Once upon a time, on a WOW Air flight from Reykjavik, Iceland to Baltimore, USA, a twenty-something man named Abraham turned to the totally doesn’t look forty-something woman in the next seat and said, “I wish I could go back to the eighties [or before] and experience what it was like to see the Star Wars movies when they first came out.” He turned to the woman, whom we’ll call M, since that’s who it was, smiling, expecting to receive a visceral charge from the unspoken, breathless rapture she must have felt at seeing the then-cutting-edge tech explode on the scene.
“It sucked,” she said, laughing. He was incredulous. “It was diabolical. The whole thing was Muppets and bad special effects. I like the new ones much better.” (I paraphrase, as I suck at remembering dialog.)
Bubble burst. (BAPOW!)
‘Tis sad, but ‘twas true. When the first Star Wars movie came out on May 25, 1977, I was a 19-year-old college freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University and a life-long science fiction buff. Despite the fact that my friends were mostly artists, neither I, nor any of them went to see the movie. Know why? It was stupid. They’d replaced the horribly funny stop-action that we’d suffered through as children with puppets, or more correctly, Muppets. Sure, Kermit the Frog was gone, and Grover’s gravely voice had evolved to become wizened Yoda, but the effect was the same—it was Space Muppets.
At the very least, the Ray Harryhausen era was campy and no one was ever meant to mistake it for lifelike. Star Wars had greater ambitions, and failed in my and M’s opinions.
Now, understand, all ye Star Minions, this isn’t meant to denigrate the wonderful legacy of George Lucas’s groundbreaking work or the incredible voice talents of Frank Oz, the man underneath and behind eminently memorable figures as Grover, Yoda, and Miss Piggy, for example. Lucas invented a series of Space Operas that will rival anything heretofore created for some time, and Frank Oz? He’s only next to Harryhausen and Jim Henson, in my opinion. Rather, we are talking about the incremental improvements in technology as shown in the Star Wars special effects., and the fact that art tied to technological improvements generally come up short, leaving us disappointed.
It is my belief that young people look at these older films and believe we old folk to have been awestruck when the films were new, much in the way that I grew up believing that people in the 1930s must have believed that King Kong really lived when Kong’s film was fresh out of the studio, or that Americans really did believe that Martians had invaded during Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. Despite reports to the contrary, no one believed Kong’s stop-motion to be lifelike, and only a very few (possibly drink-addled) folk took to the streets in a panic over Welles’s broadcast. While they, as we now, understood the milestone achievement that each breech of the technological barrier represented, the simple truth is those changes were incremental nips above what previously existed. King Kong’s “fur” rippled like a 1930s hand-drawn cartoon, and the most impressive technical achievement was probably the giant hand that held Fay Wray.
True achievement, whether it be technical or otherwise, is caused by ambitious, creative people pushing against the barriers that constricted them. Without those barriers, there is little motivation for growth. We old-timers weren’t impressed as the “new-fangled” tech rolled out simply because it was only marginally less shitty that what we had before. Hipsters (and I’m using that term lovingly and not cynically) have embraced analog technology because there are fewer restrictions to push against with digital and the next technical step up is so great that it’s harder to see. Futurists will tell you, if you can pull their heads out of the clouds, that technological growth follows a distinct curve. Take a look on the interwebs and you’ll see example after example of growth curves with a long, linear tail, followed by a swift uptick in technical capacity. Indeed, even population growth curves follow a similar trend, except that with technological change, the rapid-growth period is followed by another extended linear growth curve. There is yet enough evidence to determine whether that holds true for human populations too, although doomsayers and dystopian writers would tell you that it will
Way back in Neanderthal times, 1990, when I worked for IBM as a strategic planner, I got sent to a Strategic Planning course in the Bay Area in California. In between the nightly forays in drinking Tequila in every bar in the area and discovering that I was fluent in Spanish when drunk, we had class. I know; companies expect too much. Anyway, it was during this class I learned about the technical growth curve wherein our teacher fairly accurately predicted the rapid changes we now take as given. Hold onto your horses, because it’s only really started. By the end of the century, you may not recognize where we are at this moment.
Still, what does this have to do with our overlong title and the rant to this point? Everything. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, when I was a kid, we had music, and it was great. Unfortunately, everything we had available to play it on sucked. Sucked donkey balls. I mean, it truly got-on-your-nerves sucked. Car radios, if they worked, were mono and attuned only to AM radio. If you’ve never heard AM radio, ask your brother to play his cell phone audibly with the earbud removed. Then go to the next room and close the door. It sounded like that. There are scores of misheard lyrics from back in the day, not because we were idiots, but because we couldn’t hear the blokes sing. I kid you not, I thought my uncle liked guys, because he kept playing Hendrix’s singing, “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy.”
You’d spend your hard-earned money on vinyl and maybe it’d last 6 months before all the scratches the needle caused would make it snap, crackle, and pop like breakfast cereal. Frustrated, you’d slip it back into the dust jacket and leave it never to be played again. Your record collection was just like a library—a collection of things you once read or listened to but no longer bothered to open. Sure, your friends would be impressed by how extensive it was, but unless you were fastidious, it never sounded as good as it looked. Then the late 80s happened, and if you were a typical bloke who had to work for his money, around 1987 or so maybe you invested in your first CD player. And CDs were the BOMB. I mean, It was the first clear step-up on that technological curve we’d waited so long for. FM radio had shown us how clear music could be, and we were anxious to hear digital versions so we could finally learn the lyrics to all those songs we’d been mis-singing for years. But there was a problem: unless the CD was fully digital—DDD they called it—digitally recorded, mixed, and mastered, you still heard the familiar cracking or tape hiss that accompanied your vinyl or cassettes. So, like the audiophile I was, I only bought DDD or very well remixed ADD CDs, and waited for fully digital streaming.
Huh? What? That hadn’t been invented yet.
No, it hadn’t. But you know what had? The Internet. Back in the late 80s, we “old guys” were surfing the web via FTP sites that operated like non-graphic versions of today’s pornoweb … I mean Internet. It was slow and you had to read stuff, but it worked. Moreover, we had imaginations borne of a lifetime’s frustration at having to deal with shitty 78s, LPs, eight-tracks, cassettes, hand-cranked record players, and home entertainment systems the size of your mom’s minivan with all the audio quality of your cell phone’s external speakers. Yay for music! Boo for it sounds like crap. So what did we do? We longed for and imagined the end state. I remember talking to people (who thought I was nuts) about music streamed over the airways like radio from vast and deep collections of archives that would allow people to hear radio without ads, and, gasp!, hear music we and not some gritty DJ liked. Sure, I couldn’t imagine the infrastructure that would make that happen—underground fiber optics that made the volume of data required reasonable—but I could imagine the concept.
You see, my young folk, we old guys could imagine the future because of all the low technological ceilings we’d had to deal with all our lives.. Walk around in a home with 6-foot ceilings and you’ll spend a lot of time thinking about vaulted ceilings. Grow up in a house with high, vaulted roofs, and the only thing to think about is where to go out and get something to eat. Solutions demand problems. The want of problems causes nostalgia, which our young hipsters are now experiencing. They don’t want analog, they want something meaningful, some struggle to abut against. They want more.
I can still see the future here because I still hate wearing headphones and having to turn my music off just to talk to other hoomons. It’s still a low ceiling for me, although the delivery method finally suits what my brain sought back in 1973 when I first ached for digital, streamed music. So while those who were born to this tech are (mostly) satisfied, I yearn for subdural implants that interact, via human-brainwave interface, with my auditory and visual cortices, allowing me to “hear” music in my brain without there actually being any. The songs will reside in a nanochip in my ankle, and I can call up the soundtrack to my life simply by thinking of it. My lovely brain will then play me the music by decrypting the digital file on my chip. It’ll be wonderful, but I’ll be dead, so, there’s that.
Actually, I’m thinking 2037, so who knows? Maybe.
There are infinite other examples to choose from. Back in ’79, or 2 A.S.W. in geek speak (two years After Star Wars) Disney studios released The Black Hole as the Star Trek franchise got in the game with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. They sucked. Why? Disney’s entry was all special effects, a step up in CGI that made Star Wars’ models and Muppets look dated. However, it was all effects and no plot. Star Blech, on the other hand, was all plot and familiar characters, with few effects and zero action. Everyone was dressed up with nowhere to go, while Disney bored us with people we didn’t give a damn about doing stupid shit.
But then, as the summer of 1979 began, Ridley Scott came on the scene and dropped Alien. What? It rocked. It was mostly set pieces and makeup, the hallmark of horror and Sci-Fi flicks since the ’30s, but they were technological improvements to both. The creature was believable, the ship was believable, and Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley kicked space ass. So, all of us who’d waited a year (when the crowds dispersed) to see Star Bores saw Alien in droves, simply because the complete, incremental upgrade of tech was better than a space opera that comprised using the same technology we’d seen on Saturday Night Live in Nineteen Seventy Fucking Five.
Sorry, Star Wars Fanatics, 40 years later, I’m still not much of a fan, still not impressed. I recognize the greatness of the achievement and the cultural impact, but the film, the technical aspects, leave me drowsily expecting more. But that’s not the point of this story, is it? It’s not whether Bill and M are impressed or whether hipsters have been cheated out of the conflicts life presents by (we) overprotective parents, driving them backward in their world views instead of forward. The point is simply that we as hoomons must cease doing two things:
First, we have to stop thinking people in the recent or distant past were stupid. I could imagine digital streaming at age 14 when Nixon was still the Tricky Dick in Chief. M could imagine wrist computers (a step up from Dick Tracy) in her London youth. Ancient Egyptians could imagine traveling the stars even as they feared they were secretly wishing to fly among gods and not balls of gas. (Both things are the same thing, but they didn’t know that.) Where problems exist, solutions follow, guided only by futurists full of imagination and great engineers full of infrastructure and pragmatics. We old guys/gals invented the concept of technology so that young guys/gals could bring it to fruition and tell us all the ways we’d been stupidly limited in our dream-making.
I think, therefore, it be.
Second, we have to stop trying to prevent young people from struggling. There is a reason that technological growth curves have such long tails, and that reason is complacency. We get a solution, wallow in the efficacy of our new, improved lives, and cease looking to shake shit up. We strap the kids in the minivan, ride on the shoddy highway, tune in digital radio, and forget all else. #BoredomOnBoard What we should be doing is realizing the highways are crowded and unsustainable and trying to figure out a way to reengineer travel completely. (No, Uber and Lyft aren’t it. That’s called a fucking Taxicab Company. C’mon, man!) Fuck the minivan. How about we strap the babies into a smelly old, Volkswagen Beetle with only AM radio and tell the whiny fuckers if they don’t like it to invent something better. Guess what will happen?
Go be, my hipsters. Be and then do. We need you, but not in the fucking past. Analog ate llama turds. We was there, and it was shitty. Always. Go out there and create, and don’t forget to #ShakeShitUp.