Ever since I survived the intellectually and emotionally overwhelming roller coaster that is The Wire last year, I take a substantial amount of solace in re-watching episodes from time to time. This can’t be helped – the show is perfectly written, and my tendency to revisit this viewing experience is strongly linked to the fact that even just watching it makes me feel like a better, more well-rounded human being. I swear this inclination has nothing to do with Stringer Bell’s panty-crushing presence, or Omar Little’s swagger. I swear.
Recently, I turned to Season 2 whilst ironing, as the plight of others makes me want to smooth out all of the wrinkles in the world. Season 2 was vastly overlooked by a lot of people, probably because there are a lot of new characters introduced who we are told to care about, and why would we care about these new humans when we already have the aforementioned Stringer Bell’s panty-crushing presence and Omar Little’s swagger? But the season is actually very compelling and, since it explores the challenges of unions in post-manufacturing America, very important.
During this particular viewing, there was one line in particular which caught my attention. It’s at the end of the season, when Frank Sobotka has accepted the inevitable fate of the grain pier and tells the shifty-ass lobbyist, Bruce, “You know what the trouble is Brucey? We used to make shit in this country. Build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket.”
The line struck a chord with me because of an article I read recently talking about young engineers coming out of school today. These kids are the brightest in North America; they have enough information in their mind-brain to build whatever they want. To cure whatever they want. To accomplish anything they want. But it seems that the going trend isn’t for these talented young people to apply themselves at a career where they can take on the world, make the world a better place, or even just learn from the wisdomous humans who came before them. They don’t want to create something that lasts; they want to create something cool. They don’t want to help a team of researchers cure breast cancer; they want to singularly crack the code for developing the next hot-selling sexting app.
Just a few weeks before this, I was watching Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” interview with Howard Stern, and Jerry made a similar comment. “America used to be a place that had steel and cars and giant department stores. Now we basically produce amateur talent and people that judge amateur talent.” True the previous version of America that Seinfeld is talking about was unsustainable on several levels, but so is the one we’re living in now.
These observations seem obvious, but I think Sobotka’s statement really highlighted the sensitivity of the issue for me. It’s sensitive because I’m a liberal arts major – a fact which leaves me sorely lacking on the supply side of the economic scale. I can create, write, design and build things on the computer, but they are usually things that help people sell other things. I produce the means, not the end. I’m not sensitive about this in a way where I wish I’d done something more; I know who I am and this is definitely the right area of work for me. I could have pushed myself into other areas, but I would never have been as good an engineer as someone whose brain is bent that way. Something about square pegs and round holes. I have every respect for people who have the technical expertise that I do not – so much so that I have dedicated my career to supporting them.
So it’s naturally frustrating when I see the people who have this technical expertise drift away from setting higher expectations for themselves and their business, and rest on setting higher expectations for selling that business to consumers. They find the selling end “fun”, which is understandable since the very nature of selling is to make old ideas appear bright and shiny (and new, scary ideas seem harmless and timeless). But they have/paid for the critical knowledge that is in their head. I can build bridges and connections between abstract concepts in my mind; they can build ACTUAL, physical bridges. They’re free to come into my realm and strain away from their own passions, but at what cost?
While you’re asking yourself why students are choosing to spend their time developing sexting apps, I think you have to look past the obvious connection that they are just doing the “cool” thing. After all, these are educated women and men; they should be given a bit more credit than that. What they’re actually doing is the wanted thing; you might even say the demanded thing. Nielsen recently released a new cross platform report, which details that 89% of time on a smartphone is spent using apps. Never mind talking or texting actual friends in our lives; the data is clear – we can’t get enough apps. You can’t so clearly and loudly ask for apps, and expect that you’ll receive better health care in return.
Similarly, and just as depressingly, social media is now the top internet activity, used more frequently than even email. According to the IACP Center for Social Media, social media accounts for one in every six minutes spent online. If time is money, North America is telling the world that we are fucking cheap. This isn’t just a growth area; it’s THE growth area. So why wouldn’t young people dive headfirst into the land of the unnecessary and “get theres” (#Zuckerberging)? The needs of the many are a pretty small matter when there’s a huge potential pay day on the line.
Yes, the social and intellectual landscape of the world is quickly changing, and yes in many ways this can be a good thing (i.e., insert obvious statement here about the implied accountability of more information and connectivity). But this shouldn’t be confused with assuming that it will definitely be a good thing. We still have choices to make, and seemingly-powerless liberal arts majors and others on the “demand” side don’t have to just blindly accept what’s thrown at us. We are afforded so many rights and privileges in Canada and the United States, and we ignore pretty well all of them. Author and activist Anna Lappe said it best with her simple assertion, “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want to live in”. In this increasingly measurable and measured world, it’s best to take that statement one step further and assume that every time you click on something you are casting a vote – and perhaps allowing yourself to be diverted away from some of the central issues that your family and community will be facing in the very near future.
What humans want will always seem more important than what we need. But if we don’t at least try to shift our focus, what we need might go away. And it won’t be the fault of the people who put their hand in the next guy’s pocket; it will be the fault of the people who kept their hands in their own pockets, shrugged, and demanded nothing.