The Culture-Technology Paradox

What's a quarter century, anyway?

Secret History

by Jack Neely

The World's Fair was 25 years ago. A quarter century is a long time, no matter how old you are. If you're the oldest man in town, 25 years is about a quarter of your life. Nobody can say 25 years is nothing.

But in some ways, the last 25 years seems like nothing.

Show me a photograph of any street scene before 1982, and if it has cars and people in it, I can guess within three or four years the time that it was taken. 1912 looks very different from 1937, which looks very different from 1962. I wouldn't take a similar bet about pictures taken in the last 25 years.

If clothing styles have changed since 1982, nobody has told me about it. I'm still wearing the same things, anyway, and you look at photos of World's Fair crowds, and they're wearing jeans, shorts, and T-shirts, ball caps, some cheap sun hats, more or less the same things people wear now, outside my window on the Gay Street sidewalk in 2007. Sundown crowds look just like early, Fair-era Saturday Night on the Town crowds.

Car models used to change radically every three or four years, completely different shapes so pronounced children would notice them. Fenders would stretch and morph, fins would appear and disappear. Since 1982, style changes have been subtler than in any quarter-century period before that. Cars were getting kind of bland and lozenge-shaped in 1982. They may be just a little moreso now.

What you do notice in World's Fair photos are some hairstylesâ"but then again, what you notice are not the 1982 hairstyles, but that in 1982 there were more people holding out with 1970s hairstyles than there are today. A man's hairstyle in 1982 looks a lot like a man's hairstyle in 2007. Some have goatees, or ponytails, as then. Maybe mainstream women's hair was a little fluffier then. Insecure kids trying to look tough still wear mohawks and leather with shiny studs. It's poignant. They're even more retro now than they were in '82.

A groundbreaking film from 1982 might strike the unsuspecting as groundbreaking today. Movies from 1982â" Blade Runner, Gandhi, Victor/Victoria â"don't seem particularly old-fashioned. In 1982, Eddie Murphy was the funny guy in cop movies; Peter O'Toole was making a comeback as a randy bloke who was a bit over the hill. Even then, there were movies about people getting sucked into some alternate video-game reality.

If we could beam modern TV to people in 1982, the only thing that would surprise our old selves would be the in-your-face overtness of it: the directness of sexual references, and, in crime shows, the depiction of corpses in various states of decomposition.

What's really new in pop music? By 1982, rap had already been around so long it was being parodied. Last year I went to Bonnaroo for the first time, and though there were a few middleaged folks there, I was easily 20 years older than the median attendee. Some of my teenage daughter's friends were there. I had a good look around, and enjoyed it all very much. But I was less surprised by the tattooed flesh than I was by the fact that so little of the music seemed unfamiliar. Much of it was very good, some of it innovative interpretations of old forms; but very little there would have seemed revolutionary to me when I was a nightclubbing kid, 25 years ago. Several of the most popular acts there, in fact, had radio hits in 1982. Who's the big headliner this year? The reunited Police. Who were very big in 1982.

It's not Bonnaroo's fault. Bonnaroo dependably shows the best that's out there. But in the last century of popular music, this is the longest America has ever gone without a whole new form of it that swept everything else aside.

I sometimes suspect that sometime around 1982, we ran into a cultural Sargasso Sea. Maybe that's all right. It's an interesting mire, with more diversity than previous generations enjoyed. Maybe it's just that everything's out there now. Maybe we just decided, as a culture, that we had enough toys, and it was time to sit down and play with them a little, or play with new combinations of them.

The slow spot coincides with deluge of new household technology. Is that a paradox?

In 1982, hardly anybody had cell phones. VCRs were considered exotic, maybe a little self-indulgent. (When a posh friend got one, I asked, â“Is there anything you won't buy?â”) A few people had Walkmans that would play a radio station or a cassette tapeâ"even that seemed a little pretentious and unsociable. Nobody had iPod ear buds with 100,000 songs or whatever. Would our lives have been even better if we did?

Some of us had dabbled with word processors at work, but only hobbyists had computers at home. There was no Internet, at least not that most of us had ever heard of. We didn't have Wikipedia; we had to resort to reliable sources. I don't remember ever thinking, Life would be great if only I didn't have to go to the library to look stuff up . I liked the library fine. I made friends there.

The changes in our lives wrought by new technological marvels are undeniable. But they came as answers to questions most of us hadn't asked. I liked my low-tech life in 1982. I went to parties, I heard lectures and saw shows and movies. I rode my bike and went on long walks. I traveled some. The inability to watch feature films in my bedroom didn't bother me much. My best friends seemed exactly as closely in touch as they really needed to be. When I felt strongly about something, I sometimes wrote a letter to an editor or a bank president. Should I have wished I could post?

I did like this new thing called music television, which seemed more surprising and innovative in 1982 than it ever has since. In my memory, the early videos by the Police and the Cars and Billy Idol and Michael Jackson all smell like Stefano's Pizza, because its big screen was my only access to MTV; it seemed as good a place for watching videos as any. A new video would catch the attention of the crowd, and people would come in off the street to see it. I never thought, If only I could watch this in a private setting, without fresh pizza!

Still, for whatever reason, we found new ways to spend much of the next 25 years inside, alone, looking at computer screens. Is it any wonder that there's been so little cultural movement since then? If something genuinely new and worthy happened, wellâ"how would it get through?


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