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Robert Altman Week

Thursday
Apr282011

« In Which I Pretend That We're The Oldest And Dearest Friends »

Good Night, Dear Void

by KARA VANDERBIJL 

In 2001, when the Internet was still an infant, Heather Armstrong started a website recounting the details of her everyday life. "I should probably shoplift something before I die. Why do I daydream about Rod Stewart in inappropriate positions?" were some of her first musings. Heather had taken up web logging as a pastime while working for a startup company in Los Angeles; she wrote about living in this strange new city, her departure from Mormonism, and the quirks of her coworkers. A little under a year later, she was fired from her job and shunned by her family after telling stories about them online. None of this shocks you, but that is because you too were an infant in 2001. The 00s were full of scandalous Internet precedents that, today, wouldn't make you bat an eye at the evening news. But you have to understand that none of this had ever happened before.  

Online diaries appeared early on, despite the fact that no one but Don Draper and Moleskine aficionados had kept journals for many moons. Pioneers like Justin Hall gave guided tours of the web to the handful of people able to navigate it without a search engine.

Historical records, however, attest to the fact that a primitive blog post appeared in 1977 when Jimmy Carter wrote a tender message to extraterrestrials. "This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so that we may live into yours." He stowed the note upon the unmanned probes Voyager I and II before they were launched into space along with a conglomeration of Mozart recordings and random pictures of animals that we now refer to as the Golden Records. Since champagne bottles with notes inside had previously been the only way of communicating with complete strangers, we might call his gesture momentous. More significant was the fact that we managed to lasso an expanse of this unknown into a monolithic box of wires in our parents' den and call it cyberspace. I do not know what cyber means but for all intents and purposes in this post it will mean small and domesticated, not unlike a Chihuahua.  

Do you remember how large it was? How your father dared not tinker with it, and how your mother tiptoed past lest it wake from its sterile slumber? Even you had trouble closing your eyes at night against its subtly threatening electronic whir.  After you were tucked safely in bed your parents spent approximately twenty million years attempting to dial up to a distant planet called Juno, which somehow kept them in touch with the rest of the world. Maybe they found Justin Hall. Your father learned to type e-mails uniquely with his index fingers and your mother discovered online recipes. Much later you understood that your parents were the first unsuccessful targets of a mass marketing campaign that ultimately worked on you by creating your universe ex nihilo. Previous interactions with childhood artifacts such as the green expanse of a front lawn or the primary colors of a rainbow Popsicle lost sense until they could be revived in golden Instagram tones.  

In 1998 Google reared its multi-colored head and putting your name on things suddenly and instantaneously mattered.  For the first time in millennia something traveled faster than the common cold and the Pony Express. Cyberspace coughed once and information went viral — your credit card number, that e-mail to your ex, all your thoughts and feelings, and Heather's annoyance with her Prada-purchasing employer. The resulting vertigo was much like watching a film made twenty or thirty years ago but set twenty or thirty years in the future, in which all of the technology is outdated. When you live in cyberspace, every future encounter already happened thirty seconds ago.  

Thus Meg Ryan dumps Bill Pullman and Greg Kinnear for Tom Hanks, who she meets first on the radio in 1993 and then online in 1998 in Norah Ephron's You've Got Mail. The film chronicles a romantic encounter and technology that were already obsolete by the time they showed up in a theatre near you. As such, we cannot really blame Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) for leaving a man obsessed with typewriters for the man able to make her jump three feet in the air with his AIM chats.

The film climaxes before it even begins with an online meet cute; the touch and kiss in Central Park are the natural, but unnecessary proofs of their affection. Kathleen takes her laptop to bed in an overtly metaphorical manner to chat with her mysterious lover. Joe Fox (Hanks) predates Twitter with his succinct wit. "Don't you love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies," he writes in an early e-mail. Blissfully unaware how easy it is to be disrobed by a clever turn-of-phrase, Kathleen virtually drops her panties in most of her replies. "Sometimes I wonder about my life," she confides. "So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn't it be the other way around? I don't really want an answer. I just want to send this cosmic question out into the void. So good night, dear void."    

Early on, Kathleen confesses her greatest shortcoming to her online lover: that she is unable to produce quick comebacks. It was not the first time somebody would unconsciously compare online performance with offline performance, and it would not be the last; Joe warns her of the regret that results from "saying the exact thing you want to say at the exact moment you want to say it", but she does not heed his advice. And why would she? She has experienced the greatest love affair of her life in cyberspace; shouldn't the rest of life's exchanges be as potent as the ones that appear in her inbox every morning?

Yet when the inevitable exchange takes place in the coffee shop, Kathleen feels awful; she is used to ensnaring a man with her eloquence, not putting one down. "A perfect blend of poetry and meanness", says Joe Fox of her barbed comments, ironically aware all in one moment that the woman who has just insulted him is also the one who has wooed him, except this time face to face. This conflict would only be solved at the end by the kiss in Central Park, a gesture irreducible to an emoticon and the antidote to that tense moment in the café.  

Kathleen expresses herself in an incredibly long-winded e-mail to Joe later that night:

I've been thinking about you. Last night I went to meet you, and you weren't there. I wish I knew why. I felt so foolish. As I waited, someone else showed up. A man who has made my professional life a misery. And an amazing thing happened. I was able, for the first time in my life to say the exact thing I wanted to say at the exact moment I wanted to say it. And of course, afterwards I felt terrible just as you said I would. I was cruel and I'm never cruel. Though I can hardly believe what I said mattered to this man. To him, I am just a bug to be crushed. But what if it did? No matter what he's done to me there is no excuse for my behavior. Anyway I so wanted to talk to you. I hope you have a good reason for not being there last night. You don't seem like the kind of person who'd do something like that. The odd thing about this form of communication is you're more likely to talk about nothing than something. But I just want to say that all this nothing has meant more to me than so many somethings. So, thanks.

The most enjoyable part of the film profiles Joe as he allows himself to waver humorously like a holographic image over his Internet personality, hoping that Kathleen will guess he and her mystery man are one and the same. In a face-to-face exchange that resembles gchat banter, Joe and Kathleen exhibit some of the various outdated terms ("handle"!) and mores of cyberspace.  

JOE: So, what's his handle?  

KATHLEEN: Uhh…  

JOE: I'm not going to write him. Is that what you're worried about? You think I'm going to e-mail him?  

KATHLEEN: All right, NY152.  

JOE: N-Y-one-five-two. One hundred and fifty-two. He's a hundred and fifty-two years old. He's had one hundred and fifty-two moles removed, so now he's got one hundred and fifty-two pockmarks…on his face… 

KATHLEEN: The number of people who think he looks like Clark Gable.  

JOE: One hundred and fifty-two people who think he looks like a Clark Bar.  

KATHLEEN: No! The number… the numb… his address? No! No, he would never do anything that prosaic. 

In 1998 we briefly worried that people online might be the Unabomber or other assorted local killers, although our belief that people were much less genuine online than in person did not fully manifest until much later. We speculated how the appropriate screen names and passwords would weigh on our future relationship with cyberspace. George Pappas' (Steve Zahn) lament that the Internet was just another place to be rejected by women, and Birdie's (Jean Stapleton) wry "I tried to have cybersex once, but I kept getting a busy signal" were the first signs that elitism reigned just as much on the web as it did on the street. The odds of becoming a chosen one, a favored child, were only slightly higher online. This sort of intimacy with the Internet required you to take off a lot of proverbial garments: fears of what would happen if you trusted people you had never seen, of who might be reading your words, and of how dependent you might become on the relationship. Quick intimacy happened for people who never bothered to consider these questions.  

Casually mentioning Y2K will earn you a few dates and giggles at dinner parties, a lot of times from the same people who were filling their bathtubs to the brim and buying SPAM for the Judgment To Come. Coincidentally, what is most frightening about cyberspace is also what is most frightening about space. Neither one does anything aside from subtly containing all the information that we stow away in them. We pretend that they attack our wellbeing, but these claims most often turn out to be hoaxes. Our lights did not blink on 01/01/00, but if they had gone out the most dangerous thing about Y2K would have been your neighbor wanting to shoot you for your stockpile of Peeps, not your computer going insane. It would be nice to believe that uploading Chuck Berry and Bach and pictures of bunnies onto a couple of discs and throwing them out into the solar system might create empathy in an extraterrestrial, but the truth is that we are not dealing with a predictable system of 0s and 1s. We are dealing with ourselves, and we are our greatest threat.  

Your web presence is to cyberspace what unreliable narrators are to books. This is not a bad thing. In fact, the unreliability of its inhabitants is what makes cyberspace so interesting. Second in popularity to screenshots of Jean-Luc Godard is the hoarse lament that real life is somehow more important than life online — put the two together and Tumblr will cease to mystify you. Severe introspection may cause you to have a few rough months, which will in turn cause you to leave Facebook and get really into carrier pigeons. On the other side of this crisis comes the realization that nobody really believes your profile, the pictures you are tagged in or your blog posts constitute the entirety of your person.  Some people spend more time striving towards or sabotaging sincerity online than others; a sense of purpose abides in culling them out.  

Shortly after her run-in with employers and parents, Heather Armstrong cheerfully warned fellow internauteurs: "BE YE NOT SO STUPID." Hard to swallow, perhaps, since these episodes turned a little hobby into the dooce.com empire, a multi-faceted creature that landed her on the 2009 list of Most Influential Women in Media along with the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, and Christiane Amanpour.

You would have to go back 678 pages to see her first post and you would find that Heather owes her fame not so much to her wit but rather to her historicity. She began like Dickens' David Copperfield, chronicling her life in dizzying detail. At its root dooce.com invited you into the front seat of a car sticky with non-caffeinated beverages (Mormon habits die hard) and informed you of things like the bodily functions of its author, her romantic disappointments, and her first taste of tequila. Conservative estimates place Ms. Armstrong's readership at six digits, proof that you can spend an inordinate amount of time talking about breakfast cereals and wake up to find you matter to the world.   You have to be the first or the last person doing something to be famous, and those lines blur fast in search results where only seconds separate one person from another.

When it comes to blogging nothing will get you a recognizable amount of attention except for detailed descriptions of your sex life, your drug intake, your latest shoe purchase or the fact that you read a lot of books. Truly intoxicating is the thought that the world may become unrecognizable — may even end — and leave naught behind but Twinkies, your favorite book inside a floating orb of light, and your personal blog. However, very little personality remains in the blogosphere. If you zoom out until you reach the edge of what you know, you might see how very undifferentiated you are from a distant star. Ex nihilo, nihilo.

Kara VanderBijl is the senior contributor to This Recording. She last wrote in these pages about her favorite novels. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find her website here.

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Reader Comments (3)

good article. terrible movie.

April 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterderby
I guess it overly complicates things to bring up that this movie was a re-make of The Shop Around the Corner (1940) where the couple communicate via snail mail. In those days postal service was fast, maybe a few hours if you lived in a large city, where there were several deliveries each day. Anyway, both films ignore the Big Problem (mentioned in the article) which is: How can our marriage ever have the same wonder and intensity of our correspondence? How can our personalities ever be as good as our personas?
November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCCBC
Good night
September 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJual Teh Hitam Blesstea

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