Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Whether in our private bunkers buried deep in the side of a West Virginia mountain or in the public splendor of our glass-ringed corporate HQ offices at the summit of Disquieting Trends Towers, we love us the technology. We bask, bathe and otherwise soak in its nurturing LED-glow—the promise of instant-everything at the flick of our thumbs tingling like a good bourbon up and down our gullet. We take the joy of gadgets to be one of our birthrights as children born to The Brady Bunch and brought to the full extension of our powers under the steady tutelage of the trusty V.J.s of the 1980s1. We understand that Technology is Mother—having nurtured us as we are young and still being there to comfort us when we are developing our first aches and pains—and that we metaphorically suckle at its cyber nipple in a continual gesture of supplication to her all-embracing love. In short, we love our gizmos and magic elixirs because we believe that they love us.

That being said, we must ask: Why does every one of our gizmos and magic elixirs find ways to consistently disappoint us when it matters most?

Thus, an edition of Disquieting Modern Trends devoted to the ways in which Mother Technology continually finds ways to make us feel adopted.

fingernailclippers_clean_cl.jpgNail Clippers
We realize we’re starting with the primitive and non-electronic here, but—trust us—the nail clipper is a perfect example of modern technology at its vexing, bait-and-switch worst. The design is brilliant—custom made for Claus Oldenburg’s large-form soft sculpture memorializing. As kids we were fond of using various sizes of nail clippers (the sleek and coy baby fingernail clipper, the sensible and trim adult fingernail clipper, and the intimidating, broad-shouldered, vaguely phallic adult toenail clipper) in an elaborate Star Trek-esque fantasy game, swooping them about like warp-speed star cruisers and sweeping out their hinged nail-file attachment to represent the intergalactic flames that would emerge from their ion-powered engine ports. (We were foot-grooming accessory dorks—we admit it.) These ornate, insectazoid tools seemed to come from an adult work of intricate design that must have been given to us by a higher intelligence visiting our innocent US suburbs from a far off galaxy of improbably technical marvels, we thought.

But as adults—when we finally started to use these snippers for actual toenail cutting—our cynicism was immediate. You clip, and that part works just fine. But the little bits of toenail that fly off in random directions?—Not so cool. We’re reminded, on the one hand, of our mommas leaning over a wastepaper basket trying to aim the yellowing shards therein and, on the other hand, of Hal Incandenza in David Foster Wallace’s under-enjoyed Infinite Jest aiming his toe nubbins at the wastebasket from across the room. The point being—this particular technology takes your toenails and errantly sprays them across your living space. The idea of attaching some kind of collection bag to the side of the clippers—like the bag on a lawn mower, perhaps—seems beyond the scope of modern technology. We can land a man on the moon and we can get the guy who played “Screech” on Saved by the Bell on TV, but we can’t, etcetera and so on2.

Our bafflement stands before us like a great monument of worry.

mrcleanlogo.jpgWe are very tidy men—or, at least, the Thai children we have imported to scrub the cabana’s marble countertops after late-night margarita madness are. What we don’t understand is why we—um, they—have to work so hard to scrub off the sticky post-margarita detritus, especially when it has been left in the sink with our raisin bran bowls from this morning. We applaud the liberal use of the Formula 409, but it does not seem to do the trick—not to our extra-high, German hausfrau standards anyway. Have you seen the latest ad campaign for Formula 409 in which the good people at the Clorox company wax endlessly about how dangerously potent Formula 410 would be?3. We say, bring it on! And likewise the rest of our soap, disinfectant, and solvent needs! What do you MEAN we have to buy a fruity little scrub sponge to get scuff marks off the linoleum? We want, like, Mr. Clean’s Taser Machine: ZAP and the dog starts to howl and the lights dim for just a second and you can smell the ozone. We believe in the power of radioactive and slightly unstable elements when de-scumming our shower curtain. We feel dead-on certain that Rumsfeld doesn’t have to run his dishwasher twice just because he left the marinara on his plates overnight.

Space travel gave us Tang and Velcro, but nothing better to clean up our mess? We think they are bogarting it for their own use, personally. NASA bastards.

Cellphones, Cellphone VoiceMail, Basically the Entire Telecom Promise of Constant and Immediate Connection
We have them, we use them, we rely on them, we’re even willing to believe that they are not shooting some kind of harmful waves into the subtler portions of our brains—but still, why do cellphones basically suck our weenies?4. Treo_google_screen_DMT_2.jpg
In our experience, cellphones only work about 70% of the time. It’s not at all uncommon for our brokers or personal sushi chefs to be trying to reach us with some kind of yellow fin emergency, yet the call is (a) not getting through, (b) enveloped in some kind of Brian Wilson-y echo effect, (c) cutting out as soon as we lean over to grab a mojito from the butler’s tray, or (d) putting us on some kind of unintentional conference call with a woman in Cincinnati who is trying to return a pair of Size-16 wrinkle-free khakis to L.L. Bean. We were told that text messages get through on even fewer “bars” than phone calls, but the notion that we need to type our personal communications on a tiny keyboard when we still have larynxes in perfect working order seems, uh, like a step backward rather than a step forward, not to mention that in this calendar year we have routinely gotten text messages from our cool young friends that were sent sometime during the early Paleolithic.

Cellular voicemail is a whole ’nother level of annoyance and vexation. We all know by now how to use it, so we do not need a thirty-second explanation of what we need to do next (e.g., press a button, page someone, leave a message). And we KNOW that all that gunk is put in there to run up our minutes in a nefarious collusion by all those service providers who are in bed so close with each other it makes that Alltell commercial with all the spokespersons together resonate in a Big King way (see D.M.T. Super Bowl Edition). No, the problem is not that it is slow and cumbersome and kind of cosmically redundant. The problem is that we often get voicemails from people who called us even though our phone never rang. Can’t say for sure, but this seems like—minimum—a reversal of cause and effect. Until someone like Stephen Hawking or Brian Greene5 gives us a person to consult on this, we are labeling it: disquieting.

The summary point is this: we want to love our Treos and Razors and Blackberries and the way in which they provide us with constant media stimulus and connection to the vast cyber/telecom/entertainment consortium that we so lovingly caress for a living. But the promise of all this digital linkage can best be described as a shadow on the wall of the media cave.

The Fact That You No Longer Have to Sign Your Credit Card Slips Which Suggests That, in Fact, You Never Really Had to Sign the Damned Things at All Even Though, for Years, They Made It Seem Like You Absolutely DID
credit_card_slip_for_DMT_2.jpgFor countless decades we sat in restaurants and watched the bill come in those leather billfolds, and we dutifully placed the credit card in the slot and awaited the billfold’s return—replete with a pen for the Ceremonial Signing of the Credit Card Form. This ritual—comforting, legal, even presidential in tone—was taken dead seriously by all involved. On more than one occasion when we forgot to sign the thing, our waiter came dashing across the street after us to obtain the crucial John Hancock, on which the entire food-for-fee industry seemed to hinge. The whole thing has always made us feel like our fathers, for better or worse.

Now, suddenly, the signature is optional. Gas stations don’t want it and, increasingly, neither does anyone else. That’s cool, except: why was the signature ever needed in the first place? The disquietude here is less regarding the absence of the signature than in the horrible acknowledgement by our entire culture that all that signing, all that signature chasing, even the occasional signature-checking-by-the-cashier-glancing-down-at-the-white-strip-on-your-card, and all that general ballpoint-pen ink-wasting was always unnecessary.6 Like the chemical some people tell you is in their pool that will nail you if you decide to take a leak in the deep end, the whole signature thing has always been a ruse. Today, when a business asks us for a signature, we choose to stare at them in wide-eyed innocence. If Exxon don’t need it, neither do you, buddy.

Microwave Ovens
Before we are accused of going for the lowest of fruit—the fact that, 25 years after their invention, microwaves are still incapable of heating anything evenly—forebear. We recognize that such a complaint would be more, like, a Disquieting Modern Trend of 1982. We also will not gripe about the fact (A) that it has a clock, making the microwave clock the seventh clock in the kitchen, together with the fridge, the stove, the radio, and the wine chiller, and making correlation between them like splitting the atom, or (B) that it dings insistently after it is done to remind you to take out whatever it was you put in. Like it has somewhere else to be.

microwave_huge_closeup_rule.jpgAll of these issues have been well covered elsewhere. You know us better than that. No, we bemoan the total lack of imagination that afflicts both microwave creators and patrons alike, the sad rows of buttons promising exotic possibilities (“Dinner Plate!” “Potato!”) when we all know that microwaves are used 99% of the time to nuke whatever it is for “minute plus,” then open it up 5 seconds before the ding because you hate that fucking ding (and you want to strike preemptively against the reminder ding, which will put you right out of your gourd). What an armamentarium of possibilities the microwave first promised! We remember the first time we scrambled an egg in one, only to leave the spoon in and almost burn down the house. And the egg tasted like crap too. We are saddened by waste everywhere, and those microwave cookbooks just remind us of high school science projects, full of crazy conjecture totally unrelated to the culinary milieu of the microwave user. In short, we wish they were never made; so sad to see such potential squandered through lack of imagination and initiative.

Next Edition: The Fact That the Proliferation of “Fashion” Reality TV Has Done Nothing to Make America Seem Less Aesthetically Horrible in Every Possible Sense.

1Just to be clear: we don’t mean to go into a Gen X nostalgia swoon here, as routines involving deeply felt cultural jack-offery are the exclusive province of the boomers who own the rights to such nostalgia and if they catch you waxing unctuously about anything other than The Beatles—or The Awesomeness of Old VW Beetles— will actually sue you using the fearsome power of their collective law degrees1A. Martha_Quinn_26_2.jpgThat said, we urge you with all our non-nostalgic MTV Generation non-power to check out the Wikipedia entry on MTV V.J.s here. Not only will you non-nostalgically bask in the remembrance that “Downtown” Julie Brown was the winner of a disco-dancing contest in the 70s, that Adam Curry indeed looked as ridiculous as you recall him looking, that before there was Dr. Dre there was MTV’s Dr. Dre of Yo! MTV Raps (who actually was more than just a fat guy and was a D.J. for the early Beasties), and that Martha Quinn, the step-daughter of financial columnist Jane Bryant Quinn, was once memorialized in a Mojo Nixon song called “Stuffin’ Martha’s Muffin”—but you will also be treated to a list of the current and former V.J.s for MTV Indonesia (Rianti Cartwright), MTV Thailand (Jane Sriprayul or “Waew”), MTV Mandarin (Katherine—?), and MTV India (Ramona—??), among others. We are, for the record, utterly over MTV (though we will go tits-up for a “Beavis and Butthead” marathon if it ever occurs to them) but remain fascinated by the fact that world is ten years ahead of us on Improvised Explosive Devices but about 20 years behind us in Finding Music Videos To Be Stoooopid. Suckers.

1A my-so-called-life_claire_da.jpgTrue factaroo: The baby boomers who run MTV (natch) actually refused to cooperate in media stories about the recent 25th anniversary of the cable station’s launch. Why? The non-D.M.T. Media suggested it was because said Boomer-MTV-Execs did not want the former video-playing channel to seem old or washed up, but we are telling you, the graying B.B.s are engaged in a full-out nostalgia clampdown. Speak dreamily of your affection for My So-Called Life at you own peril, twenty-and-thirty-somethings. You heard it here first … .

2screech_saved_by_the_bell_2.jpgSamuel “Screech” Powers (yeah, that was the character’s whole name) was played by the towering acting force known as Dustin Diamond for—we shit you not—13 years of Why-Can’t-I-Stop-No-Seriously-Why-Can’t-I? TV viewing. That the U.S. Entertainment Industry found employment for Mr. Diamond for over a dozen long years says something about our world so flatly disquieting and baldly mortifying that even we don’t think you need us to lay it out for you. We’ll say this: after “Saved by the Bell was finally, mercifully cancelled, Mr. Diamond’s most prominent public appearances were: (a) on The Weakest Link, (b) a gruesome pummeling of Welcome Back, Kotter’s Horshack on Celebrity Boxing, and (c) in a self-produced video—Dustin Diamond Teaches Chess—in which his pedagogy is interrupted by stone-hilarious episodes of our latter day Boris Spassky dressed up as “Screech” and doing shtick. We don’t ask much from you folks, but we do require this: never patronize anything this guy is associated with, please.

3formula_409_ugh_crap_2.jpgHead on over to the Formula 409 web site and get up with the fantastical Tale of Formula 409, allegedly developed by “two young scientists in Detroit” (already we’re not buying THAT) who wanted to create “the ultimate cleaner.” It took them 409 tries to discover this particular green mixture, the carcinogenicity of which has been confirmed by the I.A.R.C. (we looked it up) but that seems to have roughly the cleaning power of Diet Pepsi? Please.

4panda_panda_go_panda.jpgOr, just as importantly, why is there always an article in some magazine near us pointing out that in Japan cellphones are already utterly awesome and perfect and flawless and tiny and multi-colored and thin as decent prosciutto and implanted in the cerebral cortex? We invented the microchip, not the Japanese—and plus they’ve got all that weird-ass giant-eyed anime occupying their consciousness. Shouldn’t we be getting the better phones first?

5Have you been keeping up with the latest developments in string theory? Because we have been up on this pretty good for a few years now—dutifully reading The Fabric of the Cosmos, The Elegant Universe, and A Brief History of Time as if they were the funny papers—and, frankly, it’s time for some results. These physicists and their noble search for a “theory of everything” is all well and good, but when are they going help us hit the lottery or maybe win in our fantasy baseball leagues? Kind of cool to imagine that every bit of matter and energy in the universe is made up of tiny, vibrating strings, but what equation will keep the rice cooker from creating that slightly burned film at the bottom and keep us from scraping our tires against the curb when we park on a narrow street? Let’s go, Hawking. All those cutesy guest voice appearances on The Simpsons are slowing down your innovations.5A Chop-chop.

5Apynchon_mughsot_2.jpgThe Simpsons guest spots, however, have not been slowing down the redoubtably paper-bag-over-his-head gotten-up U.S. Super-Author Thomas Pynchon, whose new übertome, Against the Day, comes out toward the end of November 2006. We know what post-modernism has been over for at least as long as Madonna’s career, but we don’t care. Pynchon is a funny Super-Author—certainly funnier than DeLillo and so much funnier than all those mini-Pynchons we referenced in our last D.M.T. that we feel guilty for even vaguely endorsing them—and he sends us into a Grade A swoon or literary envy. O how we dig you, Ruggles! So: get your ass to a bookstore and spend some hard-earned green on 1,000-plus pages of kookykrazy mindless pleasure.

6This reminds us, incidentally, of the disturbing discovery each year during D.M.T. Inc. Mandatory First Aid Training that correct CPR technique is in a state of continual flux. Fifteen compressions-two breaths, then 30 and two, then later maybe a dozen-and-one—then the utter dismissal of the need to “check for pulse”? How can this kind of stuff be confusing? Has the elemental nature of human life changed since 2004? Or—holy yikes—can it be that the American Red Cross just didn’t know what was up a few years ago? It goes without saying that we no longer trust any of these E.M.T.s about anything and suspect that “life-saving” is closer to luck or maybe jazz fusion than it is to science. From now on, we will take the CPR class only because, frankly, we’ve developed a little “thing” for Resuscie Annie over the years. That girl even likes football. And we know exactly how to find her sternum. Seriously!

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Disquieting Modern Trends: We Do More Than Watch Nip/Tuck till 3 a.m. (Seriously, We Do) Edition If you've been following this column with any regularity at all, then we imagine you can picture us pretty accurately: two bald yet notably virile men glistening with up-to-date cultural consciousness, simultaneously watching four video screens that are tapped into a satellite network of both mainstream and marginal entertainment, listening to obscure podcasts, perusing the hottest "blogs" and YouTubing in a smaller corner window -- all while reflexively turning away the namby-pamby advice of our pollsters and media consultants and being served Dim Sum on the naked bellies of our harem of no-longer virginal Indonesian female mathematicians.
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