Ah, it’s that magical, most wonderful time of the year…made ever less magical and wondrous by “holiday creep”: wherein a combination of commercial interests and our own (recently-evolved) ability to wring every ounce of sentiment from any experience (through technology that puts any song, image, or film at our fingertips for instant viewing) results in a “holiday season” that now seems to begin sometime in September!
We’ve progressed to the point that it can be a bit of a shock (at least for someone of my “middle age”) to watch American movies from the 1940’s and see George Bailey bringing home the “merry Christmas wreath” — or the Bishop’s wife ordering a tree for delivery — on (gasp!) Christmas Eve! What’s wrong with these people?
I heard the writer/director Nora Ephron in a recent interview lament that our current ability to record just about anything for later viewing (as opposed to the old experience of simply “missing” something on TV or in the theater) is creating a situation where we can now find ourselves hours behind on our entertainment each day.
This is not about slamming technology, or the creativity of the human mind that keeps thinking these new gadgets up. The reality I’m looking at is that we are novelty-seeking primates that — in some fundamental ways — can’t help ourselves when presented with all-you-can-watch stimulation. (I mean, really, who doesn’t want to watch over and over something that makes you feel good, happy or moved to tears?)
I now think of the book “Supernormal Stimuli” (reviewed recently here) when I avail myself of the convenience (and mastery over time and space) that something as “simple” as a DVD player offers me. I have used YouTube to watch snippets from TV shows that made an impression on me (the one time I saw them when there were broadcast in my youth). To a certain extent, I am deeply grateful for the community of like-minded nostalgist mammals that post these bits and pieces of popular culture that allow me to re-visit — pretty much at-will — passages of my life lived to-date. (After all, I’m at a stage in that life where I’m beginning to see just how swiftly it is passing, so I’m sympathetic to the desire to wring as much pleasure from the time we do have as is humanly possible).
But of course, that is the thing: We humans have made all sorts of things possible for ourselves. No matter how much I might view myself as low in income compared to others, the bare, naked fact is that I have access to an historically un-heard of variety and quantity of safe, moderately-priced foods in clean stores; safe water for drinking and bathing; an indoor toilet; electricity for light, and the cooking and refrigeration of food; a motor vehicle and supplies of fuel I can buy for it; inexpensive clothing that requires no hunting, skinning, tanning or weaving on my part; and easily-acquired tools and gadgets that allow me to talk to whoever I want to no matter where in the world they might currently be. How can this possibly be described as an impoverished life when held up to the experience of most of my fellow humans in the world right now, and just about every single one of my scraping, hunting, gathering, struggling ancestors all the way back to the first mammals?
The answer to that is simple: there is no comparison. No other creature on earth lives like we do.
The progression of our technology has been — and continues to be — geometric: the more we invent, the more we are able to invent. And even as science fiction continues to mis-guess how the future will appear, the future keeps arriving incrementally like some subtle tsunami.
I’ve come to the conclusion that such is our fate. At this point our technology is evolving so rapidly that there is really nothing else to be done but to put it into use and see how the human animal adapts. Or doesn’t. And so we’ll find out how this generation of thumb-texting kids develops — what kind of human beings they turn into — and how pissed they end up being at being guinea pigs for a new wave of human technology (assuming, of course, that they care enough to notice and reflect).
Biologists talk about the fact that bacterium and viruses reproduce so much more rapidly than humans that they are always going to be ahead of us in the race to adapt. As things now stand, our human-created technology has the same advantage over the host organism that continues to bring it into being. And like the many bacteria that are useful (even essential) to our survival as living beings, most of our technology is probably beneficial (or, at least not detrimental or fatal), but then, those aren’t the bugs we’re worried about, are they?
There is some evidence that the act of ridding humans of parasites (at least in the “developed world) has had the un-intended consequence of increasing the prevalence and severity of allergies. Turns out some of those parasites — though detrimental when running amok in our gut — co-evolved with their host organism to help it tolerate allergens in return for a little blood-sucking from its supply. Not surprising, really, now that we know that half of the human body’s cellular weight is bacteria, or that the percentage of our genome that is actually human (not bacterial or viral) DNA is in the single digits.
So what’s that have to do with Christmas? Well, in our historic economic and technological affluence, we have re-made the world into one that would give any of our primate cousins one hell of a woody: even the relatively non-rich of us can stimulate him- or herself in a bewildering variety of ways. We are clever apes, indeed, and the most social ones around, even as our technology and affluence makes us less and less dependent on each other for our jollies (think of the Hugh Grant character in the opening scenes of the film About A Boy — available on DVD or on-line!). Where will it all lead? Who knows.
The “holidays” are just a rather dramatic example of the power we now have to package, record, capture, replay and extend any experience we want to. And though we continue to attach to the “Christmas Season” the terms of the unique, special and one-night-a-year that it may once have merited, it is, in reality, becoming common, pedestrian and ubiquitous.
We now have to power to suck just about any endorphin-producing experience dry. (As clever apes we can barely help ourselves!) And even as I lament the loss of the rare and un-retrievable, I think I would be hard-pressed to give up the many benefits our technology has brought us.
(Not that I am offered that choice, really: to go back in time. Popular as that notion may be — particularly among the conservatively religious or political — it ain’t gonna’ happen. For better or worse, we’re all on this ride together to the end).
I take the holiday season, then, as an opportunity to reflect on just who and what we humans are. In a funny way, you need look no further for confirmation of our animal status: we are distractible and can’t keep from looking at the shiny thing or turning toward the loud noise or — in this case — watching our favorite Christmas movie for the umpteenth time, or packing our phones or devices with favorite songs, or eating our favorite Christmas cookies five days in a row.
And as Christmas approaches I take a step back and look warmly upon my own kind: at the near desperation that can attend our attempts to make a single day (or “season”) special, or meaningful; the bitter-sweetness of those who can’t be “home for the holidays”; or the “poor” who find a warm place and a hot meal donated and served up by their fellow humans (in a ritual that probably makes them feel better than the best Christmas movie). In short: the experiences we all share as social humans in our own families and communities.
When I was in boot camp in California, back in 1978, I was selected by my commanders as trustworthy to accept an invitation from some civilians who wanted to feed Thanksgiving dinner to some lonesome recruits. Suddenly I was transported from the bizarre world of my training barracks to a small home in the hills of Oakland. Two single neighbor ladies fed three of us “Coasties” all we could eat (which, for a hungry and harried “boot”, was a lot). I had mincemeat pie for the first time. The host offered each of us the use of her phone to call home long-distance, and we luxuriated in the homey warmth and kindness of the evening, loosening our dress-uniform ties, drinking wine and feasting on home-made bounty.
That experience is a treasure of mine. It’s the kind of thing that could be a scene in a movie, or a touching human interest story on the evening news. But, thinking about it, I’m glad there is no video tape of the evening that I could re-visit at will over the thirty years since it occurred. If there were, the potency of that evening would have long ago been diluted.
For in the end, the thing some of us are really after is the singular, the exquisite, the truly meaningful treasure that the evening I described is (and may always be) for me. Compared to such as that all of the forced emotion of the holiday industry is so much junk food: good enough in a pinch, but certainly not something to inspire a Norman Rockwell paining.
So for this holiday season, I wish you all something un-recordable and un-replayable on any electronic device, yet all the more indelible for that.