Bright Lights Film Journal

Post-Sensory Pong: A Future-Shock Analysis of Virginia Postrel’s “Who Needs Raise When you have TV?”

“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” – Cyberpunk author William Gibson

Gibson’s statement WAS true, but it has clearly been undercut by recent trends towards better quality leisure time then ever before, especially concerning video, TV, and movies, relative to only a few years ago. The future is definitely here, but now the distribution is much improved (as long as you have internet and/or cell phone reception, of course):

“Consider the electronic products that every middle-class teenager can now afford—iPhones, iPads, iPods and laptop computers. They aren’t much inferior to the electronic gadgets now used by the top 1% of American income earners, and often they are exactly the same..” –Donald Boudreaux and Mark Perry: The Myth of a Stagnant Middle Class

And earlier this month, Virginia Postrel carried this notion even farther, noting that the economist’s concept of stagnant middle class growth and prosperity does not reflect their true situation, which is that they enjoy first class entertainment at an unprecedented level:

“For the very reason that entertainment is so cheap, the enjoyment people derive from having a better chance of finding exactly what they want, when and where they want it, doesn’t count for much. Giving consumers new features for little or no additional money increases well-being but doesn’t do much for productivity statistics.(…)

“New entertainment options are particularly important to poorer people with ample leisure time… That’s because as income falls, the time devoted to leisure goes up, even among fully employed people.” “Who Needs a Raise When you have TV?” by Virginia Postrel

This article got some comments from liberal pundits (Stephen Colbert: “I always knew watching me was a form of currency”) but it is true, to an extent, and Cyberpunk godfather William Gibson predicted it, depicting a kind of third world futurescape that is the now. Flat screen giant TVs with digital DVRs and 100 dozen channels, anamorphic blu-ray, 3-D gaming –forty years ago all of that was either nonexistent or the sole playground of the very rich (with those crude projector TVs and the only game there was: “Pong”). Now anyone who can scrape together a few hundred dollars can load up on enough movie streams and DV-R and giant LCD screens to never leave the house, so who needs a nice house? Who needs a nice car? Your city’s a mess so why drive in it, and real life’s a drag so why show off to impress it. Even if you can’t afford a dining room set, or a dining room, who cares? All you need is eletricity, a flat screen and a blu-ray player, or failing that, a laptop and headphones, failing that a phone with earbuds, and you’re richer than Rockefeller… was, back before there was TV.


Dots, from top: New Rose, Strange Days, Matrix

Back in the late 90s it seemed as if this kind of telemorphic wealth was going to have consequences: In Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel (1998), based on a William Gibson story, the fortunes of a pair of corporate spies rise and fall as they comb spy footage and their own drug-and-sex-saturated memories for an understanding of why their agent Asia Argento betrayed them. In 1995 alone we had Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) involving the illegal use of brain boosting headgear that let you see and hear through other people’s recorded senses;  Gibson’s own Johnny Mnemonic (1995) wherein courier Keanu carries a data in his brain, and the anime Ghost in the Shell wherein brain implants boost memory and telepathic ability but leave the mind open to hacking. In 1999 there was The Matrix (1999) of course, reimagines modern life as a kind of World of Warcraft used to keep lumps of humanity rapt in their pods and Cronenberg’s Existenz (1999), which posited a breakdown between reality, cinema, online game worlds, and genuine human danger, wherein one was impossible to discern from the other.

A lot of the foundation for these ideas sprang at least in part from William Gibson’s groundbreaking 1984 novel Neuromancer, which created the idea of a world wherein being able to jack one’s brain into cyberspace (a word he coined for the book, years before it was a reality) means the real world hardly matters. Bodies become like cell phone protective covers, functional but worthless except as a brain support system. Stack them anywhere, jack them into tubes like coma patients into those weird Japanese torpedo tube hotels, so long as they have Gibson’s patented (and inevitable) skull-mounted USB jacks they don’t even need working eyes or ears.

I remember I was living in the East Village circa 2003 when I began to notice scruffy little inner city kids hustling around with nothing to their name except a fat cell phone clipped to their sweatpants. Gibson’s future was rushing towards me, like a flood tide that still hasn’t stopped rolling in. Older joes like me, we plant our feet in the sand and fight the current as long as we can, dragging forward only at the tail end, the breathing room. We don’t care about the collapse of the public space (we don’t even talk to our loved ones during commercial breaks anymore, thanks to the DVR) or personal freedoms – they’re already long gone. We just want to hold onto our sense of self as long as we can before even our private space disappears. When everyone can check in with each other all the time, the only place to be free from it all is at the movies, cell phones off, and some us can’t stop texting even then. Even escaping into the wilderness to meditate and be alone, mom can still barge in and crash your buzz.

Second Life

All this interconnectedness and online alternate world habitation is a social problem, but it’s only a problem if we don’t take it further. We must drink our way through the spins, smoke ourselves sober, keep moving deeper into the digital, not embracing each new operating system of the same damned phone like brainwashed tech nerds but moving deeper into our brains and the connection between audio-visual stimulation and our sensory organs. We should be tightening the gap, closing the distance between eye and screen until the eye isn’t even needed to see anymore nor the ear to hear. Why make technology that still boils down to a screens and sound? Let it all be beamed like alien space signals in through the third eye so that we become like the monks who attain enlightenment and so abandon all the trappings of the earthly plane, meditating for so long in their remote caves without needing food or water that they become like husks, like mummies with only a glowing pineal gland indicating some slight connection to this godforsaken time-space continuum.

To get there all we have to do is 1) get over the religious and medical aversion to experimenting on human subjects with brain jacks (cutting a whole in the skull and/or using electrodes, styled in the latest fashions) that beam the images and sound directly into the brain, bypassing our normal sense altogether, bonding with the third eye. And 2) recruit enlightened Buddhists and shamen to allow their brainwaves to be transcribed, so we can make the whole world see itself from the cosmic perspective. We must become a giant hive mind, the anima mundi of the twitterverse!

Last Xmas I got to have a supreme meta moment for example watching retrovational silent Oscar winner The Artist for the first time on my cell phone, piecemeal over the course of a week of smoke breaks out at my brother’s house. Even lying in my bed dreaming of that projector I wanted as a kid in the 70’s (years before VHS existed as if an answer to my prayers), I never imagined the vast canon of movies on crystal clear restored anamorphic DVDs and blu-rays nor could I imagine how such access would paralyze me time and time again – all those choices make it next to impossible to stick with anything! I next wish to be able to see them all, the entirety of the Netflix stream canon, all at once, not even see it in real-time but have seen it, to grasp the entirety of the known in one click of a button, and from there move forward.

Brain-machine interfaces (from top: Existenz, Strange Days)

Now that computers are such an inescapable part of the workplace I realized recently that my life was spent in general moving between two screens, my Dell widescreen 20 inch at work and the 60 inch Bravia at home (and then to my 20 inch iMac to write about what I just saw). Occasionally people call me on my smaller screen, the “Droid”, but I’m not big into idle chatter anymore, my physical earthly plane mouth and voice feel lumpy and alien. The remnants of myself after all this anamorphic commercial-free voyage taking has left me a zombie barely able to operate the cumbersome mechanisms of my vocal chords enough to say my name. I work, have a nice corner office, and make enough to get by in this hard economy, provided I don’t travel or go out very often/ever, which is fine by me.

“Without going out of my door / I can know all things on earth” –Lao Tzu said that, then George Harrison sang it, now I’m using it but with a completely different meaning. The earth I know is made of ones and zeros, by the Japanese. The farther one travels into it, the less one knows of this old one, the cumbersome physical plane already dissolving in the acid rains. The population is double what it was in 1973 when Soylent Green came out and people still gave a shit about overpopulation. Now they don’t, because we can be stacked and canned up to the heavens and not even know we’ve been moved. How else are we going to survive, if not by emigrating into cyberspace like moviegoers so enraptured they forget there’s even a body to return to?  By the time we remember where we left ourselves, we’ll be long since claimed by someone else, like the scarf I left when I saw Birth (1999). Damn that hypnotic Nicole Kidman, and her giant digital mommy face.