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Slacker and the Failed Promises of the Internet

“…Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself. It is admitted that the presence of people who refuse to enter in the great handicap race for sixpenny pieces, is at once an insult and a disenchantment for those who do.” – from An Apology For Idlers by Robert Louis Stevenson

I was born in 1983, just months after Time awarded Person of the Year to the computer. What that means is I’m an “Old Millennial,” young enough to meme but old enough to have experienced a childhood lived largely offline and totally cell phone free. It was the perfect internet saturation point. I had web access, for instance, but it was dial-up and accessible solely on our shared family PC, which meant that if I was “surfing the web,” everyone in my house was aware of it. I couldn’t just stay online all day. People needed to use the phone, and besides, there weren’t all that many sites to check out anyway.

Being online still had an allure of the new. It still crackled with the promise of an artificial paradise. It was a dream that hadn’t yet been ruined by the banal realities of constant connectivity. We still believed that the world wide web would be the digital hub of an entire global village where ideas would be disseminated and shared, largely free of corporate or government control. It was to be a neutral dream space where the best and most fascinating parts of culture would form a wonderful chorus of voices harmonizing in a shared spirit of openness. The dream failed, of course. What we got instead was something more resembling gambling addiction: loneliness, psychological maladies, cyberbullying, and lots and lots of pornography. But for a kid like me, growing up in the Midwestern suburbs and hungry for contact with a larger world full of strange and interesting people, the internet’s dream that failed resembled the trailer for Richard Linklater’s film Slacker.

The connection between the failed promises of the internet and Linklater’s film, which was shot 30 years ago this year (but not released until 1991), might not be obvious at first glance. Slacker is unfortunately one of those late ’80s/early ’90s cultural effluvia that got marketed to the masses as something it wasn’t. Balled up with the early ’90s countercultural gold rush—Grunge, Liquid Television, Quentin Tarantino, etc.—its formal ingenuity and big heart were mostly overlooked. The film itself is easy to describe. Largely eschewing traditional narrative structures, the camera moves from character to character in a series of long and meandering shots in which the bohemian elements of Austin, Texas, go about their day. Visually, it has a lot in common with Jim Jarmusch’s early films like Permanent Vacation and Down By Law, but with a lot less ironic hipster posturing. There’s a radical sense of freedom in Linklater’s camera, celebrating the monologues and awkward conversation of Austin’s eccentrics with a democratic large-heartedness that’s Whitmanesque in its openness. Everyone is given their due, even the guy who claims that we’ve been on the moon since the ’50s. Even the pinball-playing security guard. Even the anarchist professor. Even the young man who breaks into his home to rob him.

Of course, Slacker is about a place. It’s about a specific street, in fact. The film was mostly shot on the eight blocks or so of Guadalupe Street, which skirt the University of Texas campus in downtown Austin. It’s a place, as James L. Haley writes in the officially published screenplay, full of “space cadets, goonballs, punk groupies, gently aging iconoclasts, coffee-shop feminists-gone-’round-the-bend, conspiracy dweebs luring in used-book stores, artists, anti-artists, and a whole purgatory of other refugees from the world of productive sanity.” What makes (or should I say “made,” since the very tech world I’m criticizing has pretty much cannibalized the Slacker cast of characters and monetized their lifestyles) Austin such a wonderful pressure cooker for the counterculture type is the unique confluences of higher education, state government, and the mental hospital. In Austin, these three elements blend, blur, and mix freely.

And perhaps not more than a little ironically, these are also the three elements from which the early internet and online culture sprang. Begin with some ARPANET, add a little Defense-funded university research and quasi-countercultural notions of freedom, and you have the basic building blocks of what would become the internet. But even from its inception, the revolution in the lab was markedly different from what was happening in the streets. As Elliot Neaman writes in his book Free Radicals, “There were actually at least two countercultures in 1968. The street mutineers dreamed of a political revolution, which was acted out as theater, using old scripts. In the second, politics became personal; emancipation came in the form of consumer choices. The first was collectivist and failed, the second was libertarian, individualistic, futuristic, and carried the day.”

“Libertarian” to a point, of course. The specter of total control via the internet was never far below the surface, and “individualism” became more of an advertising line than something deeply felt or pursued. The Palo Alto revolution led directly to our identity-based consumer culture, where atomistic nodes imagine themselves as anything they want to be, while at the same time being nudged, counted, quantified, and exploited in ways that have come to feel natural. In this sense, the internet was always fated to be more of a cross between gnosticism and finance rather than individualism and liberty.

It’s easy to say that it was a lie from the very beginning, but there are identifiable reasons why the dream of nonstop dialogue and fascinating conversation with time to “lean and loaf,” as Whitman wrote, failed to realize itself. Two forces, both countervailing and moving in seemingly opposite directions, made it impossible to digitize the Slacker experience: online over-saturation and the breakdown of the internet into a series of “micro experiences.”

The first is obvious. We’ve all experienced online over-saturation. It’s the reason there’s a sign hanging in my four-month-old daughter’s pediatrician’s office suggesting only two hours of “screen time” per day. It’s the reason people no longer know how to read maps or buy stamps. The internet has become more than an option—it’s how we think about the world and what we know within it. It’s made itself necessary for the most anodyne and common of activities. That ubiquity might suggest a total conformity of thought and feeling, but the opposite is actually true. As New School professor Dominic Pettman writes in his book Infinite Distraction, the internet tends to isolate us into niche, hyper-modulated experiences. There’s a certain amount of heterogeneity that you have to deal with in the real world, something that Slacker beautifully showcases. All the characters are misfits, but they’re wildly different from one another. What the internet does is lodge us into tribal stalls in which we only interact (mediated through a screen, of course) with people who think and talk just like us. It’s a breakdown into homogenous online tribes, and this disintegration of common culture based on a modicum of forced heterogeneity also means the death knell of the counterculture. You can’t have a counterculture if there is no primary culture to counter, so to speak.

Something else we’ve lost is the Slacker ability to slack. The internet presents itself as quasi-entertainment, all the time, even if what you’re doing is monetized, tracked, and encouraging of further quantifiable interaction. Simply put, it is no longer a giant, free hub of interaction. Instead, it’s the most efficient way business has to colonize our attention and monetize our daily lives. As Jonathan Crary writes in his fantastic book 24/7, “Billions of dollars are spent every year researching how to reduce decision-making time, how to reduce the useless time of reflection and contemplation. This is the form of contemporary progress—the relentless capture and control of time and experience.” He continues, “An attention economy dissolves the separation between the personal and the professional, between entertainment and information, all overridden by a compulsory functionality of communication that is inherently and inescapably 24/7.”

Having so much of our experiences forced online means that most of our lives are inescapably subject to the quantify/monetize logos. Could one wander, unnoticed, along the fringes of society if one wanted to? Is it even possible to work half-ass at a McJob in order to spend your free time reading Maldoror out of the line of sight of someone trying to make a buck off of you? And most importantly, are young people even interested in that sort of autonomy anymore? Perhaps the most disturbing thing about my generation is how we’ve defined rebellion down, blurring its edges and oversimplifying it so it somehow still collates with online exposure. Millions of preening young people, posturing for one another, with no gesture unquantifiable and nothing learned that the algorithm hasn’t taught them.

For me, Slacker is a melancholy artifact of what we’ve lost over the last 30 years. It’s still recognizable in many ways. People continue to fret over climate change and analyze pop culture to death like the characters in the film do. Watching it now, though, you can’t help but feel that we’ve traded older, deeper notions of freedom for a frenzied simulacrum of autonomy and monetized attention spans.

Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris ReviewBookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.