In 2008, two books were published within five months of each other about how geek culture was going to destroy the world. Susan Jacoby was inspired to write The Age of American Unreason after spending the night in a modern college dorm. Not because somebody drew a dick on her face while she was sleeping, but because she thought the dorm was too quiet.
The students chatted online with headphones stuffed in their ears instead of actually interacting with one another. Could it be that they were being quiet because they were creeped out by the 63 year-old lady sitting on their bunk bed taking notes? Jacoby quickly told the boring (rational) part of her brain to shut the fuck up, and started looking for a more interesting explanation. She ultimately decided that the students had wrapped themselves in an "iPod coccoon" that was responsible for "a new species of semi-conscious anti-rationalism."
The book immediately became a bestseller. At first, this must have looked like a problem to yet another writer (Mark Baurlein) who was about to publish a book that basically said the same thing.
But he soon realized there was room for improvement, as she had failed to explicitly call an entire group of people retarded in the title. So in July he published The Dumbest Generation, which used a barrage of startling claims and an absurdly long subtitle to explain (deep breath) How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or Don't Trust Anyone Under 30).
(Title continued on back.)
Anti-tech manifestoes were no longer being mailed out by bearded recluses with a complimentary pipe bomb. Mark Bauerlein was a respected English professor and the book got a favorable review in the Los Angeles Times (it's called a newspaper. More on these later). Ted Kazinsky had gone mainstream.
But there were a few problems with Jacoby and Baurline's theory. A Newsweek review of The Dumbest Generation pointed out that cognitive scientists believe information technology is making us smarter, not dumber. It also pointed out that IQ scores have been on the rise since the 1930s, meaning the pod creatures Jacoby observed were on average the smartest generation to ever pass through that college dorm. So how did two of the most talked about books of the year both come to the conclusion that information technology had created a force field of stupid around us?
Geek apologists pointed out that academics have a long proud history of freaking the fuck out in the face of progress. Sir Isaac Newton's laws of mechanics was called "a rape manual" by the academics of his day. But Baurlein isn't some kooky old physicist who thinks gravity wants to have nonconsensual sex with his wife. He's something far more dangerous (and far less awesome): a teacher.
That means that right now, twenty of the brightest young men and women in Atlanta are enrolled in a class taught by a man who filled 272 pages complaining about how retarded they are. And what about students whose geek phobic teachers weren't publicly handed their asses in a major magazine? For instance, the high school teacher who provides most of the claims at the heart of The San Francisco Chronicle article "American Kids, Dumber Than Dirt: The next generation might just be the biggest pile of idiots in U.S. history." (Seriously, who's writing these fucking subtitles?)
It's like that story about how Einstein's elementary school teachers thought he was retarded because they didn't understand him. Only it's not an urban legend and it's happening to an entire generation.
The mainstream media is flooded with eulogies for the newspaper (a bunch of sheets of low grade wood pulp that used to give people their information--think the Drudge Report, but slower and without flashing graphics that told you which story was actually important).
About 15 years ago, most people realized that the whole wood-pulpy mess would become unnecessary as soon as the newspapers figured out how to use the Internet. That never happened.
As Rupert Murdoch put it, the newspapers spent the ensuing years "remarkably, unaccountably complacent . . . quietly hoping that this thing called the digital revolution would just limp along." In other words, they called the digital revolution's bluff, a ballsy maneuver which went approximately as well as it did for Mr. Takagi in Die Hard.
"Well Hans, I guess you'll just have to kill me then."
As publishers went bankrupt and newspapers across the country died, the mainstream media consulted the five steps of grieving and, seeing that anger comes after denial, they got pissed. The year's greatest old-media hissy fit came to us live on the HBO show Costas Now, when sports writer Buzz Bissinger unleashed a crass, obscenity laced rant about how crass and obscenity laced blogs are. But maybe the most telling moment came later when the blogger they'd brought on to ambush was criticized ... for something that was written in the comment section of the blog ... by someone else.
"Now, you write the Internet, correct? Is that how this works?"
Anyone who understands blogs knows why that's not fair. It's like reading a book report on Old Man and the Sea, and criticizing Hemingway for claiming his book was "better than pizza." People who actually use blogs would have noticed that the commenter's name was Pipelayer and immediately realized he was a 12-year-old.
The mainstream media isn't wrong that the Internet emerged from the primordial soup looking all sorts of fucked up. They're just wrong about whose fault it is. They woke up to an online world that the average teenager understands better than them, and so they got mad at the teenager. Maybe it was time to take a look in the mirror, or at least another look at Rupert Murdoch. He told them they were out of touch three years ago and he's so old that his face appears to be made almost entirely of scrotum skin.
Seriously guy, get your head out of your ass.
At the other end of the getting it totally wrong spectrum, CNN launched i-Report which lets users create headlines. In effect, they created a news site that was one big comment section, where the Pipelayers of the world could make the news. It was like watching the old horse buggy driver finally break down and get a car, then getting confused as to how the horse was supposed to fit behind the wheel. The problem ain't the design of the car, Jebediah.
Cracked fans come from all ends of the political spectrum, so there was sharp disagreement between those who thought Sarah Palin was "fucking retarded" and those who thought she was merely retarded, her condition not rising to a level that would require the "fucking" modifier.
But that really missed the point. Yes, a lot of you perceived an infuriating "ignorant and damned proud of it!" attitude from Palin, as she smirked and winked and demonstrated what seemed to be a high schooler's grasp of politics. But what's important is that many, many American elections have been won with that shrugging, "aw shucks, I'm just common folk with no use for that high falutin' fancy book-learnin'" act. Not this time.
"Math is scary!"
In 2000, George W. Bush was the affable, goofy common man we'd all like to have at our barbecue. Al Gore was a robot, smart and unfeeling as HAL 9000 and just as likely to lock us all out of the bay doors because of some unfathomable calculation made in his computer brain. We went for Bush, and in fact we've been voting for the George W. Bush in that matchup for a couple of centuries, due to an odd misfire in the American brain that associates low intelligence with honesty.
In 2008, that same stage was set again. The white, elderly, self-effacing war hero who boasted that he finished at the bottom of his class in the Academy. The small town beauty queen. A ticket as American as a six shooter.
They were matched up against a young, not-white guy with a foreign name who did not run on his humble roots, could not boast that he was a war hero, who insisted on pronouncing "Pakistan" as "Pah-kis-stahn" and who, by all appearances, would go into a violent seizure if his cell phone or Blackberry were taken away.
Also, we think this is what The Matrix would look like if done with a black guy.
Then he threw the switch on an online fundraising machine that drowned the campaign in cash (or more accurately, drowned McCain's campaign with it) and mobilized a high-tech "ground game" that will be studied by every future campaign, volunteers dispatched by advanced databases that tracked every voter.
That's right: he simply out-geeked McCain.
McCain's campaign fought back with the most advanced tactics in its own arsenal: the "our opponent is a closet Commie" tactic that worked so well for Eisenhower.
They seemed shocked to find the world had changed in the last 56 years, and it was in the absolute ass-beating that occurred on election day we saw how stark was the divide between generations. McCain won exactly one age group: Those 65 and older. Everyone else went Obama by increasingly higher percentages as you get younger (he more than doubled McCain's margin among 18-29 year-olds, 66% to 32%).
McCain can't even raise his arms like that. Come on.
The ones who had the highest stake in the future--because they are still going to be alive to see it--overwhelmingly voted one way. And the future is what the Geek is all about. That's why we love technology and gadgets and sci-fi. It's about looking forward and embracing what's coming, unafraid.
This is a huge change; we grew up hearing grown-ups talk about the past in glowing terms, dreaming of returning to old-time values and an era when all was right with the world, when there was no crime or gays, when women knew their place and America dominated the globe.
The geek, on the other hand, looks back and sees a time when couples on TV couldn't be shown sleeping in the same bed, when calculations were done with pencil and paper and having a friend in Japan meant waiting eight weeks for a letter to arrive.
The Geek then says, "Fuck that" and goes online to shop for a 3G neural implant. The future can't get here soon enough.
Since this is our second to last article of the year, and because we're stupid for lists spread out over two pages, check out the 10th through 6th most popular articles of 2008:
Check the end of tomorrow's article for the five most popular articles of the year.