RL159 - The Climbing

This week, Merlin and John talk about

The problem: ”Can’t hold it back anymore”, referring to John’s daughter incorrectly singing the title song of Frozen.

The show title refers to climbing up the ladder of experience when you are young.

Merlin is using his public radio voice to introduce the show.

One of the grandsons of J. Paul Getty died the other day in his Hollywood mansion. They are all rich as sin, some of them have photo sharing companies and some of them sit around and do methamphetamine. The heir who died died mysteriously with a toxic level of meth in his body. He probably didn’t just OD, but it all caught up with him. Intestinal Hemorrhage.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

Recorded music (RL159)

John sometimes listens to KIXI in the car, the AM radio station that often sends him into a reverie. They were playing the big band music his father loved and John got a bit emotional. Then he realized that Merlin, John and all of their listeners have never lived a day without recorded music. It is easy for us to not understand how new it still is. John’s dad was the first generation who could listen over and over to the original recordings that made up their culture. The music John’s dad’s dad loved was from 1913. It was all sheet music and required people to play it on the piano. John is only the second generation in the history of his family to have recorded music. This means he is the first generation that has been able to listen to his father’s music after he died. His dad could have listened to his mother play El Condor Paso or Fat Little Fellow With His Mommy’s Eyes, but wouldn’t ever have been able to hear the music as his father heard it. John can listen to the exact same records that his dad heard and experience it through that first membrane of distance and nostalgia. John had listened to this music while he was sitting at his dad’s feet and his dad had been nostalgic for his youth while it was still alive and while it was still current. Now John is nostalgic for his dad’s youth and John can still hear what it sounded like. We have entered a new, unprecedented iteration of memory in human experience.

When we look back in time we have this impermeable barrier somewhere before writing was invented. We can go back to the Sumerian culture, we can go back to the Egypt and Etruscan civilization, but at a certain point you hit that wall before writing. The vast majority of history is invisible to us and we can only see it recorded in tools and in marks we left on the land. Right now we are at another one of those thresholds and it is already difficult for us to look back before the time of recording, because those people hardly left a record! There are some books of Napoleon at Waterloo, but only a select group of people ever wrote a book. There is some sheet music of how the music was once played, but now we are living just on the inside of that next era where everyone is recording and it is all being documented. John’s dad wasn’t aware of being the first generation to leave that behind. The radio was new when he was a kid and he didn’t have to make the transition to a world of recorded music as his father had to. For John there is something so magical about those recordings, but also something so fragile. He is listening to a piece of music that was recorded in 1940 and he is feeling it on behalf of his own youth at his dad’s feet and he is feeling it on behalf of his dad's youth that was transmitted to John. When his daughter will be a middle-aged woman, that music and the memories will have been transferred to her through three generations, translated and garbled and diluted, with some aspects of it intensified. We are creating a new kind of collective memory. It is such a solitary memory in John. If he didn’t talk about it, it wouldn’t be evident, but there is that concreteness to it. The actual, original recording will persist. Ten generations from now people able to hear that Benny Goodman recording. Will that secondary, footnoted information come along the way, like the fact that this music meant something to certain people in their past? Will they still listen to this podcast or will they listen to an AI?

John Philip Sousa was a very strong critic of recorded music. He was one of the many people who said that this would put musicians out of business. How would they make money if they couldn’t play live for people anymore? It turned out to be an evolution and things changed. People before John’s father could only appreciate music in the room. By the time his father came around, there was the ability to experience music in the room and also to record it, but it still wasn’t on demand. You would wait for a song you liked to come on the radio or you would spend money on a jukebox when you went out for pizza. You might have one photo of your great-grandfather that you really didn’t want to lose. Maybe you could make a copy, but you had the photo and it was the photo. Now Merlin has thousands of photos that he can look at any time he wants. How will the whole medium evolve for their kids and their kids? Merlin remembers listening to Hank Williams with his dad. It was on an 8-track that broke by the time he had died. Merlin could still experience that music, but he didn’t have that artifact anymore. It wasn’t like his watch or that photo, but it was something that was easily replaceable. When Merlin plays with his daughter in the backyard, he always puts Hank Williams on. For Merlin’s and John’s parents, music was an investment. Back when you would buy a Time Life collection of songs with the top-hits of the 1960:s, because that was an inexpensive way to get it and then you would take care of that. Even that is a weird bastardization of how people listened to music before that, where you would sit down and listen to an opera or Beethoven’s 5th. In the post-streaming age, how is the music going to be made any differently? When their kids go back and listen to Benny Goodman, will it just be a remix? Will they sit down and listen to the album that Sing Sing Sing is on from 1978?

The promise of the early computers and the Internet (RL159)

John keeps saying that they are on the verge of a revolutionary transformation that they have been gearing up for during the last 35 years. When John was in college in the early 1990:s, he had a wave of comprehension go over him as he understood what the promise of the Internet was meant to be. The information superhighway, the connectedness of everything and the availability of everything portended this amazing change that still felt like Science Fiction at the time: We would all be connected all day. It seemed like it was going to be about education and scholarship and innovation in science and democracy. Since the information age, any new technology had generally gained a foothold through games and porn, and our vision for the future was constrained by what had happened in the past. It had never occurred to John that even in a world of completely shared information, he wouldn’t still sit down and listen to a record on a stereo. In the mid 1990:s somebody showed him a hard drive full of music, it was like an iPod before the iPod. John always imagined it as something you could put in your car that had all the music in the world on it. The place we are at right now is still on the other side of the big leap into VR and AI and decentralized power. The way people, even his daughter, are going to receive information and interact with the world is going to be so different that it will effectively be an evolutionary leap. Science Fiction people have been saying it for years, but now even John feels like being on the cusp of this big change and the Internet we have been experiencing until now has just been the beta version while we are still testing the platform.

John is astonished every time he goes on Twitter, first that he is still going there, and second that so many millions of people are still going there. All of the serotonin rewards of Twitter from 5 years ago are gone! Twitter is no longer a place of reward, but it is often a place of pure punishment. Still, John and millions of other people keep going contributing to it. It is clearly a Beta version of something that we don’t quite have the inter-connectivity to accomplish yet and we don't quite have the vision to even see what it is going to look like. It is there! Our toes are already over the line! It is entirely possible that future generations will be hearing the original recording of Benny Goodman and simultaneously hearing the remixes of it and simultaneously be churning on all the information about Benny Goodman. They will have access to all the information. They might listen to it and may have way more access to it than we do, but they might no longer have the emotional or personal connection to it.

It is virtually impossible to know when and where something will stop being impossible. That is the nature of innovation and developments of all kinds. Tesla is kind of about cars, but they are really about batteries. Once you will be able to make batteries as they want to, you don’t even know what all is going to change. The iPhone started out as a solution for how you hated your phone, but now it transformed the way we live our lives, mostly for the positive. Merlin can’t imagine anymore not being able to find out where his family is or not being able to be in touch with people day to day. Who expected in 1999 that music is what it is now? It was the single biggest year of sales for CDs and it was merely 16 years ago. Both John and Merlin were raised in an era where the 1960:s were such a cultural surge in a lot of ways. Within the space of 1,5 years, our country almost completely fell apart from civil unrest and they also put somebody on the moon. Almost everything that happened in the 1960:s happened in 1968, including John being born! The text-books that they read in elementary school and up to junior high were all based more or less on the idea that they needed to beat the Soviets to the moon. Sure, Columbus discovered America, but the future was coming and while Pan Am was still going to be an airline, they would also be flying to space! It was never more than a jump and a half away from what we already understood. There was a reason why in the 1950:s everything looks like a television, and in the 1960:s everything looks like a rocket. You can’t really do three steps ahead of where you are.

When personal computers first arrived on the scene in 1979/1980, John could not connect them computers to rockets or hovering games or the future. They just seemed like expensive typewriters that were colonized by teachers as things you needed to learn. They were dull and you needed to do your reports on them. Still, while he was in 8th grade, people sat down at computers and some people never stood up again. John monkeyed around with them and didn’t think that they would be the future. Instead, computers were literally the worst. Castle Wolfenstein was not fun enough. Trying to learn Basic was appealing to some people, but for both Merlin and John it felt like eating their vegetables. John’s sister found it lame, too. The appeal would be to do your checking account, which would mean to do a thing you hate on a machine you hate. We tend to look at a new technology in terms of ”this plus that”, but some people will determine earlier than others that it could also mean ”this times that”. There is a way for this to be more than a checkbook plus a typewriter. Merlin really liked video games back then, like Arcade games he couldn’t afford. It would have been great if he had learned typing in Basic, but it just had zero appeal to him.

Questionable merchandise for kids (RL159)

John's daughter got her tonsils out the other day and the nurse at the hospital was trying to do what you would normally do to make a child feel more comfortable: She asked her if she would like to watch Frozen on the iPad. John’s daughter is fascinated by Frozen, but she had never seen it. She was singing this one line incorrectly over and over, like ”Let it go, let it go, I can’t hold it back anymore”. When John started to sing it, she would tell him to stop and she would start again. John’s friends attitude about technology and their kids is to just let them have it because the future is going to be written in those new words and these new technologies. You shouldn’t protect your kid from videos or Disney, because this is the new language. Don’t raise them to be a weird hermit. John has the instinct that he cannot loosen the dogs of war like that and he doesn’t know if he is doing her a disservice by not already having a VR helmet on her and training the different hemispheres of her brain. It is not that John is an overly cautious or conservative person, but he does have a good gut-check in his own mind for ”first, do no harm” and there are certain things John is trying to avoid. It is okay to be bored and it is okay to be a little bit behind or to be different. Ultimately, John is very suspicious of the fast pace in which the corporatization of everything is happening. When John looks at Frozen, he perceives it to be tied to a global marketing campaign of music, dolls, stickers, dresses and events. Somewhere in Hollywood there must be a big team sitting around a table, saying the word ”monetize” over and over again. The line between them and the creative team, who is sitting in a separate room around a separate big table, is purposely obfuscated, even within that company. That way, the creatives can convince themselves that they are artists and they are working in an artistic medium. They are building a positive thing that has its own merit, communicates good values to kids and all that stuff.

John saw a collection of Tron merchandise from the Tron reboot in its original packaging in a thrift store the other day. From the way it was packaged it was evident that these characters were supposed to be so popular with kids that they would be able to differentiate between Rod's flying disc and Chip's flying disc. That disc that you should never lose because it contains your brain and that you also use as a weapon. It is like putting your brain in a sock and hitting somebody with it. It was evident that the marketing team expected those to be as widely understood as light sabers. The difference between Luke’s light saber and Darth Vader’s light saber is a really clear distinction and if you want one you probably don’t want the other. These Tron discs were connected to the names of the characters played by Jeff Goldblum and Barney Pfeiffer. John was the target audience for the first Tron movie and he knows the Tron world pretty well. Still, he doesn’t give a shit about these toys and no-one ever did. That is why they are in a thrift store in their original packaging. John’s suspicion about the mechanisms behind most things that are being distributed these days as being good for kids trumps any message of positivity and togetherness that they claim. There is so much secondary writing about the My Little Pony universe and its message, but it is stacked up against all this merchandise. Which instinct are you supposed to follow? The one that looks at this pile of merchandise and goes "Yuck!" or the secondary writing about how friendship is magic that maybe tells a different story which John should be more curious about? This goes all the way to Adventure Time where all of John’s grownup friends say that it is amazing! It is smart, caring, it is good for you, made by real people who are legitimately good and weird people that we actually know. It is difficult to decide how much of this to let through. Then John turns to episodes of Mr Rogers made in 1972 and he knows what he is getting there. Mr Rogers never tried to sell him anything. John doesn’t know how to continue to be a good marshal.

You could take everything John just said about entertainment properties and apply it to sports. Merlin finds it so strange how obsessed adults are with sports and sports culture and it is strangely privileged how much people are able to piss from the high ground because: Sports! In that world, Merlin is the weirdo for not feeling the same way and it is weird he has to defend that. You are soaking in the hegemony yourself if you can’t see how weird it is that you can say from that position that Merlin didn’t make a very good case about sports. Why should he have to make a good case against sports? Why does John need to make a good case for not wanting his daughter in the princess business? Then you end up being the weirdo!

As John walks out the door of the very same Goodwill thrift store, he saw that thing near the entrance that looked like a pink 4-foot tall kid’s coffin. It turned out to be a toy object that was somehow connected to vampirism, but it wasn’t branded Twilight. There is a kid’s show and franchise about vampires in High School who have big eyes like undead brads. John has actually seen that show for 3 minutes when he walked in on some kids watching it, and he thought that it was the most polluted entertainment he had ever seen. This was soul pollution! You kids have to go outside immediately and splash your faces in a bird bath and bury yourselves in the dirt, poke yourself with things, get infections and fight with sticks in order to cleanse your soul from this garbage! Merlin mentions ”Dog with a Blog” as a similarly awful program. John is staring at this 4-foot tall pink coffin with a heart cut in the door and he is reflecting about vampirism as a children’s fetish culture. That pink undead coffin was meant to be used as a dresser. It had shelves in it and is designed as a decorative element for your 6-year-old goth vampire princess.

Imagine all the different board rooms where people pitched story ideas that eventually resulted in this coffin being made real in the world. It didn’t seem to be that old, but it seemed to be a brand new confluence of ideas where a child would even know what a vampire was and would want to be one, but would at the same time want to maintain a princess status or be connected to princessism. There was also a little Victorian era in it, because it had some little steam punk decorations and John was just marveling. He was imagining all those people in J-Crew suits approving these ideas and asking themselves how they could capitalize on both vampires and princesses at the same time. By the time you are at the receiving end of that garbage hose you have been hit with a cultural meat tenderizer so many times that you feel that this of course makes sense, because your kid likes being a princess and she is old enough for vampires. Then you come to this place where you are literally living in a garbage hose and you don’t even know it. You think you are being a good parent, but it is so hard to even take that tiny little step back and ask yourself: ”Did I just buy my daughter a coffin?”

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