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Much has changed since I was 15 years old – back in the ’90s. I was mindful just how far back that decade now sits from us when last weekend our senior class at Hillsdale sponsored a “’90s party,” with costumed Spice Girls and grungers and Lisa Frank club members, and a karaoke to the Backstreet Boys and Third Eye Blind. The latter band scored the top hit of the last decade, “Semi-Charmed Life,” the music video of which I am presently watching on YouTube.
“Semi-Charmed Life” refrains with the word “Goodbye.” It was indeed the goodbye of an era, the goodbye of pop hits and mass-marketed, engineered pop culture. In this new age, there are no such things as pop hits, because there are too many choices to allow for them. No longer does a generation take the bait of Hollywood and Madison Avenue; the MTV Generation is long over.
To see a music video, we need not turn to MTV to behold the obscene preferences of the marketers. We can choose sanity on YouTube. Third Eye Blind is there, and Beethoven’s Fifth. I have lately struck a fascination with the Indian pop singer Daler Mehndi, for whom “Tunak Tunak Tun” was the license to begin cloning himself on a strange planet – a special effect of bluescreen technology.
I spoke to my brother last weekend as he turned 15, the last age I was before the millennium turned. I asked him whether kids these days still watch TV, listen to the radio and play CDs. To each count: “No.” YouTube has supplanted the television; iPod and MP3 have conquered the CD player; XM and satellite replace the radio.
More than that, the Internet age is the free market made easier and more direct than ever before. On Saturday, I booked a flight through Expedia, and on Sunday I downloaded a sermon from my home church 2,300 miles away. On Monday, I conducted an extensive Google News search through articles related to youth, and on Tuesday, I am writing this column to be published online Thanksgiving Day.
And if you should choose to follow up the column with a reply, my chief mode of communication is e-mail. I can access it from an Internet portal anyplace. It is at once instantaneous and permissive of patience. Depending on the gravity of the correspondence or the relative impact of words in a message, thought is especially valuable. It has over a telephone conversation all the benefits of the written word. The written word is deliberate, beautiful and savable. It may be returned to again and again.
Considering e-mail sufficient, I choose not to buy a cell phone; I don’t want the thing bothering me when I’m chatting with a friend at lunch, or reading, or thinking. Life is too short for petty interruptions. Even public gatherings are occasionally too worthwhile to pardon the tone of a 1970s classic rock tune blasting from a piece of plastic in a purse. At least with e-mail I can choose when to access it. And at least I have that choice. Once upon a time, the options for communication were few and compulsory. One had to write a letter with ink and parchment to stay in touch.
There is the notable argument of traditionalists that old-fashioned letter writing is a lamentably dying art. The writer Marina Warner has a compelling take on the issue in the latest Raritan Quarterly. Entitling it “The Word Unfleshed,” she warns of the dangers in scrapping the physical pen and paper for an electronic series of keystrokes. Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough boasts of having written his every book on a 1940 Royal typewriter, typing only as fast as the mind of the writer can think (a computer keyboard permits too much haste) and writing as the mind of the reader thinks (a computer permits too much shifting of paragraphs and sentences to discipline the writer). From his typewriter, McCullough gets a piece of paper much like the final product, to sketch his pencil edits upon it and ponder over it.
And so it is that in an information age where quantity overtakes quality, truth is not necessarily any better off. It may rather become lost in a concourse of data.
But let us not mourn the age we live in. We have much to be thankful for. When we appreciate the opportunities and challenges of our time for what they are, and when we thank God for blessing us to live in such a time as this, we may sense our duty in a vast and complicated world. The task of the leaders in our rising generation is not to retreat from the technologies around us, but to use them well. If we are to brighten a culture, to transmit the Gospel, or to link communities across the world, we must make the best of our blessings – and thank God for them.