21st Century Simulacra
Picture me fussing around with some sketches of a product I need that doesn’t exist yet. It’s a bit half-baked at the moment, but it’s something that would make work much easier for a lot of people like me. I’m pretty darn sure it doesn’t exist. But still, every moment I spend thinking about my version of this idea makes me worry more that I’m wasting my time and it’s there, in some sort of personal internet blind spot. It’s 7:15 AM. See you in a few minutes…
“One day, your webpage will be as irrelevant as your business card is today.” Someone actually said that to me. It’s the sort of prediction that is almost certain to be wrong, for the same reason that science fiction is always a better anthropology of the present than the future. (And really, the business card has time on its side, at least if J. Richard Gott is right about the likelihood of something sticking around being in direct proportion to how long it’s already stuck around. Though that seems a bit of a dangerous argument socially.) But, that business cards aren’t totally irrelevant at this point is exactly what makes them feel so irrelevant.
For example: You are at a conference. You have a nice conversation with an interesting person. At the end, you awkwardly fumble for a more graceful landing than, “oh, um, so do you have a business card?” but that’s exactly what you say, and so both of you awkwardly fumble for a business card. Usually one of you has a card and hands it to the other. Let’s say you’re the other this time. You quickly glance at the card and forget everything it contains before you even deliver your perfunctory “thanks” and stuff it in your pocket, where it joins the few other souvenirs of the détente that is the conference happy hour to await temporary confinement in the front flap of your work bag. The front flap of the work bag is like the FEMA bunker for conference swag. It’s like, we have no proper procedure for this material, so, quarantine. In the flap with you! Back at your office, days later, you just hold that flap pocket open over your wastebasket. The few cards you do keep sit on your desk until you track those names down on LinkedIn and hit “connect,” because you want that 500+ holla! Of those few, maybe you email one or two. After that, no need to keep the cards; in the wastebasket they go, too. The life cycle of the business card is short.
Basically, business cards are beacons. Homing signals scattered about, bearing names, until those names are either forgotten or put in a more useful place. Now, I’m absolutely sure that there’s already some way that two nerds at a conference can just bump smartphones instead — you know, in that ambiguous, how-babies-are-made story for kids sort of way, like, “when two professionals find each other interesting, they put their phones very close together and…” — but honestly, who wants to do that? First of all, it’s only going to work half the time, at best. Again, here’s where I’m completely talking out of my smugnorance because I’ve never actually experienced the miracle of phone bumping — such as it is, assuming there is such a thing — and perhaps it’s far more stable and reliable a method than this virgin knows. But probably not. If it’s just as reliable as Bluetooth — which is the tech that probably would or does make this phone bump possible — then I’m standing by my half-of-the-time estimate. Because that’s about how often I can wake my computer in the morning and not have to reintroduce it to my wireless mouse. Half the time. But even when Bluetooth is in the mood for bumping, you’ll get some sort of data mismatch or a duplicate or it’ll only work because you’re both Apple people and you’re going iContacts to iContacts and eventually it will fail because you get cocky and try to bump an Android guy and everything falls apart because someone’s screen glitches for a sec before their phone bricks. So, nerd-kink as it may be, the phone-bump is probably not going to work enough to catch on. And again, I have no idea if such a thing exists. But, with visions of bumping in our heads, wow, don’t those little pieces of card stock look good again…
So back to the original, more interesting, point. Where websites come in. Usually, when “Oh, um, so do you have a business card?” is asked, I’m the guy who doesn’t have one. So I reply, “No, I don’t, but, oh just go to Newfangled dot com and find me there or you can email me. It’s really easy to remember. Chris at Newfangled dot com.” And they’re like, “did you say new fangle?” And I’m like “Yeah, Newfangled. All one word. N-E-W-F-A…” and actually finish spelling that out even though nobody is writing anything down or even has a pen out, and then I go right on repeating, “Don’t worry, it’s really easy to remember. Newfangled dot com” and I’m even saying the “NEWFANGLED” part louder than necessary as if this person suddenly has special needs or something and, honestly, I’m starting to find myself insufferable, so then I get out my phone and say, “Or I can just email you or find you on Twitter or something, that way you’ll have my info,” which I think is bailing this person out until there’s that subtle look of “Oh, I don’t know if I actually want to make contact with you” that just can’t be hidden at that point in the détente and so we both smile and nod vigorously as if something important has been achieved and slither away. The nice thing about a card is you just hand it over and that takes about one second and that’s that. No slithering! And maybe they email or call you someday, or maybe they don’t. But by the time that question is answered, you’ve forgotten you handed out that card in the first place. But the website. Because I’m too digital to be bothered to carry some cards with me for an occasion such as this one, I’m shouting a website address — a U-R-L! — in a loud room and hoping someone hears it right and remembers it. At least my URL is one word. And it’s a real word. And it’s a dot-com. But still. How silly. If the phone-bump is actually a thing, then it’s first-base and shouting URLs is barely approaching the plate.
(I feel like all of that was me doing my best Paul Ford writing-about-the-rotary-phone’s-role-in-your-conception impression. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ve got one word for you: Pennies.)
But here’s the point: I was delivering this absurd soliloquy — seriously, almost verbatim to what you just endured — to a friend this past week after returning home from a conference. This friend knows little about websites, and so he says this: “But dude, what if you could just hand your website out like a business card?!” And I’m like, “Yeah, bro, that would be super sweet” in my head, but then I realize, wait a minute, WHAT IF you could just hand your website out like a business card!? Now that is a very now-ish futuristic idea. Not that it isn’t full of holes. But it’s kind of a perfect synthesis of all of the half-baked tech we’re working right now. The stuff that — as far as I can tell — would be needed to make a website you hand out possible. 3-D printing. Check. Paper-thin, flexible screens. Check. Tiny, portable, holographic projectors. Check. RFID. Check. Responsive design, even. Seems like those streams could converge and allow for the digital to become tangible again in a way that is more than just cute (like most print-on-demand and 3D printing has been so far). Of course it could just easily be the wrong move, too. It could be just as absurd as it was when, on the decks of the Enterprise, “Here are your orders, Ensign” came with a tablet handoff. Even back in the early nineties — when we barely understood what the internet was — I remember thinking, man, that is really dumb. We had a modem in our house back then. I knew what it did. So it got the little gears going in my head, right? I’m thinking, wow, this is the 24th century and they have an omnipresent computer they can talk to, but they’re still handing tablets to each other as if they’re floppy disks? Really? So we would want to make sure that these distributable websites my friend invented aren’t as dumb as that. I wonder, is possible that a printable website wouldn’t be dumb? Also, what about waste? Another early nineties reference might be useful: Remember those AOL disks you’d get in your mailbox every day? I mean, how many of those things were made? (Turns out it was way more than I would have guessed. Steve Case, former AOL CEO, says they were willing to spend 10% of lifetime revenue to get a new subscriber, so that amounted to about $35 per subscriber. So, in the end, over $300 million spent. On disks we threw away! Apparently, at one point in the nineties, 50% of the CDs produced in the entire world had an AOL logo on them.) And how many didn’t get thrown away? Right. I think all of them got thrown away. First they arrived in cardboard envelopes. We thought, yes, that looks like trash to me. Then they upgraded to tin boxes! Remember that? Millions of disks shipped in tin boxes telling all of America that they should get… online! Oh, the irony. We threw those out, too. I bet those people who went landfill-digging to find that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Atari game probably had to make their way through serious AOL disk strata first. That, right there, is a strange but probable scene of unintentional 21st century archaeology, isn’t it? So, if not just for the sake of a good early-21st-century business/sci-fi crossover, I think we need to look in to making websites you can hand out like a business card.
In other forms of 21st century simulacra, I was pulled in to the gravitational void of an ambient entertainment black hole the other night. Somehow, a voice search for “George Washington” retrieved at least one “Fireplace for Your Home” video, which, of course, I had to at least try. As it turns out, it was pretty much what it said it was: an hour of unmoving fireplace footage. From there, the slope down to an endless list of videos that “customers also watched” was a slippery one. Restful Rain, Aquarium Dreams, Waterfalls, Fall in New England, Gas Fireplace for Your Home, On the Beach, Falling Water, Global Views, Underwater Palau. These are all videos of which I watched at least thirty seconds or so. Each time, with the same amazement. This is a genre! There are so many more. I’m hitting the forward button on my Amazon TV and it just keeps going and going and going. So, I’m switching to my laptop. Searching Amazon for “Fireplace for Your Home” retrieves 16 different fireplace videos. Searching for “The Window Channel,” maker of most of the non-fireplace titles I just listed, retrieves 75 videos. 75! Another imprint, Esovision, has over 30 titles of its own. One is called, Relaxation: The Sea. I’m sticking with The Window Channel for the moment. I just chose Rocky Beaches and suddenly, I’m transported to a quite rocky beach in what looks to be northern California in the early evening. There’s the distant roar of the surf, and the occasional skreee of a sea gull. The first one rousted my dozing pup who looked straight at the TV, alert but confused. I thought to myself, exactly, Pup. Confusing, isn’t it! Seriously, though, what are these things? Is there any money in them? Do people pay to rent these? Do people buy them outright? I can only imagine the sad economy they represent, because they’ve got to be big in hospitals and retirement home rec rooms. Watching them makes me feel like I’m either there, or in some future dystopia in which we’ve destroyed all nature and The Window Channel is the way we all keep from going crazy and satisfy that deep biological longing to live amidst biology, not underground in a concrete bunker. And yet, here I am, safe and sound in 2014, watching The Window Channel, experiencing “life in high definition.” By the way, I’ve since switched to their “Chicago” video, which starts with a view of Millennium Park’s Crown Fountain. Watching a video of people being watched by enormous faces on monolith video screens is about all the simulacra inception I can handle. Plus, the other option The Window Channel is offering me is called Eternal Ice, which could just as easily be the title of a science fiction story about a person frozen in a permanent now — a temporal everytime — created when every surface around her offers the illusion of another moment and another place, deceiving the brain that no time has passed while the body wastes away. Turn off the TV before you’re living in Slaughterhouse Five.
Heavy Rotation: The Flaming Lips just released a remake of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in collaboration with a pretty long list of interesting musicians that they’re appropriately calling With a Little Help from My Fwends. It’s weird. I don’t love the Miley Cyrus/Moby collabo on “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” but I kind of do love the Stardeath and White Dwarfs/Tegan & Sara collabo on “Lovely Rita.” Other than that, I’ll reiterate: It’s weird. Listen for yourself. And for something completely different, Filmspotting played a cut from A Tribute to Miles, by the Herbie Hancock Quintet in their episode reviewing Whiplash, so I’ve been listening to that record quite a bit. The drumming, guys, the drumming! Amazing.
Recent Tabs: “Forget about text replacing email or phone calls. It’s replacing speech.” And, apparently, “alcohol and drugs as the chief catalyst of traffic accidents.” Both quotes from Virginia Heffernan, who is taking texting seriously. A poll of 50 Silicon Valley execs reveals much: Twitter is overvalued. Drones are tight. Google Glass is embarrassing. Of course, why on Earth are we giving that junk so much attention when so many bigger, more important things to human life are broken? Also, and completely unrelated, there’s an app for that. It’s called Keynote. Finally, SimCity turns 25 this year. Here’s an interview with its creator. Just kidding. Here are some conspiracy theory nursery rhymes, including everyone’s favorite, “D is for Denver Airport.”