Monday, November 12, 2018


Sometimes I think we don't appreciate how much society is changing and in how short a time. And I wonder what it will be like for me when I'm old — if I make it that long — to say nothing for my children, in the increasingly unlikely scenario that I have any.

This summer I started listening to music using an app that displays all kinds of information about the song and artist on the screen while the audio plays — including the release date of the album. I’ve been struck by the fact that the release dates on albums I'd listened to in my teens are often two or three years before when I remember listening to them.

What strikes me as odd about this isn't that I started listing to music that was several years old  — I still do this frequently. Rather, it's that I remember feeling at the time like it was the latest and greatest thing. That's where the change is: As far as me and anyone I knew were concerned, it was the latest greatest thing. After all, we had just got it, and there was no reference point from which to say it was dated.

Art and news and trends moved soooooooooo much slower just fifteen years ago than they do now.

When I first played the board game Settlers of Catan in or around 2004, it was because my then karate instructor told my class about it. So I started playing it, and introducing my friends to it, and all the time thought of it as this edgy new German style board game that had just become a thing. And for me, my then karate instructor who introduced me to it, and the guy at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania who's name people still remembered in hushed tones in 2008 when I was a student there (but I have subsequently forgotten) who first brought the game to the school sometime around 2003 when my karate instructor was a student there; for all these people, it was a thing.

Yet, if I look up Settlers of Catan on Wikipedia as I write this post, I see that the game was initially published in Germany in 1995 and introduced in the US a year later. So all of the excitement and newness and edginess that my friends and I felt on discovering the world of Catan in 2004 was nearly a decade after it was released.

Compare that to now, when the whole world knows about everything the hour after it happens and is over it the next day.

Catan may be an unfair example as the distribution channels for board games have always been slower and less linear than for, say, Hollywood movies. Also, in my case, almost any example is going to be exaggerated: I was a fourteen-year-old in a moderately xenophobic sect of Christian-Reconstructionists living in a socio-economic backwater in a rural part of Pennsylvania that escapes being classified as part of the Rust Belt only because it was never developed enough in the first place to have rusted.

The point is, though, trends today travel so quickly and globally and then become irrelevant so much faster than they did just 15 or 20 years ago. Everyone all over the world is seeing and possibly thinking more or less the same things at almost the same time. And when we try to stop it, our efforts end up sounding like the headlines of online satire: Just this year, dozens of my acquaintances took to Facebook to complain about Facebook, and Steve Bannon went on an international speaking tour to warn against internationalism and was happy to discover that the global community of isolationists has never been more connected.

We can't go back. Like it or not, we live in a world now where a fringe interpretation of a major religion adhered to by a small militia group in a country almost no one cares about can become a global online movement drawing adherents from Australia to Canada to become part of an actual territoriality nation-state, and then vanish back into to the sand and the internet chat rooms from whence it came. And all this in less time than it took the record of a band that had risen to prominence in Brooklyn, New York, in 2001, to travel five hours to influence a kid a kid near Troy, Pennsylvania in 2006.

Certainly, we aren't all confronted by the same trends. If anything, there is more diversity of interest than at any time before. Just spend an afternoon reading through subreddits. And there are dark corners of Discord and 4chan that most of us will never know even exist until they suddenly explode into our real physical lives leaving us only to ask: why? But the speed with which these subcultures and movements develop and move outside the constraints of face-to-face community and geography that used to exist is new.

This isn't all bad. There are positive examples, and I'm sure someone who is more of an optimist than me would have used them. But it is different than it was before, and this week I've been thinking about how different it is, and wondering where it will go from here.


Unknown said...

Tom, his name was Tom

Rachel P said...

This was well said. And something I think about often and increasingly, though in my own (maybe slightly more optimistic) colors.

Andrew said...

@Josh - I knew someone would remember!

@Rachel - Hopefully there are a lot of more optimistic examples.