You, Me & Us

Packed into a particularly uncomfortably subway on my way home from a particularly uncomfortable week at work, I couldn’t help but notice that I was surrounded by nothing but the first person singular.

All around, my fellow passengers clutched their iPods and stared vacantly into space. On the stainless steel, graffiti-proof walls, signage for News Corp’s recently rebranded My9 (formerly WWOR), — in which “my” constituted 9 of 17 words in the ad — made me think…

Is the Twenty-First Century all about I, me, and my?

Walking back from the deli yesterday morning I said, “Oh shit, I forgot to grab The Times.”

“You can read it online,” Abbi said.

And she’s right. I could. And did.

But reading The New York Times online is not the same as patiently sifting through section after section of the actual newspaper, digging into all sorts of topics otherwise too far afield — or one too many clicks deep — to elicit interest, or engagement.

The promise of the Internet has long been that of personalization, customization and niche. Like hip hop? Click here, and get nothing but. Want to know something about aardvarks? Google will get you to The Brookfield Zoo post haste. But who knows what you’re missing by not browsing and discovering all kinds of music, or all sorts of African ungulates.

But where is the discovery? The happenstance? When is one’s curiosity rewarded? One’s horizons expanded?

Lately, of course, it’s been all about “user generated content.” It’s all about you, about your fifteen minutes. See also: American Idol, America’s Top Model, Project Runway, and the recent Grammy Awards telecast in which three young singers competed for the chance to duet with Justin Timberlake. (“In the future,” I recently read, “Everyone will be anonymous for fifteen minutes.”)

As programmers become more efficient at serving deeper but narrower demographic segments to advertisers, then, we find ourselves penned in like veal cattle. The rise of the niche, while potentially affording greater programming diversity, has really limited that which we consume. In a three network universe, the State of the Union was not to be avoided.

“Rising above the clutter,” Times correspondent David Carr writes, “was a lot easier when we were all staring into the same campfire.”

Now, though, brushfires have broken out across the planet. From space, the United States is awash in the blue flicker of the cathode ray.

Why watch “Frontline” report on the demise of journalism when there’s a Celebrity Eye Candy marathon on VH1?

Why puzzle out the potential implications of the US invasion of Iraq when Britney Spears has entered and exited rehab, shaved her head, and gotten two new tattoos.

Why engage in anything at all when everything is so God damned complicated, and you can’t do anything to change anything anyway?

One of my heroes, Bill Moyers, said recently, “We cannot build a nation across the vast social divides that mark our country today.”

In a culture peopled by those obsessed by themselves, and those expressly like them, how can we learn anything at all?

There is, after all, no “me” in “us.”

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