Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Where We Are, Where We Were and Where We Will Be

My wife's grandmother is going to turn 90-years-old sometime next month*. She still lives in Manhattan, (though that is going to change soon), in Little Italy (which is now China Town since most of the Italians fled the city decades ago) roughly two blocks from where she was born. She's an amazing woman who has seen a lot and most importantly, remembers most of it. If I'm as lucid at 60 as she is now, I'll consider myself lucky.

* I am a rotten grandson-in-law because I don't know the exact date, I think that it might be February 2, but I'm not willing to bet my paycheck on it. All I know is that it's not February 29.

This isn't an entry about her necessarily, this is more about what she has seen technology-wise in the last 90 years. One can argue that anyone over 85-years-old has probably seen the greatest technology boom in recorded history. Everything that was invented during the last century was pretty much has been improved upon exponentially and that which was invented before 1920 was improved upon too.

-- The telephone went from being a large box bolted to a wall in your kitchen, where you have to ask a person to connect you to another person to something a bit more portable that you can keep on an end table while losing the person-to-person interface. Then it became a device where you don't need the wire connecting the headset to the body, it was portable. Then it became a device that you can keep in your pocket—and you can watch movies or television shows on them.

-- The automobile went from a means of transportation that was only afforded by the rich to something that most people now own two of.

-- Air travel progressed so much that you can fly from New York to San Francisco in less than five hours and it's the preferred travel option of the masses.*

* Put yourself in the shoes of someone who lived in the early part of the 20th Century, the act of flying was completely impossible. There was no way a person could do it, or if they could (like the Wright Brothers) they couldn't sustain themselves enough where it would be a practical mode of transportation. Now people fly all over the place, you probably know someone who goes on enough business trips that he or she is in a plane more than they are in their car.

-- Movies have certainly gone up in price (as has most other things) but now you don't have to walk to the corner to see a film. You can actually have the US Postal Service bring the latest hits to you. And soon you won't even need the mailman. A person can plug a wire into an outlet and get the latest flick instantly.

-- First it was radio then it was television, but the bottom line is being at home no longer meant being cut off from the outside world. With a flip of the dial you could hear a ball game as it occurs or listen to the latest songs buring up the chart. While some people argue that this compartmentalized people, I think that it brought them together, a shared spirit of the American zeitgeist was formed. “Did you hear the new Frank Sinatra record? I did too, it's a gas.”*

And TV blew the game wide open as it tackles the senses and forms opinions. From the early black and white sets to color to today's high-definition sets, watching an event on television is truly like being there. And in some cases, its better.

* Did people back in the 40s say “It's a gas”? I have no idea, I thought it sounded kind of cool and retro.

-- Computers weren't even thought of when she was younger, but here it is less than 100 years later and people have shrunk something that was the size of a SoHo loft and put it in their pockets. And the tiny machines are more powerful than their Brobdingnagian predecessors too. Right now, I can think of at least five different ways of instantly contacting someone with my iPhone (call, text, email, connect through a social media portal or through instant messaging). You're connected to millions of people every day, sharing ideas and thoughts.

-- And perhaps the most inspiring and truly revolutionary technological feat of the past 90 years is that man went to the moon. For thousands upon thousands of years, man has always wondered what it would be like to step foot on the lunar surface. Scores of poems and stories have been written about the moon, but one day back in 1969 we did.

People in my generation take it for granted because for our entire life we have lived with the knowledge that a few years before we were born there was a guy hitting a golf ball on the moon. It didn't really seem like a big deal, but it is. It's a huge deal. The only two things that I can think of that will match this is if an alien landed in Washington DC and made contact with our President or cancer was somehow cured.

Other than that, we're chasing that lead dog in terms of a generation-defining moment.

And there are more things that haven't even listed (improvements in boat or train travel, how a person gets their music, the relative ease of shopping, advances in medicine) that have been completely transformed during the last 90 years. I can't even imagine the technological advances that mankind is going to made in the next 55 years (when I'm 90) or the next 88 years (when my daughter is 90).

The one thing about the movie “The Shawshank Redemption” that always struck me is the reaction old Brooks after the parole board deemed him reformed and released after he had been in prison for (I think) 50 years. In the history books, the years 1910 (when he went in) and 1960 (when he was released) will probably be grouped in the same era. But that's incorrect, the only thing that those years share are the first two numbers and the last.

I'm not talking about the scene where he realizes that he's been institutionalized and figures out that he'll never make it on the outside. I'm talking about the scene where he walks down the street and almost gets plugged by the car. One of the lines that best underscores the difference is when he says that he saw an automobile once when he was a boy. It was implied that back in 1910, a car was something like a blue moon or Haley's Comet, something not seen too often. But when he was released cars were as commonplace as pebbles or mosquitos.

The time when people were amazed by the car passed and that is what will happen with us too. It's a slow and seems to happen by osmosis, but it will occur. I can only hope that when I'm older and reflect back on mankind's achievements made during my life, I look with the original wonder and awe.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Few Words on Privacy

There is going to come a day where the idea of privacy is going to be a quaint reminder of an era gone by.

During the last decade, the American public has embraced the media as a tool for the public, not just the lucky few who can make news. It began with the rise of reality television and pretty soon the average American was sharing prime time with Hollywood A-listers. Their every foible and whim was captured on tape and was beamed to a growing audience. However, there was still a filter (called editors) that colored perception.

In the mid part of this century, that lens went out the window and even more people wanted to take a piece of the stage. With social interaction sites like Twittter or Facebook, video sites like YouTube and Blogs, everyone in America has a chance to creep back into the consciousness of long-forgotten acquaintances or become minor celebrities.*

* Remember the “Star Wars” kid that was popular a few years back? He was a chubby teen with glasses who posted a video of himself having a lightsaber duel with no one. The dude was everywhere, even “Arrested Development” did a cut-away joke about it. And the latest internet celebrity is a three-year-old boy who memorized the speech that Herb Brooks gave to the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team.

The point as my two-year-old daughter grows up, the idea of privacy is going to be change so much that within 20 years, people of my generation aren't going to recognize it. I'm 35-years-old and most of my peers have adapted to the idea of posting pictures of themselves on Facebook or writing their thoughts in a public Blog, but there is always some level of trepidation; what if the wrong person sees/reads this? Do I really want scores of people knowing that I enjoy Steelheart's awesome power ballad,“Never Let You Go”?

The second-thoughts come from a still burgeoning technology. We're still on the forefront of social interaction and the fear of the unknown is going to dissipate by the time my daughter gets into Junior High School and my warnings will probably fall on deaf ears; “Yeah, ok Dad. Like someone is really going to care that I posted that my teacher a stupid whore ... it's the Internet!”

The point I'm trying to make is that with the very idea of privacy quickly dying, Americans are becoming increasingly interested in what goes on behind closed doors. Does the public persona of an athlete or a movie star match their every day actions? Case in point, Tiger Woods.

A day after Thanksgiving Tiger Woods was involved in a one-car automobile accident outside his home in Florida. While police were called to the scene, there were no injuries and the matter should have been dropped. However, the Internet media (gossip sites like TMZ) were on the case. As details were being leaked—Tiger and his wife were fighting, turns out he has a harem of women, his wife tried to slug him with a nine iron—the American people's appetites only grew and the mainstream media jumped into the frenzy.

Not only did we know that Tiger Woods had a bevy of beauties; but we knew the names of some of them, occupations of others, and we heard voice messages of a confused, befuddled Tiger telling one of them to change her phone number because his wife, Elin, had gotten wise to the whole deal. As the reports slowed to a trickle, the public's uproar grew louder and louder. Why would Tiger Woods cheat on his wife, he's a family man? Tiger Woods is a sex addict, he doesn't look like one? Who is Tiger Woods?

And this is the problem, who is Tiger Woods. A few years ago, Nike tried a marketing campaign that centered around the phrase, “I Am Tiger Woods”. In one of the memorable TV comericials, there was a minute of people repeating “I am Tiger Woods” over and over as if it was a mantra, finally ending with Woods himself saying, “I am Tiger Woods”. The point was, Woods is an every man and that if anyone works hard enough they can be as good as Tiger Woods.

And that's what his entire public persona is: he's everything, but he's nothing. The Tiger Woods brand stands for excellence, but that stance means nothing. Woods has always been the ultimate cypher, you couldn't even pin him down on something as simple as his ethnicity; he created his own that was some combination of Asian-Caucasian-Afro-American. Even on his web site FAQ, he listed his favorite music as “Soundtracks from the 80s and 90s”.*

* I picked this tidbit up from Joe Posnanski's excellent blog post and share the same befuddlement. The soundtrack to “Amadeus” was released in this time frame as well as the soundtrack to “Judgement Night”. The former soundtrack is filled with concertos and movements from Mozart, while the latter is nothing but rock/rap colaborations from people like Biohazzard and Onyx. I'm not saying that a person can like one style of music, but not the other, but this is a bit extreme. And again, is an example of Tiger trying his best to appeal to everyone.

So for people to get pious and upset over Woods' actions left me a bit confused. We never knew Tiger Woods, even at the apex of his popularity—his privacy was so guarded that anyone who showed even a brief glimpse into Woods' “real life” personality was fired from Team Tiger. This got me thinking about what was the American public so upset about.

I think that many people feel that his carefully sculpted image was his true personality. He was the man who had at all: a great job, a gorgeous wife, two kids, a dump truck full of money but in reality his image was just a mirage*.

* It's kind of cool how the word mirage is just image with an extra “r”. Am I right, or am I overthinking this?

Privately, Tiger Woods was just as fucked up as everyone else. He cheated on his wife, she got angry with him, smashed up his car, took her kids and went back to Sweden. He is everyman, but he's not the everyman that everyone wants to be. And this is where the subject of privacy comes in, when the curtain was peeled back and Woods was revealed to be as flawed as anyone else, the nation went bezerk. Companies dropped him as a sponsor, he became the butt of every hacky email you received in December, outraged writers called for him to be dropped from the PGA.

And for what? He cheated on his wife. While that doesn't put him on the short list for husband of the year, who did it really hurt (aside from his wife and children)? I didn't give a damn about Tiger's personal life before Thanksgiving 2009 and I don't care about it now. The only reason why I like Tiger Woods is because he can consistently drive a golf ball 300+ yards and that he can make a putt with the pressure of the Master's on his back. I never looked at Tiger Woods, or any celebrity, as a template for my behavior. And the reason is this: we never know what's really going on.

Sure, we have hints: Charlie Sheen seems like an asshole, Gilbert Areanas is probably a moron and George Clooney seems like a cool guy, but do we really know? The answer to this can be summed up in two letters and a last name: OJ Simpson.

If you are old enough to remember what happened in 1994, a celebrity doing something stupid should never be a “shocker”. On June 12, 1994, the entire notion of a public persona was hacked to death by a charismatic and “family-friendly” former All-Pro running back. Simpson was considered such a nice guy that James Cameron turned him down to star in “Terminator” because he felt that no one would believe that OJ Simpson could kill anyone.

So while our own personal privacy is going out the window by one of our own hands, the other is trying to rip down the privacy of others. At the very least, America has always been a land of interesting dichotomies.