Saturday, February 21, 2009

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, All in the Same Room

Speaking about his 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan remarked that "you've got yesterday, today, and tomorrow all in the same room." In pursuing this approach to his art, Dylan was apparently inspired by a painting class he was taking under the tutelage of one Norman Raeben. But musicians and painters are certainly not the only artists who have attempted to blur the lines of chronology. At least since Homer started the Iliad with "Sing goddess the rage of Achilles," storytellers have been experimenting with narrative-within-narrative, and now it seems that about every other movie or television show presents the order of events in some kind of non-sequential pattern.

Still, I think that historically the attempt to subvert chronology has largely been restricted to art. Media has allowed us to perceive fictional worlds in which "yesterday, today, and tomorrow" are all in the same room, but no media has really allowed us to experience such a blending and blurring in our own world. But I think we are now in position to allow this historic desire to manifest itself, to advance from theory to practice, and that is because we now have the mediums in place to facilitate such a wish.

I attribute the success of Facebook in moving from beyond college dorms to an "adult" phenomenon to a lot more than a desire for grown-ups to be hip. The ability to compile a list of "friends" representative of one's entire lifespan, to simultaneously renew acquaintances from the distant past and to foster current acquaintanceships, is an example of allowing yesterday and today to exist in the same room (or on the same "wall" if you will), while there is also enabled a potential for social possibilities in an as-yet-untold tomorrow. And Facebook dutifully and conveniently records an archive of communications between "friends," so that even as threads are abandoned, they lie dormant with the potential for re-awakening (see last week's post regarding the de-privileging of the present over the past).

I use Facebook to illustrate the phenomena I'm observing, but really it is the Web in general, with an increasing proliferation of archival content, that is serving to annihilate the privilege of the present. Perhaps the most fascinating tangible example of this is the case last fall of the United Airlines stock panic caused by the rise to prominence of a six-year-old newspaper article. Though this is an anomalous incident, it serves to advance the paradox that even as we are undergoing a technological paradigm shift, "yesterday" has been afforded a greater status than perhaps ever before.

So now that New Media has enabled and activated an apparent ancient desire to deconstruct time, what are the implications for Old Media? To understand how Old Media can adapt (and ultimately profit), I think we need look no further than the 1990s MTV show "Beavis and Butt-Head." The eponymous animated characters were, in hindsight, proto-Internet commentators. Today, rather than sit on their couch meta-watching MTV, they would be on-line, and instead of offering their uncultivated commentary on music videos to the ether, they would be encoding them for public consumption. But crucially, their commentary, vacuous as it ultimately may have been, was always contextualizing the music video beyond its original airing. It was compared and contrasted with other videos, it was remarked upon in relation to social phenomena, and especially if it wasn't a contemporary video, it was re-examined in the light of the a la mode.

What old media needs to do is to simply substitute some meritorious commentators for Beavis and Butt-Head and adjust for the respective platform. To give a couple examples of how this could work: ESPN Classic would continue to air old games, but with new announcers who would re-evaluate the original game in a modern context. The CBS Evening News would re-air a feature on the AIDS epidemic that originally ran in 1984, and a commentator would discuss how attitudes have changed since then, and how much or little progress has been made in the intervening years. A newspaper called USA Yesterday could be published, in which the entire contents of old USA Todays would be reprinted along with a re-contextualization.

It may seem ironic that New Media has opened the door for Old Media to thrive, but it actually makes a lot of sense if indeed we have always wanted yesterday, today, and tomorrow to get along together under one roof. I guess I'll have to re-post this in a few years and explore the extent to which this comes true.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i totally agree with the media claims. good post!

10:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw a CNN commercial this morning telling viewers to watch Obama's speech live tonight "with your facebook friends" online. It made me think of this post.

8:41 AM  

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