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On technology, culture, and growing up in a small town

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2016

Rex Sorgatz grew up in a small and isolated town (physically, culturally) in North Dakota named Napoleon.

Out on the prairie, pop culture existed only in the vaguest sense. Not only did I never hear the Talking Heads or Public Enemy or The Cure, I could never have heard of them. With a radio receiver only able to catch a couple FM stations, cranking out classic rock, AC/DC to Aerosmith, the music counterculture of the ’80s would have been a different universe to me. (The edgiest band I heard in high school was The Cars. “My Best Friend’s Girl” was my avant-garde.)

Is this portrait sufficiently remote? Perhaps one more stat: I didn’t meet a black person until I was 16, at a summer basketball camp. I didn’t meet a Jewish person until I was 18, in college.

This was the Deep Midwest in the 1980s. I was a pretty clueless kid.

He recently returned there and found that the physical isolation hasn’t changed, but thanks to the internet, the kids now have access to the full range of cultural activities and ideas from all over the world.

“Basically, this story is a controlled experiment,” I continue. “Napoleon is a place that has remained static for decades. The economics, demographics, politics, and geography are the same as when I lived here. In the past twenty-five years, only one thing has changed: technology.”

Rex is a friend and nearly every time we get together, we end up talking about our respective small town upbringings and how we both somehow managed to escape. My experience wasn’t quite as isolated as Rex’s — I lived on a farm until I was 9 but then moved to a small town of 2500 people; plus my dad flew all over the place and the Twin Cities were 90 minutes away by car — but was similar in many ways. The photo from his piece of the rusted-out orange car buried in the snow could have been taken in the backyard of the house I grew up in, where my dad still lives. Kids listened to country, top 40, or heavy metal music. I didn’t see Star Wars or Empire in a theater. No cable TV until I was 14 or 15. No AP classes until I was a senior. Aside from a few Hispanics and a family from India, everyone was white and Protestant. The FFA was huge in my school. I had no idea about rap music or modernism or design or philosophy or Andy Warhol or 70s film or atheism. I didn’t know what I didn’t know and had very little way of finding out.

I didn’t even know I should leave. But somehow I got out. I don’t know about Rex, but “escape” is how I think of it. I was lucky enough to excel at high school and got interest from schools from all over the place. My dad urged me to go to college…I was thinking about getting a job (probably farming or factory work) or joining the Navy with a friend. That’s how clueless I was…I knew so little about the world that I didn’t know who I was in relation to it. My adjacent possible just didn’t include college even though it was the best place for a kid like me.

In college in an Iowan city of 110,000, I slowly discovered what I’d been missing. Turns out, I was a city kid who just happened to grow up in a small town. I met other people from all over the country and, in time, from all over the world. My roommate sophomore year was black.1 I learned about techno music and programming and photography and art and classical music and LGBT and then the internet showed up and it was game over. I ate it all up and never got full. And like Rex:

Napoleon had no school newspaper, and minimal access to outside media, so I had no conception of “the publishing process.” Pitching an idea, assigning a story, editing and rewriting — all of that would have baffled me. I had only ever seen a couple of newspapers and a handful of magazines, and none offered a window into its production. (If asked, I would have been unsure if writers were even paid, which now seems prescient.) Without training or access, but a vague desire to participate, boredom would prove my only edge. While listlessly paging through the same few magazines over and over, I eventually discovered a semi-concealed backdoor for sneaking words onto the hallowed pages of print publications: user-generated content.

That’s the ghastly term we use (or avoid using) today for non-professional writing submitted by readers. What was once a letter to the editor has become a comment; editorials, now posts. The basic unit persists, but the quantity and facility have matured. Unlike that conspicuous “What’s on your mind?” input box atop Facebook, newspapers and magazines concealed interaction with readers, reluctant of the opinions of randos. But if you were diligent enough to find the mailing address, often sequestered deep in the back pages, you could submit letters of opinion and other ephemera.

I eventually found the desire to express myself. Using a copy of Aldus PhotoStyler I had gotten from who knows where, I designed party flyers for DJ friends’ parties. I published a one-sheet periodical for the residents of my dorm floor, to be read in the bathroom. I made meme-y posters2 which I hung around the physics department. I built a homepage that just lived on my hard drive because our school didn’t offer web hosting space and I couldn’t figure out how to get an account elsewhere.3 Well, you know how that last bit turned out, eventually.4

  1. The fall of my senior year, he returned from a weekend at home in Chicago with a VHS tape in tow. He popped it into a friend’s VCR and said, “you’re about to see a future NBA star.” And we all watched some highlights of an 18-year-old Kevin Garnett he’d taped off the local news station.

  2. One was a Beavis and Butthead sign warning people not to eat in the lab. Another was a “Jurassic Doc” poster featuring my thesis advisor who we all called “Doc”.

  3. I eventually figured this out.

  4. Robin Sloan is right: it’s tough to end things on the internet. Especially self-indulgent autobiographical rambling. Apologies. We now return to your regularly scheduled interestingness presented with minimal commentary.