I do have a fuzzy recollection of those days when, as a young man, I would fall into bed, exhausted from the day, and find myself instantly asleep. Clearer are the memories of days of seeming unremitting stress as I struggled to pull my life into some semblance of, first, harmony, and then later, health. Those days presaged whirligig nights of blanket fights that raged from dusk ‘til dawn. I awoke as exhausted as before the bout. Thankfully, it has become better in these calmer years. Better, yes, but sometimes really weird.
I no longer retire with much expectation of sleep. If it comes it comes, I can take it or leave it. Night is, far more predictably, a time for meditation and the freedom to engage in conversation with someone who completely shares my interests and perspective. I refer, naturally, with no slight intended to my dear wife, to myself.
It grows increasingly clear as I bumble through my 60s that enlightenment is a personal journey. The only commonality we share with others on the trip is the ever-receding horizon. As a result, the person closest to our heart is not the one who chatters along about plans for tomorrow or next week. It is instead the one most tolerant of our inclination to stare dreamily into space, going where "no man has gone before," and where we all must travel alone. I refer, of course, to our morning mirror buddy, ourselves. If we happen to live with someone who not only tolerates us, but genuinely cares for us —that is truly wonderful.
All of which is, of course, unnecessary prologue to the strange perceptual experience I had the other night. I say "perceptual experience" because the line between a waking meditative reverie and a sleeping dream has become thin enough to ignore. The “experience” had to do with Felix the Cat and a mimeograph machine. In a scene reminiscent of Fantasia, an endless stream of Felix the Cat models spewed out of a mimeograph machine and marched downstairs, in search no doubt of the excellent scallop and garlic pasta dish Christine had made for dinner. I would awake, toss and turn, go back to sleep and Felix would march on. The connection between Felix and the mimeograph may not be immediately obvious, but it does make sense.
Those who do not study the media may be unaware that Felix the Cat was the very first TV star. In 1928 the experimental TV station in New York W2XBS needed a moving image to calibrate their primitive cameras. They put a 13-inch tall papier-mâché model of Felix, a current print and film star, on a record turntable and spun him around. And there he sat for 2 hours a day for almost a decade, transfixing the handful of employees and engineers who could receive the gradually improving image on a fuzzy, black and white two-inch screen.
During that same era the stencil printing, or mimeograph, machine was gaining some popularity in business offices around the country. My memories of that particular piece of technology spring from my first teaching jobs in the early 1970s. I recall being particularly entranced with the first electric mimeograph machines where the hand crank was replaced by an electric motor that allowed the copies to spill from the machine at seemingly blinding speed.
The implications for the Internet may not be immediately obvious — still they are there. You see, the most amazing thing about Felix spinning around in front of the primordial TV camera and the pages marching out of the mimeograph machine, like brooms under Mickey's spell, was the technology that produced them. Felix transfixed us because of how he got into that tiny little screen — pictures through the air. Same for the mimeograph machine. Dozens of copies at the flip of a switch, hundreds if you wanted them. OK, so you couldn't read the last few dozen, but look how many there are!
We are currently entranced with the incredibly cool ways that the Internet gets stuff before our i-s. That's not a typo, I mean our iPhones, our iPads, our iPods and all the other iLike things that we stuff into our pockets. Mr. Jobs sure got that one right, as did the guys in the Googleplex and the kid over at Facebook. We are in love with seeing things on screens, we are in love with the technology that the Internet mainlines into our lives. The content? Well, that's lagging a bit behind. Angry Birds? Come on now.
It has often been thus with new forms of technology. Mature content flourishes in mature technology. In mature technology the issue is not "What can I do?" The concern is "what can I say?" In mature communication media content dominates; combining nuance, depth and subtlety in pursuit of conceptual clarity is a primary concern.
In new technologies the fascination is with "What can I do?" Make pictures move, stuff Morse code into a wire, send print, speech and moving images through the air. Look what we can do! Isn't that cool? The disparity between “do” and “say” usually sorts itself out. Eventually the "Wow cool, look what I can do!" fascination fades and the subtlety of insightful content creation resurfaces, often more vibrant than before. It is then that new art forms evolve, communication becomes increasingly nuanced. However, it strikes me that the unprecedented speed at which new layers of communication media are evolving is warping that traditional process. Content struggles to keep up with capacity — hence messages struggle to gain maturity:
"Look, I can point my phone at the bar code next to that coat in the window and click this little thingy and, since I put my size and address info onto the store's website, I can buy it right now, at 3 in the morning!"
"Do you want the coat?"
"No, not really, but how cool is that app?"
See what I mean? I'm not saying that there isn't worthwhile content out there in cyberspace. There is. However, at this point in time, increasingly the tail wags the dog. Actually the tail is wagging the puppy.