I’m sitting in a coffee shop. Surrounded by techno-junkies…and I…well, I might as well be one of them.
My “smart” phone is on the left of me, charging through my computer. I have my headphones on, listening to the clips that I’m playing and readying for this piece and my iPod is on the right of me, charger underneath, just in case the battery runs low. It is truly amazing, this. What the hell am I doing? This isn’t me.
I look, for all intents and purposes, either like some weird Star Trek creature, with wires and mechanical technology hanging out all over the place (that is, if you include my tattoos & piercings), or some mad automaton you would call for assistance with your cellphone perhaps. “Hello, this is Verizon, how can I help you?”
The rest of the coffee shop? Not so much. They look happy. Dependent. Smiling. Ready to send off that next resume before hitting that next audition. But first, they’ll hit up Facebook to see what’s up, ya know? And that’s the hilarity. I come to this place with some regularity. It’s near where I live. I can take a pretty good gamble and say that amongst the very filled up shop (yesterday it was almost difficult to find a place to “plug-in”) most of ’em, myself included, are unemployed.
But this is Los Angeles. The LAND of the unemployed. After all, isn’t it still possible to get discovered? No, boys and girls, it’s not. Oh, and just to shatter your dreams even more, That Schwab’s story is an urban myth as well. Lana Turner, if she was discovered *anywhere* was most like discovered somewhere down the street. Schwab’s, on the other hand, much like the place I current am inhabiting, was also a locale for the unemployed to “check in” and “catch up” and perhaps get a break from someone else who may have a lead.
When I lost my job, everyone smiled and laughed and said, “Hey!! Now you’re on FUN-employment!” and I looked at them like they were crazy because, really, it’s an insane way to look at the world. Insane, in every sense of the word. See, you take away someone’s work/worklife/space, and you take away their reason to get up in the morning or their reason to leave the house. Quite literally. Say what you will, but it is true. And I always knew this, which is why I never took my job for granted when I had it. I liked my job. I loved my job. I did anachronistic activities sometimes with anachronistic materials but that made me feel like a million bucks. Now? Well, I’ve totally read a mass of books. I’ve watched a bunch of movies. But I’ve gotten to the point where Law & Order episodes are repeating themselves and that. Is. Not. Good. I miss having a job.
Here is the basic problem: Working give us parameters and schedules and rituals and routines. Human beings need these things. We always have and we always will. Most importantly, work gives us purpose. Just like relationships with other people give us purpose. What happens when we lose one? What happens if we lose both?
See, we have social worlds that are significantly interwoven and related to our working lives. Take away one…well, I don’t think I have to explain what happens to the other. You would be surprised at how much you actually depend on your co-workers. Those people may not be your best friends; in fact, you may not even like them, but you need them. The nauseatingly interesting thing is this: we are learning to supplant all of our social interactions- even those with the most disliked of office co-workers- with those of technology.
So perhaps, then, due to your Iphone 8.5,000 and your awesome new Ipad and whatever the latest and greatest techno-toy is, when you get laid off you won’t be so lonely?
See, I’m not actually sure that this will be the case. Argue what you like, but I have historical back up. When I was in elementary school, I became madly obsessed with the transcendentalists. I thought they were incredible. I should not have been surprised, therefore, when I went straight into an obsession with the Beats. Just made sense. What didn’t was the fact that I was also reading Stephen King and ridiculously thick, poorly written gothic romance novels, searching incessantly for another “Jane Eyre” or “Rebecca”, but hey…who’s counting?
At any rate, there was this guy. Henry David Thoreau. I thought he was a rock star; his ideologies and his whole conception of the world were beyond anything I had ever heard before and it blew my mind. At one point in his career he decided to go and take a cabin in Massachusetts, alone.
…for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now. (Thoreau, Walden)
His desire not to “go below” speaks of something a bit more than simply non-conformity. Walden is, by no means a simple piece of literature. It is a gorgeous piece that discusses a litany of topics that, while having some sway on this discussion, would, literally, SWAY us off-course. Thoreau did not wish to “go below” because he recognized that his place was with other human beings, not in seclusion. To paraphrase and oversimplify, people need people in order to move forward through the world in a productive manner. He left for as good a reason as he came: solitude. The recognition that he had lived the “solitary life” and found it to be not as satisfying for the long-haul was a big step for a man as independent as Thoreau. So he left the woods.
The human connection is actually quite strong. Strong enough to leave the woods for, strong enough for people to give up organs for, strong enough for people to do lots of incredible things that make all the people on Oprah cry and go “Aw…” and “Wow!” And that’s great. It’s the wonderful part of the Opposable World. But it seems to be changing a lot as we attempt to turn flesh and muscle into metal and wire, like in the latest Droid commercial…
So here is the problem: we are working very very hard at making very very sure that we do not need people at all. The more we do that, the more jobs are lost and the more unemployment we have. The more unemployment we have, the more relationships and social worlds are lost and broken. See a pattern here? So, with all of this, and especially with the substantive rise of unemployment, don’t you think we should be more ANGRY?
You would, wouldn’t you? Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet certainly did, back in 1976. But back then, their major technological contender was the luminescent screen of the television, with some politicians and advertising schlumps vying to control people’s minds! What a thing to say…Oh Network, life was so much simpler then…*cue old-timey music and the squeak of a rocking chair*
I am not trying to downplay Network‘s content or the film itself by any stretch of the imagination. Every word, every bit of that narrative, every slice of that piece of cinema remains as true today as it was in 1976. What terrifies me is that in 1976, Paddy Chayefsky was discussing anger, and in 2010, due to a malaise come upon by what I call technojunkie-ism, no one gets angry anymore. Or heartbroken. Or even, dare I say it, really excited or happy. Being attached to these techno-toys, as shown in the Droid commercial, is turning us into robots, really sick robots, dangerously fast. There is even a new anxiety that is being written about called “disconnectivity anxiety” and it is EXACTLY what the words mean. It’s damn scary.
As you saw in the above clip, Peter Finch’s character, Howard Beale, walks into the studio to “make his witness.” What isn’t shown is that he has recently been fired and this is his last appearance on the show. He is, for all intents and purposes, unemployed. And he isn’t just unemployed, he has threatened suicide as a result…while he was on live television. The “last broadcast” in the above clip is supposed to make up for this “poor reaction” to being told he was, as the British say, being made redundant.
What we are shown here is his rage, pure and primal, beautiful and real in all of its intensity. As he asks the audience everywhere to join with him, we watch as he is being co-opted by Faye Dunaway’s character, and the remainder of the film just spirals gloriously from there. However, what is essential to this discussion is the way that Howard Beale expresses himself at this moment in time. He is being removed from and losing everything. He has spent his life working towards his goals, he has the aforementioned social connections (in fact, his best friend/co-worker was the one who had to give Beale the news) and now he has…nothing.
What Beale does, at this juncture, is appeal to the one community that he still has: his audience. He is no longer their television anchor; he is one of them. At the beginning, it seems that every time he says “we”, Beale might as well be saying “I.” However, his only somewhat-subtly disguised subjectivity does not take away from the effect his speech has on his “new peer group” due to the fact that he has now joined their ranks. In fact, if his rawness does anything, it only draws them in closer (thus making it easier for Faye Dunaway to continue to exploit him, and the television audiences, throughout the film).
His next dialogic switch from accusatory direct address to strong demand for everyone to stand up and assert themselves is key. Due to his recent termination, Beale has been left feeling invalid, not even human. He was going to take his own life on broadcast television due to the fact that the station had already done so. Beale gives adamant instructions. He states, “All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a human being, goddamnit, my life has value!'” Beale, through his anger, has connected with another community (his audience) and gotten back some sort of personal value for himself.
Tragically, that same personal value that Beale regained doesn’t seem to come into play when it has to do with techno-toys. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be anything much “personal” about them, save, perhaps, the painfully bedazzled cell-phone case or an iPod with your name inscribed on the back. Even those aspects seem to speak more about the “value” than the “personal.” Due to our heightened dependence on the largess of the technological empire, whether it be within Network (1976) or reality, our connections to each other are failing deeply. Howard Beale says it perfectly at a different juncture in the film.
Yep, Howard Beale, I couldn’t agree with you more. We ARE in a lot of trouble. These days, it’s not just that one tube we have to contend with. There are chips and boards, and all sorts of wonderful items that create trouble. Oh, Howard, we’ve let you down. 30 years later, have we learned nothing? When you pleaded for us to turn off that set, who actually did? More importantly, was there anyone at that juncture who actually would have? Who didn’t want to see what “happened next”? And ah…therein lies the rub.
We are now a generation of people in need. We need to know, need to have, need to be updated, needneedneed. It is as though we went through two World Wars, Vietnam, Korea and other assorted conflicts, and then, upon getting new technology, decided it was high time to regress to child-like mentality again for everyone so that we can play. The most problematic feature of this (ok, so it’s all problematic, but the very worst one) is that we have no one to parent us or tell us no. Thus, we are losing our way (and each other) as fast as we can develop new toys to play with.
David Wong wrote a brilliant article entitled, “7 Reasons Why The 21st Century Is Making You Miserable” and he hits the nail on the head every single time. He mentions that our social interactions have degenerated to basically less than nothing, making it so that we rarely interact with strangers and we very (if ever) open our friend groups. This alone is heartbreaking. OK, so beyond our retracting our social claws, we also communicate increasingly poorly (almost exclusive through text and online), are almost never criticized (there is a difference between a criticism and an insult…he explains it quite well!), and because most of our friends are online or “virtual,” they are actually a great deal less demanding and therefore the friendship is much less fulfilling and deep. Those are a few of the reasons. I would love you to read the article. It is fantastic and alarmingly accurate.
What Wong hits on is something that I find scariest of all: it is all being taken in stride. Our separation from ourselves and our friends is being shrugged off like a drug charge on Paris Hilton. There is no Howard Beale out there, and if there was, who would listen? These instruments are too much part of our culture now, too convenient…If anyone got upset, all someone would have to do is offer them a free upgrade or a new model and *whoosh*…gone…They would be happy as hell, and gonna find a new app!
As we slip further and further into the abyss of some Cronenberg-ian nightmare, where our Smartphones become part of our hands and our iPods and their holders become permanent bicep attachments from jogging at the gym, it would be nice to think of Howard Beale every so often, and hope that maybe we can figure out a way to put down the techno-toys for a bit before it becomes too late. Unless it is too late. But I would like to think that it isn’t. We need to be responsible about our technologies and each other.
Realistically, I’m not sure I want to know everyone sitting at my coffee shop. But I’m unemployed, I’m lonely, and frankly…I’m game. If we don’t get along, fair enough. But to be perfectly honest, I would rather be out in the world right now trying to have conversations with sentient beings than cooped up in my room continuing a road to ruin and devastation along the lines of what David Wong discusses.
Dear Howard Beale,
Thank you for inspiring the anger in me, and reminding me that I, too, am a human being, goddamnit, and I have value.
I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!