Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Zombie Spring

It's the first day of spring, but it has felt like spring for weeks already. Global warming is well upon us. All these unseasonably balmy days have forced the flowers and pressured the trees to bud before their time. The downsides, of course, are coastal flooding, mass extinction, and malnutrition due to falling crop yields. In New York City, the warming has also brought about the unfortunate premature return of smartphone zombies.

(In winter, when cold nips at fingers, there's not so much sidewalk texting or talking, and we get a needed break from the scourge. I miss winter.)

iZombie illustration by Victor Kerlow

All the attendant ducking and weaving on the sidewalks has me thinking about Chuck Closterman's essay "My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead," published in the New York Times in December 2010--and stuck in my mind ever since.

In that essay, he makes an eloquent argument about the rising popularity of zombies and how, with their computer-like brains and lack of consciousness, they've become an allegory for the way our day-to-day existence feels. He writes, "It’s not that zombies are changing to fit the world’s condition; it’s that the condition of the world seems more like a zombie offensive." And that offensive, concludes Closterman, is the Internet and email.

see more zombies here

But there are also zombies walking among us. You see them every day. They are attached to the Internet and electronic communications--you might even say they are humanoid extensions of the Internet.

Drifting down the sidewalk, gazing into electronic devices, iZombies are the living dead, constantly and mindlessly consuming. They lack consciousness. And, yes, they do eat brains. How many times have you tried to think while on the street or the bus, or in a cafe, only to have your thoughts snatched away by a loud-talking zombie on a cell phone or by a collision with a walking iPhone ghoul? The thought is gone--the zombie gobbled it up.

They're trying to turn us all into zombies by devouring our minds. The only way to shield yourself from them is to become like them--to turn on the iPod or tuck into the iPhone. Of course, the manufacturers of these devices want us all to be zombies. Zombies don't think, they shop. They'll stand in line for hours to buy electronics, cupcakes, hamburgers, shoes, whatever the Hive Leader tells them to desire.

Without an iPhone, I have to "play zombie" to keep them away from me. When I see them coming towards me, I look down and twiddle my thumbs in front of my chest, as if I'm texting, even though my hands are empty. "I'm an iZombie like you," this gesture says. "Don't hurt me." This fools them. They think I am one of them and they veer away. If I don't perform this empty-handed thumb twiddling, they will aim right at me.

When a texting zombie comes at you from behind, you will know them from the sound of their shuffling, stuttering steps, their weaving, jerky gait. They sound like zombies. In this situation, you have a few options (I have tried all three): 1. Run away to put distance between you and the zombie. 2. Stop short and brace for impact, thereby deflecting the zombie. 3. Start walking like a zombie--step left then suddenly right, stop and start again, weave from side to side. The zombie will tire of this and go around you.

Since Closterman's essay, zombies have become even more popular. They are everywhere. There's that Walking Dead show and the Zombie Crawls. In New York City, Ricky's pushed zombies as a personal ethos of cool with the slogans, "Zombies: Looking Dead. Feeling Good" and "Own Your Inner Zombie."

Somehow, zombies have become sex symbols.

There are zombie sex toys that simulate rotting genitals, because what's more exciting than intercourse with an animated corpse?

Of course, zombies are having sex with each other, not just silicone bits. A zombie doesn't want to be with a non-zombie and vice versa. The non-zombie might want to have an actual relationship, with real intimacy, or at least conversation, while the zombie would rather plug parts into other parts and send a bunch of text messages back and forth--sometimes simultaneously.

When zombies mate, they make baby zombies. Making a human baby into a zombie is simple--just give it electronic devices to play with and then ignore it. Its already primitive brain will wither quickly, along with its capacity for empathy. Soon it will want the same things all zombies want--mindless distraction and communal stupidity. It will aim to destroy thought because thought is frightening. It will grow up to devour the brains of non-zombies.

More zombies are coming every day. How will you protect your brain?

(Here's an idea--read more novels. They stimulate your brain, increase your empathy, and foster prosocial behavior--unlike, you know, "socially disruptive" narcissistic activities like updating your Facebook page.)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Steve Jobs, Ergo Sum

Last week, in preparation for the new iPhone launch, the Apple store in Chelsea removed all of the Steve Jobs memorial Post-It notes from their windows. (People are still walking around the city with Steve Jobs memorial hair, however.) While they were there, the notes gave us a glimpse into the hive mind of the Cult of Apple.

For the record, I am a long-time consumer of Apple products. I am not, however, a member of the Cult. I like my MacBook, but I don't want to meld my mind and body to it. As for Steve Jobs, I never thought much about him--I didn't think about his suicide-plagued sweatshops in China, nor the fact that he never gave a sou of his billions to charity. Plenty of others are speaking out about Jobs' lack of godliness, and that's not what really interests me.

What interests me is what's going on in the heads of people who seem convinced that Steve Jobs was godly to begin with.

So, to the notes.

The notes are an outpouring--"global" said the blue-shirted Genius inside--a global outpouring of grief and gratitude for Steve Jobs and the products he marketed so well.

"Thank you for the touch screen" and "I love my iPhone," they say. "I loved my iPad," says another, oddly in past tense, as if a product could die without its designer. That seems to be a fear people have, that all these shiny objects will vanish into the ether. Says another: "Thank you for changing our lives. May Apple products live on."

Can people separate the man from the product line?

"Thank you for your brain. XXOO," says one. Is Steve Jobs' brain embodied in the products themselves? In a way. Do people feel as if Jobs and the iPhone are one? Some notes would indicate yes. Like this one: "You were my first and I'm staying electronically true to you!"

Has some intimate exchange involving virginity transpired? "Electronically true" conjures an image of robotic love: When your USB cable plugged into my port for the first time, I knew...

Many people feel that Steve Jobs and his products improved their lives and the lives of everyone on the planet. Several notes say "You made my life better" and "You were a benefit to humanity."

What was that benefit? One sums it up: "You made us look and feel cooler." To look and to feel is to be. Isn't it?

How did Jobs do all of this? Apparently, he was God.

Members of non-Apple religions have declared their allegiance via conversion: "I'm a Pakistani who has completely converted to the Mac cause." They write, "Thank you for getting us where we need to go. The iPhone is a Godsend!" We can feel Godlike just by being connected to God via His products.

According to the notes, we would not exist without Jobs.

"We're different because you were," says one. (A similar note at the Soho Apple store says, "I am because you were." Forget about thinking--it's "Steve Jobs, ergo sum.")

More disturbingly, another note attests: "Only you could make the world."

The idealization of Jobs, and concurrent devaluing of the self, goes even further as one note-maker who worships the God of Jobs sees him or herself as NOTHING in comparison.

Is this the crux of the global outpouring of grief? Without Jobs and his products we are nothing. Is this the perverse message at the wormy core of Apple's marketing?

Look at the iPhone, the iPad--there's that "i" that seems to focus on you and me, providing a narcissistic extension of the self, but it is rendered only in lowercase, always smaller than the name of the product proper, less than. "i" am just a small addition to the product, clinging to its greatness.

The notes, in total, sound like a prayer, a sticky yellow prayer on a retail window. If we can sum up their collective message, the prayer might go like this:

"i am attached to You, and thus blessed, but i am less than You, oh God of sleek and shiny things, You who made the world, You who improved the suffering lot of humanity, You with Your incomprehensible, superior brain, You with your halo of goodness, You who made us look and feel like something important even though we were, and continue to be, nothing compared to You. i exist because you exist. For You so loved the world that You gave your one and only product line, that whoever believes in You shall not perish but have eternal iLife."


Post Script:

The Jobs memorial at the Soho Apple Store remains up. On a piece of pulp board someone has created a bloody valentine of sorts--"The streets miss you!"--with a deformed, half-blind, zombie-faced human clinging for life to the Apple logo.

Someone else has affixed an "Occupy Wall Street" sticker to the board. Above the sticker, a simple reminder: "SJ = 1%."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

We Love Your Dog!

The signs of the city can tell you a lot about what's happening socially. About a decade ago, we started seeing "Shut Up" signs all over the place. Clearly, they were necessary, and so we must assume that people needed to be told to shut up because they were getting louder and louder, caring less and less about their impact on others.

There's another breed of sign that's been cropping up everywhere more recently. It's the "We Love Your Dog" sign. It might also be the "We Love Your Baby" or "We Love You and Your Laptop" sign, but most often it has to do with dogs. ("Pets" really means dogs, since cat people don't usually bring Fluffy on errands.)

Years ago, businesses that sold food had signs on the door that said "No Dogs Allowed." Simple, straightforward, unassailable.

But today, more and more, they say something along the lines of: "We love your dog! Unfortunately, the big bad laws of the land say we can't let your dog inside. Please don't get mad at us--it's not our fault! To placate you and contain your narcissistic rage, here's a bowl of water and some treats. Really, truly, we LOVE your dog. Please don't get mad." (I am paraphrasing.)

You see these signs everywhere--I've collected quite a few--on the doors of big chain stores and little coffee shops. On grocery stores and Chinese restaurants. Many of them come with pictures of cute dogs. See? We really, really like them! (Please don't get mad.)

"Love" is the operative word here. The signs typically say we "love" your dog, pets, etc. Not: we're tolerant, or we don't mind, but we LOVE. The message is: We're not "haters" filled with negativity.

The signs almost always say "your" dog/pets. We love YOUR dog, not dogs in general. "We love dogs" could actually be true, but "We love your dog" is almost impossible. "We don't know your dog, so how could we love it," would be more accurate. But the words "you" and "your" have taken over marketing. They make people feel special, so there it is, the appeasing "your."

And then comes the turn, usually in the form of the word "unfortunately." It has a stammering quality, like a big gulp before the delivery of bad news you're afraid will get you slapped in the face. Don't upset the dog owner!

In this climate, some businesses just want to be the good guy. Like Ricky's, where they don't sell food, and so can allow pets. They make the most of it with this sign, basically saying, "Hey, we're not dog-hating jerks like a lot of other people in this neighborhood. We're cool."

So what are these signs telling us about human interactions in the city today?

It seems obvious that they are revealing a trend: Entitled people with dogs are getting very upset when they walk into a food establishment with their pet and are asked to take the animal outside. Maybe the dog person throws a fit. Maybe they go home and attack the business on their blog or give them a scathing review on Yelp. This happens frequently enough, and causes enough disruption, that the business has been forced to put up an ass-kissing sign.

We see a variation of the sign, though less frequently, with babies and strollers. "We really love your baby" they say, but the fire code says we can't have strollers in here. Again, the subtext is: "Please don't blame us! Please don't get angry! It's not our fault! Blame the government. We are not baby haters."

With good reason they cover their asses--we know what the stroller brigade did to the anti-babies in bars people.

But one of my absolute favorites in this genre of signage comes from a popular coffee shop in Park Slope, the New York neighborhood that is perhaps the epicenter of entitlement, and home to many dogs and strollers. It's a very long, funny, ass-kissing, walk-on-eggshells explanation about why they don't want customers hanging out for hours on their laptops, and it begins, "We're absolutely thrilled that you like us so much that you want to spend the day...and we love having you here, believe you me!"

It goes on to apologize in advance for having to "say something" to people who don't follow the rules, and "we really dislike that sort of thing, it is so not 'us' and makes everyone uneasy." Once again, the message is: Please don't make us be bad guys.

There's something pathetically simpering about all these signs. When did businesses get so afraid to be the heavy? It's like the Mom or Dad who wants to be pals and buddies with their children, rather than the authority figures who say what's what. In fact, I'm inclined to blame those Moms and Dads for the behaviors that led to the necessity for these signs.

Finally, here's how it should be done. This sign--in parent-coddling Park Slope, no less--is not afraid to assert itself and tell it like it is. "This is a doctors office, not a playground!!" But maybe you have to be a needle-wielding M.D. to get away with that?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Cells at Registers

People talk on their cell phones everywhere. We know this. We bear this unbearable fact daily. But one of the more egregious cell-phone uses occurs at the city's countless cash registers. You've seen them. Those people who approach the counter, plop down their purchases, and say nothing to the cashier, all the while yakking to some invisible someone else while the worker silently rings up their wares.

Money changes hands. No one speaks. The consumer behaves as if they are alone in the universe. It's one of the more dehumanizing everyday experiences we can witness.

Some businesses have begun expressing their weariness of such behavior with little signs displayed on their cash registers.

Think Coffee tries the polite approach, "kindly refrain from talking on your cell phone when ordering."

Soy Luck Cafe takes another tack, trying to flip the script, "If you are on the phone at the counter we will pretend that you don't exist." (As you pretend we don't exist.)

In small, parenthetical type, they add, "It's a beautiful world all around you. Be a part of it."

Awhile back, Ken Belson wrote about sidewalk cellphone use in the Times, "cellphone walkers are less likely to help a stranger in need, for instance, or to exchange pleasantries with passers-by. They are effectively cutting themselves off from the random encounters in public spaces that used to invigorate city living."

In Sherry Turkle's new book Alone Together, she complains "that the sight at a local cafe of people focused on their computers and smartphones as they drink their coffee bothers her: 'These people are not my friends,' she writes, 'yet somehow I miss their presence.'" In the Times review, Kakutani called this "primly sanctimonious...sentimental whining," but it's a profound statement. I know how Turkle feels. We have lost people to these devices.

As we lose humans to technology, we also lose a piece of our humanity.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Hipster vs. Bohemian

In 2009, the New School hosted a symposium entitled "What Was the Hipster?" (The companion book is now in print.) In 1955, the New School hosted a panel discussion tackling the question "Are There Any True Bohemians?"

From the department of "The More Things Change..." comes this brief report from The Village Voice of 1955:

Click twice to read large

What I wouldn't give to get my hands on a transcript of that entire discussion--Marianne Moore bemoaning the loss of Bleecker's pushcarts? Poet-critics talking about how "the physical character of the area is fast changing"? Frank O'Hara talking about whatever he talked about?

(This was at a time when you could find lectures in the Village on topics like "The Psychological Cost of Conforming" and "New Attitudes Toward Sex"--in which Dr. Abraham Kardiner delivered the good news that "There are indications that the female in her twenties isn't so much on the rampage today.")

What else did the Village writers and critics of the '50s have to say about Bohemians? Did they find them bothersome and omnipresent as many find hipsters to be today? Were they annoyed by their beards and fetishistic love of coffee? I doubt that the creative class unilaterally celebrated Bohemians then as much as we romanticize them now.

1950s Bohemians

What would poet Jean Garrique, and the rest of the panelists, have made of New York's 21st-century hipster? Would they have seen them as no different than the Bohemians of the 1950s city? Maybe they would say--about both groups--what the authors of What Was the Hipster? say in their book:

"It has long been noticed that the majority of people who frequent any traditional bohemia are hangers-on. Somewhere, at the center, will be a very small number of hardworking writers, artists, or politicos, from whom the hangers-on draw their feelings of authenticity. Hipsterdom at its darkest, however, is something like bohemia without the revolutionary core."

Maybe we've been asking the same question for half a century.

2000's Hipsters

Monday, December 13, 2010

Santacon Past

Santacon is known today as a day of drunken revelry. It is, essentially, a massive pub crawl. But when it began, back in 1994, it was Santarchy: "The Founder and Avatar of The Suicide Club, Gary Warne decided to organize a non-political, purely surreal Santa prank event after reading a Mother Jones article about a Danish political group dressing as Santas and mobbing a Copenhagen Dept. store just before Christmas."

The Danish group was known as Solvognen and they mobbed Copenhagen in 1974--Mother Jones wrote about them in 1977 (click for article). Their actions were a response to "greed and capitalism."

Santarchy Logo

The U.S. event was originally, says Wikipedia, "Influenced by the surrealist movement, Discordianism, and other subversive art currents, the Cacophonists celebrated the Yule season in a distinctly anti-commercial manner, by mixing guerrilla street theatre and pranksterism."

So, basically, Santacon used to be kind of punk. It sounds a lot like Reverend Billy's actions in the city's Starbucks. How then did it become the pub crawl it is today?

Santacon NYC Logo

While the Santacon NYC site says "It's not a bar crawl," they nevertheless give tips on how to survive the day that are almost all alcohol-related: "Pace yourself. Your friends don’t want to spend their Santacon cleaning the puke outta your beard." "Tip your bartenders well." "Don’t get arrested. Dressing like Santa does not exempt you from city, state and federal laws. This includes open container violations!" "Check in on your friends... Don’t send your wasted 22-year-old cousin on the train back to Ronkonkoma by herself!"

Maybe that's just the difference between 1974, 1994, and today, when "hordes of drunk Santas take over New York." Just as Christmas has been removed from its original meaning, so has Santacon. Of course, it took a couple thousand years for Christmas to lose its significance--and only a decade or so for Santacon. But things move so quickly nowadays from meaningful to meaningless, it's hard to keep up.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sidewalk Sitters

Something I've noticed over the past 5-7 years, or thereabouts, since the hyper-gentrification of everything went into full swing, is the increasing habit of non-homeless people to park their backsides on the sidewalks and curbs of the city.

At first, it would startle me. I'd see them at a glance, assume "homeless," and then get up closer and have to do a double-take. She's not asking for change with that Starbucks cup.

And it's not just that these sidewalk sitters are non-homeless people. I'm not talking about a bunch of skateboard kids or punks "chillin'" on the dirty curb. The people I'm talking about are largely middle and upper-middle class "regular" folks. It's the tourists and Juicy Couture shoppers. It's moms from Ohio.

They sit to make phone calls and write text messages.

They relax on the curb to have deep, intimate talks.

They plop down with their soy mocha lattes.

They sprawl out with their shopping bags.

They read maps and drink Snapple.

They place plastic containers of snacks on the curb next to them and indulge in a little street munching.

They spread their legs, enjoy their iced coffee, and send their digital missives.

They collapse en masse, with a group of pals, and shoot the breeze while leaning against a lamp post or a mailbox, or with their sandaled feet in the gutter. As if nobody ever pisses or pukes there. As if nobody's dog ever took a shit in that exact spot, and no toxic liquids flow through that green stream.

And you know what it is. It's the assumption of sterility. All those shiny boxes, those condos and newsstands made of glass, all that Bloombergian glitter makes people think everything in New York is clean, so the sidewalks must be too. Clean enough to eat off?

It's a minor complaint, perhaps a petty one, but something about it just bugs me.