Alright. So. After five weeks of focusing on the characters of IJ, it’s high time I dove into the nuts and bolts of the complex and eerily prophetic world our friend David has built because I’ve barely discussed it until now and I really want to rectify that.
In truth, I’m a highly character-driven reader, viewer, and writer. I’m all about looking for a favourite character or two (or three, or four…) to take under my wing and develop a deep connection with,* so there’s a high likelihood that the majority of my posts going forward are still going to focus on the characters of Infinite Jest. Today, however, I’m going to shift gears and dive into the thick of the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.), looking particularly at the individual’s relationship to technology in this brave new world.**
So, as the Tenth Doctor would say… “Allons-y!”
“[W]hat if the viewer could become her/his own programming director; what if s/he could define the very entertainment-happiness it was her/his right to pursue?” (416, original emphasis).
Oh, DFW. My man. What a question! And a topical one at that. I mean, look at the way we’ve slowly redefined the way we watch movies and television through a persistent refusal to conform to anyone’s schedule but our own. Even before the advent of Netflix, we found ways to stream or download movies and shows, so that we could customize our entertainment and decide when we wanted to press ‘Play.’ Essentially, we’ve grown accustomed to watching what we want, when we want it and the entertainment industry is just starting to catch up with services like Netflix, Crave, Shomi, Apple TV, and so on. Even the older but ever-useful PVR function offered in nearly all television packages now is a stab at making scheduled programs more flexible to suit our individual needs.
I know that the section from which I pulled the quotation above is meant to paint a cynical and semi-parodic picture of what humanity’s obsession with (or perhaps unhealthy addiction to) entertainment will amount to, but… I just can’t feel cynical about the move toward a more viewer-friendly model. I love entertainment, I love technology, and I love that the marriage of those two things allows me to personalize what I watch and when I want to watch it. Instead of bending over backwards to fit television into my schedule, television now bends to fit mine. And I love it.
Maybe it’s because I’m a Millennial. Maybe it’s because I believe in and love studying the Digital Humanities. (Or, is it because I’m a Millennial that I believe in and love studying the Digital Humanities?)
Whichever way you slice it, though, I’m firmly in the pro-entertainment and pro-technology camp. When the narrator informs us that “American mass-entertainment became inherently pro-active, consumer-driven,” it sounds pretty damn idyllic to me (417). Obviously, our friend David does not feel the same since he makes it pretty clear that the O.N.A.N. is a pretty messed up place to live and it’s due in large part to the population’s inability to consume anything in moderation and tendency to become so slavishly devoted to whatever brings them pleasure that it ceases to be an exercise of individualism or agency.
I get it. No, really. I do. I get how the influx of technology that DFW would have lived through in the 1990s – the true beginning of the electronic age – would have created a deep sense of malaise in him and inspired this dystopian vision of the future. And, for the most part, I think his critique of North American culture is pretty on-point what with his satirical take on politics (Mario’s The ONANtiad cartridge), international relations (Marathe and Steeply’s ongoing conversation on that hilltop), and substance abuse (everyone’s chronic fear of feeling anything remotely painful or unpleasant).
Although the mad, mad, mad, mad world our friend David has envisioned is one that seems to place very little faith in North America and humanity in general, I get where he’s coming from with those aforementioned critiques. In fact, I live for the sections where Steeply spouts off his American exceptionalism and then Marathe exposes all the flaws in his logic. (Seriously. I’m definitely going to have to cram all my feelings about the Canadian-American relations in the novel into a blog post soon because my French-Canadian coeur positively sings with pride each time Marathe speaks up and just wrecks Steeply’s phoney rhetoric. Gah.)
Basically, what I’m trying to say here, is that I get what DFW is saying about technology and entertainment with his doom-and-gloom portrayal of it in the world of the O.N.A.N., but that I respectfully disagree with his vision of the future. I think that the world we live in today boasts technology similar to that seen in Infinite Jest and also offers entertainment in similar ways, but that it hasn’t produced results as bad as what Wallace predicts. Our world hasn’t capsized because of Netflix and nor has the population become soulless, mindless automatons simply because they can watch videos on their smartphones whenever they want. I don’t buy that kind of thinking.
Technology has reshaped our world and reshaped the way we think about the world. It has opened up a lot of new and exciting opportunities to connect with one another, create global communities, and use things like social media as a platform to reach a wider audience. Of course, it’s not all great, but it has the potential to be used for good and topple age-old power dynamics between the likes of creator and consumer.
And, so far, being able to customize the entertainment I watch to suit my individual schedule and desires through platforms like YouTube and Netflix hasn’t resulted in anything too dire. Do I binge-watch a show from time to time? Absolutely. But I can also binge-read books and you don’t see too many people fretting about those anymore.
It’s that knee-jerk fear of the unknown that makes us demonize new pieces of technology and what they’re capable of. So, even though I know David wants to scare me away from “pro-active, consumer-driven” mass entertainment… I remain unafraid.
In fact, I say: “Bring it on.”
F O O T N O T E S :
* And by “connection,” I mean a fiercely protective and weirdly maternal concern for a particular character’s well-being. This usually manifests itself in my referring to a beloved character through a variety of saccharine nicknames (e.g. “my sweet summer child” or “my fragile little cupcake”). I reserve epithets like “my naïve dumpster daughter” or “my unfortunate trashcan son” for my problematic faves, but that’s another story for another time.
** © Aldous Huxley.