Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Amazing = mundane

Last October, standup comic Louis C.K. appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and did an inspired four-minute rant about the paradoxical state of the world. Titled after his central observation in the bit, "Everything is amazing, nobody is happy", the clip has recently gone viral (e.g. via Vanity Fair), and its several appearances at YouTube (1, 2, 3) have together attracted over one million views so far. This ballooning popularity is due, we may surmise, to two things. 1. It's hilarious. 2. His view resonates.

The human alchemy which so rapidly transforms technological wonder into ennui has several consequences.

First, it is part of the way our technology layers over the generations: each is born to a new normal (a process described beautifully by Douglas Adams).

Second, it helps explain how things can seem to have been "going to hell for as long as anyone can remember" while in many ways improving overall in the long run (Paul Saffo).

Third, it suggests that futures work that attempts to leverage the principle of dazzling people ("Flying cars! Underwater houses! Flying houses!") may be questing in the wrong emotional register.

Here we come to the core issue, from a futurist standpoint. As Jamais Open the Future Cascio wrote not long ago:

Changes rarely shock; more often, they startle or titillate, and very quickly get folded into the existing cultural momentum.
The folks in [a future] scenario don't just wake up one day to find their lives transformed; they live their lives to that point. They hear about new developments long before they encounter them, and know somebody who bought an Apple iLens or package of NuBacon before doing so themselves. The future creeps up on them, and infiltrates their lives; it becomes, for the people living there, the banal present.

So, rather than plundering the landscape of possible futures for their potential to startle, this line of thinking suggests that it may be truer to our subject matter if we try to convey the ordinary, quotidian quality of varied ways of being in the future (for which purpose, the already staggering variety of the past and present set a fine precedent: there are a million different ways to be bored). But there's a real art to this. Making the extraordinary seem ordinary is an uncommon feat.

The most successful science fiction films, in a narrative or artistic sense, tend to suffuse whatever novelties they introduce with a lived-in quality that lends the texture of truth. The first work to spring to my mind in this category is Alfonso Cuarón's masterful Children of Men, about which this writer has said:

The reality of the hypothesis, or put another way, the plausibility of the scenario (the mechanism of which is never properly explained in the film) was asserted with such fluidity, confidence, and integrity of detail -- just the way we encounter the real world, which is crammed full of people accepting complete absurdities as wallpaper -- that I found myself drawn in, having to meet the story on its own terms.

The study of futures provides valuable arguments and heuristics for both "making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange". (I don't know who first suggested his provocative formula, but it has relevance for many endeavours, not least art and anthropology.) Devising and communicating what we might call "everyday futures", is an example of the former operation, and I agree with Jamais about our collective room for improvement there.

The latter, however, is no less important. Louis C.K. is looking for laughs, not social analysis, but the insight works either way. He's right: Everything is amazing. To stand back from this every day -- to discern in it not only the banal, but at one and the same time the beautiful and the bizarre -- is to stand in awe.

We are told of a Chinese curse that says "May you live in interesting times". I wonder if it makes things better or worse not even to realise when this has come true.

Related posts:
> Don't panic
> In praise of Children of Men

(via The Long Now Blog)


Mike Treder said...

Stuart, great post. I'll offer a big kudos and a tiny quibble:

First, the movie Children of Men really did do a great job of showing a plausible but palpably different future, one that felt both real and strange. You nailed your point by citing that film as an example.

Second, the supposed "Chinese curse" you quote is, alas, very likely not ancient and possibly not even Chinese. Look it up on wikipedia and you'll see that its origin may in fact be 20th century. Still, it expresses a feeling that resonates and thus has acquired a cultural meaning all out of proportion to its flimsy pedigree.

Stuart Candy said...

Mike, thanks for that feedback.

About the ostensible Chinese proverb, I guess at some level its distinct fortune cookie aura (and the fact that I first encountered it in a computer game) made me hedge my bets with the phrase "We are told of...".

in any case, I appreciate you doing the Wiki-due diligence!

Anonymous said...

I'm reading (or rather, dipping into) "The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England - A Handbook for visitors to the 14th Century" Ian Mortimer, which tries to describe the normalcy of medieval life-a bit too much about uncollected shit! It would be fun to see a rant like Louis'of people taking for granted the new and the amazing. Bridges, for example, are scarce, except in London.

Thanks for this viewpoint, Stuart!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I used the same video in a post on Delighting Customers. What once delighted now merely satisfies, or doesn't even satisfy. That's the beauty of the phrase in the declaration of independence, "pursuit of happiness".


Stuart Candy said...

Jennifer, I like the sound of that book -- ubiquitous shitpiles and all. Thanks for the tip.

Paul, I love that we see such different things in this clip -- my social change angle compared to your business and customer service angle. This leads me to a slightly different train of thought comparing a pessimistic reading ("we're so quick to assimilate change that we fail to experience it as progress") to a more upbeat one ("we're so quick to assimilate change that it drives the pursuit of progress"). Progress is a problematic idea, of course; I just enjoy the fact that here, as in so many things, it's possible to ascribe opposing values to the same behaviour.

Bob Ryskamp said...

A recent Homer Simpson quote (at ~5:45 here) reminded me of this post:

"When you gave me that money, you said we wouldn't have to repay it until the future. This isn't the future--it's the lousy stinking now!"

Stuart Candy said...

Bob, thanks. This is great.

Nickerson Woo said...

thanks for sharing~it is very interesting
~well done

Stuart Candy said...

Dear Nickerson,

Your transparent attempt to spam my blog under cover of vague praise did not go unnoticed. Kindly don't try this again.