous pleasures — what movies we watch, what stories we tell our friends — to have this preening, public dimension. So though they seem like an extension of the conveniences afforded by portable stereos, allowing you to reject any claims public space might once have made on you, the new gadgets are actually accomplishing the opposite; rather than allowing you to check out of public space the way a Walkman does, they claim public space away from those around you and put yourself on a would-be stage. You become accustomed to having an audience for your private conversations, so you start to speak a little louder so they can hear you more easily. And then soon you become the human equivalent of those booming, window-rattling car stereos, and it’s as though you’re saying nothing at all unless you’re sure everyone in the room can hear you.

So one explanation for the boob fest across the aisle from me could simply have been that this guy on the plane simply wanted to flex his ego by showing just how aggressively inconsiderate he could be, much like those people who talk on cell phones on the elevator. From this perspective, the beauty of these new technologies is that they allow you to express that brute ignorance of boundaries that can now constitute raw self-confidence, making those around you prisoners of your private moment as you blab away about your dinner plans or tout images of big-breasted bimbos. There was a time when comparable rudeness would have raised protests, but now any dissatisfaction is silenced by the technological inevitability these devices embody; such complaints would be as absurd as the Amish grousing that cars spook their carthorses. Inconsiderateness is fast becoming the public status quo, which drives more people to tune out, hastening the spiral toward complete incivility.

But this guy on the plane didn’t seem like an asshole when we were still on the tarmac and I talked to him about where he was going. And it seemed simplistic, if not overwhelmingly depressing, to assume that everyone who talks on cell phones in public is a rude, inconsiderate jerk; there would just be too many jerks per capita in America for that to be plausible. So perhaps these hostile moments of ostentation express the contradiction at the heart of things like the portable DVD player. We find that we can’t resist the technologies that give us the opportunity to extend the control and comfort we have in private into the public realm, but we resent what this costs, the casual off-handed judgments of those around us that our little conveniences invite. What seemed like more freedom turns out to be more scrutiny. Thinking we’ve extended our autonomy, we find the situation quickly reconfigured so that while we can now choose how to entertain ourselves on the plane, we can’t choose not to send some coded message about ourselves through this choice. Torn between the desire to be validated and the desire to be left alone leads to bellicose eruptions like this, of tits on the airplane for all to see.

Entertainment Guides
Of course, there was also a diegetic context for all those breasts. They were European breasts, bared on European beaches, as is the European custom. The film the man was watching turned out to be a teen comedy, in which a group of American friends travel together to Europe, offending some Neanderthal old-world types with their ignorant exuberance but ultimately triumphing through the force of their good intentions. The film’s appeal, beyond its topless teens, is obvious: it provides a vicarious travel experience in many ways superior to actual travel (no waiting in interminable lines with your shoes and belt off and your pants falling down to pass security checks; no annoying foreign languages you have to pretend to try to speak, let alone learn; no unpleasant confrontations with alien hygiene habits, et cetera). In my occasional glances across the aisle at the screen, I saw the teen travelers take in Big Ben, the Eiffel tower, and sundry castles, finding time as well for some uninhibited nightlife in impossibly exciting clubs and beaches oddly devoid of any old or ugly people yet fully stocked with naked European women. Pretty much what you’d expect: the collected tourist fantasies of the entire American 17-to-25 demographic averaged together and compressed into 80 minutes.

Simulated experience is always going to go down easier than actual experience, and the entertainment industry is always going to urge us to ignore the difference between the two. And even though tourist industries desperately try to convince us of the value of real experience, all the while they assiduously work to make traveling more predictable, turning real locations into carefully calibrated facsimiles of themselves, Disney-fying the real. The unfortunate thing about real experiences is that they are unpredictable: that’s their essential, definitive quality. What makes entertainment so marketable, then, is how it makes satisfaction more or less predictable, orchestrating our emotional responses with virtuoso precision. So it’s pointless to complain that a film is formulaic. Of course it is; that’s its function. That’s why it sells.

So there’s nothing mystifying about what’s enjoyable about such a movie. The pursuit of predictable, vicarious pleasure has characterized mass entertainment since its advent (and high-minded critics have denounced it as vulgar and stupefying ever since). But what I found strange about the man on the plane was that he was taking in a vicarious experience of exotic travel in the midst of actually traveling. He wasn’t seeking to replace an experience he wasn’t going to have. He was reduplicating it as it was just beginning to unfold. It was as though he was preparing expectations for himself, giving himself a narrative of what he should see, of what he should try to live up to; it was like he wanted to give his journey some preordained shape.

The Publicly Private
Ordinarily, tourists have turned to guidebooks for such things. But are they any more adequate to the task? There’s a contradiction in contemporary travel akin to the one that haunts portable technology. With the DVD player, we want to assert our individuality through our entertainment choice, but we also wrestle with how much attention this choice attracts. In traveling, we expect the standard package, the sights and experiences so adroitly summarized by movies, but we also expect our trip to be unique, to validate our individual significance, to affirm our special mission in life. Both revolve around what is appropriately kept private or made public, what is authentic and what is performative; in both instances these oppositions begin to break down. DVD players are publicly private; tourist destinations are authentically performative. It’s fruitless to oppose authentic experience to clichéd, touristic experiences. Since the many places that survive on tourism are earnestly engaged in the manufacture of prefab touristic experiences, these experiences are the authentic ones; they are fundamental to the public nature of the place you’ve come. You can’t penetrate into private, everyday life, really, without actually adopting the place as your new home. If this authentic private life were really accessible to the tourist, it would cease to be private; it would become an exemplary diorama. As a tourist you always taint what data you’ve collected, so there’s no point hoping for some anthropologically pure experience.

Some guidebooks, nevertheless, try to facilitate this impossible desire, and the strain shows. In her article, “Dancing in Spanish: Flamenco in Seville” (Slate), about touring Andalusia, Elisabeth Eaves notes the wiser-than-thou tone of those self-consuming travel guides that encourage you to stay away from the things that tourists do. These books, Eaves insists, have it all wrong. And my in-flight neighbor’s film seemed to confirm that, generally, we want to experience the clichés (even if only to authentically dismiss them later), that we define a successful travel experience by how many of the anticipated highlights we’re able to check off.

Repudiating the guidebooks, Eaves insists on “having fun” instead of pursuing some “real” Andalusian life. But what this amounts to is an ability to enjoy the mediocre with a clear conscience, with your ignorance about the place allowing you to be tolerant of second-rate experiences. You don’t mind hearing a crappy band play in a crappy club, or eating crappy food in a crappy restaurant because you don’t know any better, and you are happy to trust your instincts and then not judge yourself. The brevity of your visit makes you see the fruitlessness in weighing your decisions too carefully, and this helps you to lower your standards without fretting about it. In a sense, this is what “fun” is: suspending judgment for sensual immersion. Eaves puts it this way: “I cling to the hope that visiting a new place can be about more than what’s hot and what’s not; that I can still do a few things without mediation. After all, I travel partly to escape the sort of place where knowing the names of obscure bands has become a substitute for enjoying music, and getting into the newest restaurant a stand-in for appreciating food.”

That sounds very noble, but the upshot of it is that people with discriminating tastes are shallow, and people who immerse themselves sensually in whatever presents itself to them are “real” and authentic, unmediated. Media saturation allows us to feel jaded about places we’ve never even seen, and that leads to obviously self-defeating, time-wasting sojourns. But does this mean that if you can’t tolerate some cover band in a bar you happen upon, are you automatically some kind of a phony? If you’re in Paris, and the Eiffel tower is not good enough for you, are you being fake, strutting airs you picked up from books? Is every seemingly aesthetic choice, then, mediated? Is every application of criteria the importation of some shallow bias smuggled in from some lifestyle piece one was exposed to? That’s the kind of doomsday scenario postmodern macroanalysis of media culture tends to imply: that all the criteria we hold as essential to defining our being (which, in a culture that emphasizes consumption and defines freedom as the freedom of choice between plasma or LCD flat-panel televisions, is reduced to our tastes) are really things we’ve adopted from somewhere else, are really some institutional dogma that we have absorbed and have come to feel a deeply personal stake in. The pursuit of “real” experience presents the same dilemma as the portable DVD player: Our intense wishes to manifest our uniqueness or our authenticity only reveal how socially dependent such a manifestation must be.

So ideally, traveling done well can enable you to escape that trap. If Eaves is right, traveling allows you to flip things so that you delight in mediocrity rather than discrimination, and enjoy ignorance rather then the delight of flexing what things you’ve learned about the business of life (which Eaves hastily dismisses as “a vast, shallow pool of knowledge”). At home, it’s pleasant to know things. Away, it’s pleasant to feel no shame in knowing nothing. So from this perspective, you don’t travel to discover anything except your own ignorance, and to see what kind of half-assed encounters you can Mr. Magoo your way into.

When the man on the plane had finished watching the movie — I watched him watch the film’s protagonist kiss his newly-won girlfriend back in the safety of their college campus — he proceeded to the DVD’s special features and started watching the blooper reel. Presumably, blooper reels are interesting to watch because they purport to show us the making of something we had just taken to be real, and if we are, in general, supplanting reality with what we consume in movies, then blooper reels pull back the curtain to show us how reality itself is being assembled. That’s a pretty attractive, God-like perspective (but one that hinges on having bought into the movie initially). What this suggests is that one’s memories of one’s own travel experience are essentially blooper reels, too: outtakes from the seamless simulations of what was already known from media representations. One’s life experience is a kind of blooper reel; the moments you remember are the anomalies, the errors, the ones that give you pause and make you question whether in fact the representations you strove to emulate are real, the ones that remind you that you still have a private self that exists independent of one’s public postures and beyond social constructions. But by perpetually prescribing, preserving, and reiterating how everything is supposed to be and feel, and by technologically extending its reach into moments that once seemed beyond its grasp, the culture industry strives to replace our need for memory. In the perfectly mediated world, we won’t remember a thing.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.