Time-Collapsers, Great and Small

Picture me downstairs in my little office at home. It’s 6:15 AM. My partner is upstairs sleeping. She’s recovering from a day-long fever. My brother is in the next room, sleeping too. He’s in from Boston, visiting for a week before he’s off to Oxford to study for the next year. The dog is still sleeping in the den. The cat followed me into the office and took her position at the front window, watching. The few breaks to the thick silence of this still-dark morning are the jingle of the cat’s bell, my breathing as I cool down from the run I just took weaving through downtown and back, my fingers on the keys. I am reflecting upon all the various and quite separate things that have happened in recent weeks that have unexpectedly brought me to this point — of being ready to try something new, to care less how it turns out, to let go of justification and embrace the raggedness of a thing. And so here I am, writing this. No essay unfolding, just raw thoughts like the bloggers of old. If Dan Hon can do it, so can I. :)

Has time collapsed? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself lately. Not literally, of course, but sometimes things kind of feel that way. Here’s an example: In the evenings I’ve been reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. It’s considered a masterpiece in literature of city planning, and for good reason. Not only is it beautifully written, but it was a pretty major salvo in the architectural community at the time. Jacobs argues, essentially, that city planners fundamentally don’t get cities — that they think they are building them when they are really destroying them. She pissed off many architectural luminaries, some of whom called her book junk. Anyway, what I’m finding interesting is that the way Jacobs describes the city feels very much of the now (with one big exception, which I’ll get to). Her language feels contemporary, not, I suppose, what I imagine the written academic word of the mid-twentieth century would sound like (a sound that is surely more influenced by movies and television than what things actually sounded like back then). Perhaps people didn’t speak or write much differently back then, or at least not in the way I’ve always assumed. I don’t know — I wasn’t there to compare. On the other hand, it must matter who such people were. Robert Moses, born in the 19th century? Or Jane Jacobs, born almost thirty years later? To us in 2014, 1916 doesn’t look that much fresher than 1888, but for comparison’s sake, I was born in 1980 and I have to assume that anyone born in 2008 will think, speak, and write differently than I do. I suppose I’ll know it when I hear/see it. But suffice it to say that reading Jacobs doesn’t feel like I’m reading something old. It’s partly her language, and partly the content itself. Her ideas were new then, perhaps new enough to not feel stale now. Now about that other thing: technology. Particularly, the digital, personal device-based, internet stuff. Obviously, that’s not in her book. And its absence is clear, but it doesn’t feel like the sort of hole through which the rest of her book might fall. (I think Ambient Commons, by Malcolm McCullough, might make a good contemporary pairing.) But reading Jacobs and having the occasional moment of oh-right-they-didn’t-have-cellphones feels a bit like watching a season 1 episode of Law and Order and thinking the exact same thing when Lenny Briscoe pulls over to use a pay phone. Otherwise, most of it feels pretty darn contemporary. Not almost 25 years old, as it actually is. That’s what I mean by time-collapse. When I think back to 1990, when I was ten years old and definitely not watching Law and Order, and consider things that, in 1990, would have been 25 years old, those things seem distinctly older. Not just because they are now fifty years old, but because in 1990, things of 1965 seemed much further away. In 1965, my parents were roughly the same age I was in 1990. Kids. Lyndon Johnson was president — the guy who took over for Kennedy! Winston Churchill had just died. The Beatles came out with Rubber Soul. We hadn’t been to the moon yet. ETC. In 1980, that stuff was like ancient history. Well, to a ten-year-old it was. And I guess that’s the point, isn’t it? Time collapses as time accumulates. If I feel the time collapse of a 34-year-old, I wonder what the time collapse of a 57-year-old feels like? I should ask my parents.

The internet may be the great time-collapser. As a case in point, I’ve been enthralled lately by The X-Files Files, a podcast created by Kumail Nanjiani. A huge fan of The X-Files, he’s re-watching the show episode by episode and hosting discussions about them with friends. “Time collapse” is a recurring theme of their discussions. Nanjiani is often reflecting upon the ways in which the show still feels contemporary, despite all the reasons it should feel dated (it premiered in 1993, after all). He often looks at critical and cultural response from the time, or compares the show to other television airing then. He even digs back into message boards that have been archived in order to expose us to the voices of the crowd of 1993. The big point there was that connected discourse was a new thing then. And thanks to the internet and the web, we get to peer back into the raw text of 1993. Something about that feels like having a time-viewer. But maybe no one will think that’s novel when they peer back at our tweets from 2035. We’ll see.

tl;dr?? iwetl!!! In case you’re not fluent in all netspeak, tl;dr is shorthand for “too long; didn’t read.” It quickly went from slightly witty commentary on the words-to-attention ratio endemic on the web to, basically, a troll’s comment signature. Or, in other words, I went from receiving tl;dr as a stinging indictment of my tendency to run on a bit to reading it in the bratty, entitled tone that I do now. Basically, that my attention deficit is your problem. Kumail Nanjiani, of The X-Files Files fame, put it well in a recent episode when he ranted, “tl;dr??? It wasn’t even that L!!!” He went on to say something along the lines of one day we’ll look back upon tl;dr as the beginning of the rapid 21st century decline of civilization. I don’t know about that (and obviously, he was joking). But boy does tl;dr rub me the wrong way. Some things need to be long. Some ideas, even simple ones, need a certain amount of context setting. And sometimes, an author just wants to go into greater depth. But it’s strange to me to have seen so many comments that are either saying, “worth the slog,” or “this piece manages to overcome a major strike against it which is that it’s very long” (that’s the polite tl;dr by the way) or simply, “this is too long.” The question is, does the topic need this depth of coverage? That’s something that, frankly, tl;dr has nothing to do with. On that note, I get what tl;dr means. I don’t get why it’s used. Theoretically, someone might send me a link, I might open it, see that it’s a really, really long article, reject it on that basis, and then reply to my friend with “tl;dr.” Of course, I’d never do that. But I guess that scenario makes sense. But a scenario in which I’d make my contribution to a comments thread or discussion about an article, tl;dr? That doesn’t make sense to me. Who cares if you didn’t read it? And if you didn’t read it, why comment at all? Again, I think the question is about coverage and context. Does the article cover the topic appropriately? Incidentally, this is difficult to assess accurately without actually reading it. But perhaps you can by skimming it. Fair enough. As for context, the question is, “Do I have the time or attention necessary to read this now?” If not, maybe you save it to read later. If you’ve assessed that an article will take you more time than you have right now to read it, the only question that remains is whether you will in fact read it later. But knocking it because you can’t read it in the two seconds you deign to make available is ridiculous. A while back, Marco Arment pointed out that debates about the length of articles really come down to context switching. I am constantly finding articles throughout the day — via Twitter, RSS, emails, etc. — but I am not constantly reading them. When I’m finding, part of that process is deciding whether to save them to read later or not. As I said before, this is tough to do without reading portions content, so I often save articles for later that turn out to be duds. Oh well, better safe than sorry. In fact, it’s often that I’ve saved an article that looks like it’s going to be an in-depth piece only to be disappointed by the fact that it turns out to be short and shallow — a waste of the time I’ve made later for deep reading. In those cases, perhaps we should start using ts;np. Too short; no point. Now that wouldn’t be obnoxious at all, would it?

I don’t want to end on a negative note, so:

Heavy Rotation: Penny Sparkle, by Blonde Redhead; Antiphon, by Midlake. These records couldn’t be more different. But boy are they both great. One thing they both may have in common is the fact that the music these groups create presents a personality that is so much more than the individuals who make up the band, and unlike many groups, distinct from the personality of the front person.

Recent Viewings: Meeks’ Cutoff, recommended by Josh Larsen on Filmspotting as one of the best films of the Filmspotting era. I’m still trying to figure out how to process this film. Perhaps the best way I can make that clear is by sharing with you what I said when the credits abruptly and unexpectedly rolled: “Was that a movie?” That aside, picture a film version of Oregon Trail made about the events in between when Ma dies of cholera or little Sis gets a snakebite.

I’m going to try to do this a couple times a week. See you next time, I hope?

Written by Christopher Butler on September 23, 2014,   In Essays

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