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Seeing the Present in Past Tense

It’s a pleasure to be here in Jason’s esteemed garden of links and digressions, celebrating 20 years since we created Snarkmarket. In keeping with our host’s splendid curatorial style, most of what I’ll post here are not little bloggy essays like this one. But there’s one thing I especially wanted to ask this crowd about.

Few people would ever have known about Snarkmarket if not for the short video Robin and I made, EPIC 2014 (and then, a year later, 2015), that went viral in an era of the internet in which virality was difficult. To make a video viral in 2004 meant people mirroring a file on their private servers, linking to it on their blogs, and emailing links to friends and colleagues. But the video itself imagined that friction as a thing of the past. YouTube didn’t yet exist, but we’d guessed that it or something like it was coming. A world where sharing was difficult had already begun to feel obsolete, even while we were still living in it.

I’ve come to find it useful to imagine parts of the world around me in past tense. There seem to be many things these days that we’ve committed to ending or know we can’t sustain, even though they’ll probably be omnipresent for years to come. Many stem from our changing climate and growing sense of the toxic effects of constantly gassing the air. In a few years, for example, most of the new cars sold in California won’t have gas engines anymore, by state decree. But that’s not all of it. Nowadays almost every time I find myself in a retail store that’s not a pharmacy, I get an anachronistic jolt. I don’t know if I’ll ever think about an office commute again the way I have for decades of my life.

The most obvious function of this exercise is to help me consider my own behaviors, wants, and habits in a different light. I hope to someday laugh at the fact that we once found it convenient to encase individual slices of cheese in plastic.

As a habit of mind, it’s also a way of grounding me more deeply in the world I still inhabit. It helps me savor the things I expect to grieve, and mark the things I hope to outlive. When I’m sick, I try to take mental notes for my future selves, reminding me not to take for granted the mundane luxury of breathing easy.

But I think this should be more of a collective exercise. We know that we’re seeing the end of an era and the beginning of another. We’ve pledged ourselves to this, in fact. So what should we look at as having begun to end? When we look back on this moment 20 years hence, what will we strain to remember? What will seem as distant to us as that world two short decades ago when making a video go viral required the distributed muscle of a network of human beings?

Discussion  2 comments

Dan Cohen
🔮 🍕 🏆  comment

In the eighteenth century the poet John Clare wrote, "I had never been above eight miles from my home in my life, and I could not fancy England much larger than the part I know." This used to be common—a small radius of life that is completely alien to us.

We have just experienced, through the internet and social media, a vast expansion of a different sort of radius, into the network of human beings that Matt mentions. There now seem to be forces pushing back against such a large radius, a feeling that this expansion was enervating rather than enlivening.

Will we look back in 20 years and think, maybe it was John Clare who lived a richer life?

Matt Thompson

I love that quote, Dan, and you sent me down a rabbit hole about John Clare and Helpston. (This is a fascinating history.)

I think about this all the time, particularly now that I live in a smallish city (about 120k people) in a house with a bigger yard than I've had since childhood, full of community cats that we take care of. The yard, the house, and the city are all such dense and fascinating ecosystems at every scale. Within eight miles of me are tall ridges from high hills, a network of wetlands, several other very different cities, including a couple of isolated hamlets that evolved along the winding roads and railroad tracks above a river. There are mansions and encampments in my city, the ruins of a large abandoned Naval base that I can see from my house, a fitful downtown with new and old businesses. So many stirrings and remnants of life fill the circle around my home.

The sentiment hits harder for me because I never had an attachment to the place where I grew up. After my family left Toronto, five years after I was born, I spent the rest of my childhood in Central Florida, and knew as long as I could remember that I wanted to leave. And then after I did leave, I've moved frequently, from apartment to apartment, and from city to city. Only in recent years have I begun to feel a deep yearning for rootedness, and a sense of what it means.

The way media has evolved over the past century has reinforced this sense of placelessness. A few years ago, I spent a while diving into the media ecosystem of the Twin Cities — a place I spent a few fantastic years — about a century ago. The coverage of that era completely changed my definition of what a robust local media environment looked like. I thought the heyday of local news, slightly before my time, was when every city had a couple big papers and competing TV news stations with Washington bureaus and foreign correspondents. But in the 1920s, the Twin Cities had papers for the business class and the working class, Jewish papers, Black papers, papers in Chinese, Scandinavian and Indigenous languages — all these different yet overlapping perspectives on life in the community.

The typical household in the country at the time subscribed to more than one paper, and I could understand why. When a place is covered in such intimacy and diversity, it feels, even across history, more vibrant. You get to see some of the richness of the many, many lives intersecting in the place, and the completely unique and fascinating stories unfolding there at any minute.

But the business logic of media pressed (and continues to press) inexorably toward scale. Local protagonists in media narratives became replaced with national and global celebrities who could make great television. I believe but can't prove that there's a relationship between the hyper massification of media and the fact that two of the seven presidents in my lifetime were television celebrities before holding office.

I do think the logic of media and attention may be beginning to point back toward intimacy and personal connection. And I feel hopeful for what that could mean. Mass media is a fascinating thing to imagine in past tense.

This thread is closed for new comments & replies. Thanks to everyone for participating!