2018/02/09

What's New Is Old

retro

A curious phenomenon I started noticing about fifteen years ago hit me as a sort of jump-cutting in time. The effect wasn't internally consistent, though--like when I sit down to write at 7 PM, get into a groove, and suddenly it's midnight. The temporal anomaly I'm referring to is oddly selective. What happens is that the years continue their orderly march, but out of nowhere some piece of pop culture that I still think of as new has become a dusty old artifact.

"What's the big deal?" I can hear many of you protesting. "That's nothing new. It happened to Boomers with the Beatles, Jonesers with disco, and Xers with Star Wars. Time sneaks up on you. It's just a normal part of getting old."

To which I would reply that I agree. However, I contend that this pop culture time-slippage effect has been accelerated and amplified by the explosive growth of consumerism that didn't really kick into high gear until the 80s. I further posit that the subsequent exhaustion of the West's cultural capital has locked in this trend.

Here are a few personal anecdotes that illustrate what I mean.

My first experience of a selective time shift came while watching a Homestar Runner cartoon. For those who are unfamiliar with homestarrunner.com, it was a flash site spun off from an unpublished children's book by a couple of hipster brothers. The site caused something of a sensation during W's reign for being among the first to capitalize on nostalgia for saner times--think of a less pandering, animated Ready Player One, and you've got the general tone.

The point is, Homestar Runner made its bones by lampooning 70s, 80s, and 90s pop culture. The site followed the adventures of a weird gang of muppets living in a time warp where 8 track tapes, the Commodore 64, and Saturday morning cartoons were contemporaneous with emo bands and dead-end call center jobs. The creators' nostalgia fueled the whole enterprise, and new content became fewer and farther between as real life forced them to contemporize.

A brief aside: I grew up on Nintendo until high school, when I switched to the PlayStation and never looked back. The days of single-console houses weren't quite over yet, and as a result I missed the entire N64 era.

Fast forward to the early 2000s. I'm checking out a Homestar Runner Halloween episode with a buddy. Much of the fun of HR's yearly Halloween cartoons was trying to identify the characters' costumes. In keeping with the site's theme, each muppet-creature would go as some pop culture footnote from a bygone decade.

I guessed most of the costumes correctly, but there was one I just couldn't figure out. Finally I gave up and asked my buddy.

"He's Tingle from Majora's Mask."

"What's that?"

"An N64 Zelda game."

"You mean Ocarina of Time?"

"No. The one after that."

"They made one after that?"

At the time, I still considered Ocarina of Time to be "that new Zelda game" because I hadn't played it yet. The twofold revelation that a) it already had a sequel and b) the sequel was already old enough to be Homestar Runner joke fodder, proved quite unsettling.

Anecdote the Second:

Back in the day, I was an avid reader of Penny Arcade. If you don't know what that is, it started as an amusing little nerd culture web comic with heart before metamorphosing into an event management and polo shirt corporation that dabbles in web comics.

Frankly, I checked out when the comic started requiring intimate knowledge of WoW trivia to get the jokes. You see that kind of self-ghettoization happen when content creators find a booming market niche and start chasing the puck. Soon the whole IP becomes a paean to inside baseball.

In PA's defense, World of Warcraft was a big, lucrative ghetto. I checked back in a few years ago when I figured their WoW obsession had run its course. Sadly, the art had turned to vomit in the interim, and I've steered clear since.

Related: In a delicious instance of postmodern intertextuality going full circle, homestarrunner.com totally had Penny Arcade's number in this video:


My recent post on the Thrawn Trilogy called to mind a PA strip that probably appeared within a year or two of the Homestar Halloween episode mentioned above. In the comic, Tycho--one of the slickly drawn roommates--makes an offhand allusion to a denim jacket he once owned that had a Chiss Expansionary Force patch sewn onto the shoulder.

I don't remember anything else about the strip, except that the characters were swapping tales of their favorite Star Wars EU ephemera. You got the impression of eavesdropping on a couple of young professionals reminiscing about once-beloved diversions of their long gone high school or college freshman days.

The timeline didn't seem to add up to me. I'd recently completed my collection of Thrawn Trilogy graphic novels from Dark Horse Comics. The story was still fresh in my mind, but Tycho was talking about a later development from Zahn's books as if it were ancient history.

Then I realized that the last novel in the Thrawn Trilogy had come out over a decade before.

Are stories like these of pop culture leaving us behind a normal part of growing up? Absolutely. But the relatively recent substitution of pop culture for the bonds of faith and community that used to inform American life seems to have contributed to members of generations X and onward experiencing more such instances of temporal displacement.

There's another, more sinister aspect to this phenomenon that heightens the already disorienting experience of learning that the Weird Al single you'd meant to buy on release but kept putting off is now old enough to drive--like children born on September 11, 2001 are now. It's an empirical fact that Western pop culture--and even Western technology itself--has remained largely static since the late 1980s.

Submitted for your consideration:
  • The last two generations of iPhones have had no new features.
  • The celebrated iPod performed the same essential function as a 1970s Walkman.
  • Movies and TV are dominated by sequels to film franchises and adaptations of comic book story arcs that first gained popularity in the 70s and 80s.
  • Nintendo is still the biggest name in video games, trading on IPs it established in the 80s.
  • In terms of ordinary street clothes, popular fashion hasn't changed substantially since the 70s. You could zap the average American twentysomething dude back to 1988 right now, and no one would bat an eye, except perhaps to comment that he looked like a slob. There would be no Marty McFly-style gaffes, e.g.: "Hey kid, you jump ship?" "I've never seen purple underwear before!"
The issue is bigger than a generation of kids raised on Nickelodeon turning 40. As the 21st century lumbers out of its infancy, we find that the music-makers can only sample Vanilla Ice ripoffs of Queen songs; and the dreamers can only dream of the lifestyle their parents took for granted.

We'd better get some new dreams.

Brian's characters are as interesting as Nick Cole's.

26 comments:

  1. Mike Flynn made a comment strangely confluent with his post:

    "We often hear that the rate of progress is accelerating. Change is coming faster and faster. Things that were once pooh-poohed as "slippery slope fallacies" only a few years ago are now spoken of as inevitable and well-established. We are building something new, we are told.

    "Yet a building being constructed does not move faster and faster. A building collapsing does, as it accelerated under the force of gravity."
    http://tofspot.blogspot.com/2018/02/progress.html

    Your point about new gadgets is good. I suspect the number of ways people can be distracted is not all that flexible, so a cool gadget that really hits the spot has nowhere to go. Technologically speaking, phones, games, movies can only improve on the margins.

    Look at the new gadgets people seem to be pining for: robots (especially sexbots!) do DO anything really different, just free up more time for? New gadgets? Flying cars are called 'airplanes'. Otherwise, we want *better* books, phones, games, movies - the same things, only better. Real progress in most ways we spoiled consumers define it has come to a halt.

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    1. TOF knows whereof he speaks.

      One of my favorite lines from a recent film is John Lithgow's short speech from Interstellar.

      "When I was a kid, it seemed like every day brought something new. Some new gadget, some new idea. Like everyday was Christmas. Imagine it: seven billion people, and each and every one of them trying to have it all."

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  2. Real progress often moves in fits and starts. We're at a plateau right now, but in some garage somewhere the Generation Zyklon version of Bill Gates is working on a tech revolution that'll blow us away.

    The cultural shift is on its way, too. We haven't reached a tipping point yet, but I think most people can feel like we're all taking the deep breath before the plunge. I wonder if that isn't a big part of how shrill the left has gotten - they feel their grip slipping and once that tectonic shift happens, they know their chance at full victory will slip away for another generation.

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    1. You're not wrong. It's vital not to rest on our laurels because the Left is still incredibly dangerous right now. But in terms of historic trends, they're done. It's pretty clear when you take into account how the Left a) always projects and b) always accuses us of being on the wrong side of history.

      When a civilization takes a wrong turn, the first one to turn back is the first to start making progress.

      We're going back--all the way back.

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  3. I had a similar epiphany around the time the AVGN and angry critics were big. One day it just clicked that I was just downing regurgitated pop culture that I already knew.

    The moment I realized this was while reading Scott Pilgrim. Does anyone even remember Scott Pilgrim anymore? Shallow hipsterisms cashing in on 80s nostalgia and progressive themes with big time indie music.

    It was so overdosed on pop culture references that I cannot stand them anymore outside of regular conversation. It's become a crutch and symbol of pop culture eating itself without having to do anything new or properly continue any tradition.

    The ironic thing about Nintendo still being the face of video games is that they were the only console makers to do new things since Atari. The d-pad, analog stick, rumble, portable gaming, motion controls, and now the Switch are all theirs. They attempted new ways to play that other companies never tried.

    In fact, the way Microsoft and Sony blatantly swiped and fumbled motion controls back in the day without even trying anything new with them did not give a good impression on the industry's desire to innovate.

    And what have we got since then? Just look at the name's of the systems. Xbox One. PlayStation 4. Wii U. All lazy names given to lazy systems that don't offer anything new to the player.

    We are far off from the Dreamcast or the original Wii. Now we just get new systems because... well, it's tradition to have a new system every hald decade or so. Never mind the fact that console gaming hasn't changed at all since it went HD.

    Video games have not changed much at all in the last decade, but at least the games cost more to make, put companies out of business faster, and allow less risk taking. But I'm sure the PlayStation 5 will have those nearly realistic graphics that add nothing to the gameplay!

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    1. You never bet against the Big N.

      Gamers who weren't around in the 80s can't conceive of how big Nintendo was back then. They innovated their way into a market that had just been cleared of all competition and had the whole field to themselves for the better part of a decade. Video games were a multibillion dollar industry even then, and Nintendo had 90% of it.

      What did they do with all that cash? Two things: They invested in R&D and socked the rest away.

      Even today, Nintendo has the biggest war chest in the business. That's how they can keep pushing the envelope with bold experiments, even failures like the Power Glove and the Virtual Boy. Their next two consoles could sell zero units, and they'd still have more black ink on the ledger than Microsoft or SONY's games divisions.

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    2. The battle between Sega and Nintendo will never be replicated. That in tandem with PC gaming's growth spurt in the 90s is a really Golden Age the industry will never experience again. Not when it's more focused on chrome and specs than ideas and software which chases out and destroys far too many.

      Things will never improve without the middle market to provide balance.

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    3. I've often felt that Nintendo's longevity is related to the fact that they are fundamentally a toy company. That's why they're always bent on trying to create new ways to play ("gimmicks", their critics call them) instead of using the now-standardized gamepad variations that the Sony and Microsoft systems use. It's about creating toys, finding new ways for you to play.

      MS and Sony have no interest in video games as things you play for fun. They are merely the Trojan Horse they intend to use to "bring your living room together", collapsing everything into an all-in-one home controlling device. Not that they don't have good games - I still love the original Xbox - but they're not intertwined with the business like Nintendo is.

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    4. Good point. Olaf Olafsson, one of the key players behind the original PlayStation, admittedly had no interest in video games. He's strictly a hardware guy--one of the best in the business, granted--but he was in it mainly to experiment with how much performance could be squeezed out of processors and so forth.

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  4. "Does anyone even remember Scott Pilgrim anymore?"

    I saw the movie, it sucked. "Let's take some fun things you liked and make them annoying" pretty much sums up what it was like. Ready Player One sounds similar.

    I'm tempted to blame Family Guy for the popularity of obtrusive pop culture references.

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    1. Scott Pilgrim is the Ur-RPO. That's a series and film that is responsible for a lot of the problems in modern pop culture. Especially references.

      Remember River City Ransom enemies dropped coins when they died? Well here it is in comic form because...

      And that's the problem with pop culture obsession. There's no reason for any of the references except to score cheap points. It's lazy writing.

      Family Guy did the same thing to animation that Scott Pilgrim did to comics.

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    2. Scott Pilgrim was 90s Ranma 1/2 fanfic brought to life in Canada. Fun movie, but the shelf-life on it was short.

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  5. Excellent comments from a though provoking post. Here's another example of stagnation: a big thing now in computing. The stylus. A 7000 year old technology is reincorporated into everyday life
    I'm not a gamer but I do use computer technology and recently there aren't any innvovations. That's ok what I want is bug hunting. Software companies will just have to accept once in every 5 years upgrades.
    As for culture, we're seeing a revival because the gatekeepers' hold is declining in irrelevance. Thus like the stash hoard from the KGB censorship,office we're consuming previously banned works and the prohibited genres are making a comeback.
    Unfortunately because there's so much counterfeit culture it'll take our kids' generation to get rid enough of it that culture can flourish again.

    xavier

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  6. This post is a better summary of what I was trying to describe in my comment on your post Nerd Culture is Dead.

    I think it was John C. Wright who mentioned on his blog that the West lost it's ability to produce creative and cultural works when it gave up on faith. The the modern and post-modern Western mind, mired in a world view that is materialistic and nihilistic, crushes the ability to have a vivid imagination. And I think it was either Roger Scurton or Camile Paglia who noted that a people who lack a sense of the transcendent can only reflect on the mundane and on the self. And with the self, since it can only see the mundane, it focuses on the grotesque and vice of mankind rather than the highest virtues or transcendentals (Truth, Goodness, Beauty).

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    1. Bingo. That's the dream we lost and must recapture.

      Faith isn't believing in something despite a lack of knowledge. Faith is a way of knowing things.

      Materialists and nihilists don't adopt their worldview because they examine the true meaning of faith and refute it. They dismiss faith out of hand because the worldview they've uncritically embraced demands it.

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  7. Part and parcel of this dearth of content is due to the Copyright Law Extensions that Congress continues to grant for Disney and other bloatware manufacturers.

    We're approaching an unfreezing point where new material will finally be released into the Public Domain.

    We need to watch the Swamp and make certain that House of Mouse is called on the carpet if they attempt to hide an extension in a bill within the next 18 months.

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    1. US copyright law is long overdue for a major overhaul. Seems right in the Emperor's wheelhouse, too.

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    2. Weird i wrote a post anout how copyright will be THE ISSUE of the mid 21st century bu5 it seems to have disappeared.

      One quick comment i think Ready player one will be a forest fire of Fort McMurray proportions. It'll finally provoke people to reflect as to what is good storytelling and start demanding better

      xavier

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    3. Xavier -- Spot on! Copyright in England was originally a 14-year grant for the creator to make some money as a return on investment, then the work went to the public to raise the potential for returns to even more people.

      Current laws are a Fort Knox to keep even the potential of that work out of the hands of other people and make the work part of the owners' permanent estates.

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    4. @Xavier

      The spam filter got it for some reason. I fished it out.

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  8. "I checked back in a few years ago when I figured their WoW obsession had run its course. Sadly, the art had turned to vomit in the interim, and I've steered clear since."

    I think PA and Scott Kurtz hired the same talent-free studio to ghost their strips and then decided to retire to touring and appearing at Cons.

    Sad.

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  9. Copyright will be THE ISSUE of the mid 21st century. Canafa is looking at radically overhauling its copyright laws and extending protection for an awfully long time.
    Just this week Europe has excluded ebooks, movies and games from the single digital market.
    There are another big 5 publishers that few people know exist:Elveiser and 4 cartel academic journal cartel.the Scihub saga is particularly instructive.
    To be copyright is one of the central nodes of the deep state/swamp globalists.
    If legislators can severely reduce copyright extension and prohibit some categories, they'd go a long way to reclaim out culture from these rentiers

    xavier

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  10. MegaBusterShepard here......

    A culture built on nostalgia is like a house built on sand, it cannot stand and eventually will collapse.

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