Friday, July 01, 2005

"Nothing will ever be the same again." Remember how many times you heard that after September 11? Irony is dead, people said. Seriousness is in. Everyone will turn back to God and the churches will be full. Bart Simpson will respect his elders. Britney Spears will cover her navel. Remember "terror sex"--the supposed phenomenon of people engaging in sex as a way of finding connection in the face of the apocalypse?

Remember how none of these things turned out to be real? Church attendance spiked for a few weeks, but was back at pre-September levels by Christmas 2001. Neither Bart nor Britney changed their ways. And "terror sex," which should have led to a baby boom in the summer of 2002--a boom that never occurred--apparently didn't exist outside the experience of a few previously hard-up magazine writers. And seriousness, which was uncool before September 11, quickly became again--and is still uncool now.

In Salon yesterday, Gary Kamiya (who's a positively brilliant writer and never gets credit for it, outside of this blog anyhow), analyzed the vapidity of cable-news culture, where missing white girls and shark attacks become events of transcendant importance, and issues of war, peace, prosperity, and politics are treated like icky-tasting medicine, or ignored entirely. Kamiya also remembers the post-9/11 assumptions regarding The New Seriousness, and charts how far off the radar they've fallen as we approach the fourth anniversary of 9/11. American culture is just as aggressively dumb as ever--only now, what we are ignoring is far more important, with far more dangerous consequences, than what we were ignoring before September 11.

How did it happen? The most persuasive analysis I've seen is one I return to every now and then on this blog--that there's simply too much going on in the world for one event, no matter how horrific, to make a significant dent in our collective consciousness. It's the firehose effect: We are drowning in information, drowning in images, drowning in options. This effect is so intense, so all-encompassing, that eventually, the firehose itself becomes the sum total of our reality. The fact that defines our existence is that everything--10,000 years of accumulated human experience, not to mention the new stuff that each day brings--is coming at us from all directions at once, faster than we can take it all in. It takes all of the energy we can muster to focus on whichever droplets catch our attention--football, 17th century art, woodworking, political activism, you pick it--yet in the end, they're all secondary to the existence of the firehose torrent itself.

In light of this phenomenon, it's hard to see how the cable channels could be much different than they are--fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, CNN's gotta pick out the shiniest, most jangly droplets from the firehose, which are the missing teenagers and the runaway brides. This is the world we're in--and we haven't been in it long enough to figure out how to cope, so we just go with the flow. And the result (at the moment, anyhow) is that our culture is just as empty as it ever was, September 11 or no September 11.

Recommended Reading: I have been running a one-man Thomas de Zengotita fan club for quite a while--he's a contributing editor at Harper's, and in his 2002 article "The Numbing of the American Mind," analyzed the firehose phenomenon, and explained why 9/11 didn't--couldn't--change everything. He's since published a book called Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It. I'm guessing, although I haven't read it yet, that the book incorporates the main ideas of the article. He's got a way of making the complicated seem simple--only the more you think about how simple he makes it, the more complicated it can seem. Which, come to think of it, is a fine metaphor for what the firehose does.

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