Lost At Sea, in Space, in the Cloud

Two of my favorite films of recent months, Gravity and All is Lost, have more than a few things in common. Both are basically one-man or one-woman shows about individuals trying to survive in an incomprehensibly vast wilderness. Gravity finds Sandra Bullock desperately attempting to return to terra firma after being stranded in space. All is Lost shows Robert Redford (in a mostly silent, yet tour de force performance) lost in the Indian Ocean after his solo yacht venture goes awry. Both films are very much about the visceral, unnerving feeling of alone-ness; both are about the frailty and contingency of man in an often-hostile universe, but also man’s ingenuity, adaptability and cleverness in survival mode. Both are very good films that you should see before they leave theaters.

Another survival-story of sorts: Blockbuster video. The once-dominant video store chain survived the digital revolution (and transition to cloud-based media consumption) longer than many expected. Yet as we knew it would eventually, Blockbuster announced this week that it will soon be closing its final 300 stores and ending its DVD-by-mail service.

The death of Blockbuster, following the death of the record store and the local bookstore (Barnes and Nobles will surely not survive much longer), marks the ongoing transition to a new era in which cultural commerce unfolds no longer in any sort of common, physical Third Place, but in a digital diaspora wherein individuals personally access streams and store (I wouldn’t say “collect”) media for their convenient consumption. And while this iMedia world has its advantages (the ability to access millions of songs and movies on one’s phone with just a few clicks and swipes), it also has severe drawbacks.

all is lostSuch as: Are we losing a sense of common culture? Perhaps that is an outdated question. To the extent that it ever existed (in America for instance) “common culture” has been rapidly dissipating since at least the 1960s. Still, I wonder if the post-Blockbuster world of cloud-based media consumption is making it ever more unlikely that “culture” or “the arts” or “media” will be something that in the future pulls people together in unifying experiences, discussions and debates. After all, we don’t have to talk to anyone anymore (not even a person behind a counter!) when we purchase a movie, an album, a book. From start to finish, our entire experience of pop culture can happen through one little screen and/or one pair of headphones, wholly unique to us and totally tailored to our tastes, preferences and whims.

With everyone becoming their own self-styled curator, commentator, and ala carte consumer, and with the Internet exponentially subdividing niches, genres, and micro-communities for any of a billion interests, it seems implausible that “common” anything will survive the 21st century. As much as the Internet has gotten mileage out of the “connectedness” metaphor, it seems to be more adept at making us isolated consumers with the power to curate consumer pathways and narrative webs entirely on our own timetables and at our own discretion. We are subject to no one and nothing but our “instant” whims and desires; the curatorial power of “gatekeepers” has been diminished; metanarratives have been long deconstructed. We’re on our own, lost in the vast wilderness of the consumptive “cloud.”

Perhaps this is why the theme of “isolation” seems ever more ubiquitous in our cultural narratives. The solo shows of Gravity and All is Lost are not (of course) overt commentaries on 21st century media consumption trends. But I do think the subtext is there. We are alone, navigating our way in a free-for-all space. There’s a freedom in that. But also a terror. It’s a reverse claustrophobia: a fear of too many choices, too many open roads, too few guides and too little guidance.

One sees the isolation elsewhere. Mad Men’s Don Draper and Breaking Bad’s Walter White are quintessentially American anti-heroes: stubbornly independent, allergic to attachment and subsequently desperately alone. Walt White’s Whitman-esque “Song of Myself” in Breaking Bad–often played out in the vast, unforgiving landscapes of the desert Southwest–illustrates the sobering reality that utter independence often leads to wayward isolation. To a lesser extent, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha conveys a similar, albeit more humorous, sense of freedom as isolation in the character of Frances (Greta Gerwig), a twentysomething hipster whose freewheeling decisions to go to Paris on a whim, for example, or to literally dance in the streets of Manhattan, only deepen her directionless despair. It’s perhaps noteworthy that the free spirit dancing pose of the Frances Ha poster resembles the iconic iPod ads featuring silhouette bodies solo dancing against a bright neon background.

gravityAre these movie and TV narratives reflecting the unforeseen isolation of the iPod age? As we further individualize our mediated and cultured lives and embrace the freedom to dance to whatever cultural beat we like, are we simply left spinning and dizzy? That’s certainly the way I felt after watching Gravity and, to a lesser extent, All is Lost: dizzy, unsteady, destabilized, sea-sick. I was left feeling hungry for ballast, for anchors, for solidity; for something outside of myself to offer orientation.

Because going to Blockbuster on a Friday night used to be overwhelming enough. But at least the options were finite. These days the sheer ubiquity of all that is available, all that is recommended, all that is buzzed about in ceaseless streams of 140-character bursts, leaves me with a bit of vertigo: spinning like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, pulled in a million directions at the mercy of vacuity, untethered and uncertain which way is up.

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  • Fordyce

    Thank you for this timely think piece. As one who has felt the very pangs of isolation you keenly describe, I sympathize with this plight. But I think it would be premature to lament the loss of common spaces just yet. Blockbuster may be on its last legs, but institutions like The Cinefamily (L.A.) are thriving in part because they speak to our ingrained desire for interpersonal connection. I don’t know whether they can survive for long in this climate, but it gives one hope.

  • http://theivorylighthouse.blogspot.com/ SJ

    I can’t really believe that this move towards anti-hero and isolation is something new. I think we could link much of the political and economic unrest to American tastes in movies. For instance, Star Wars first came out in a blockbuster scene much like our current one. Part of what made the movie so different was that it had a hero and played off a lot of the classic story archetypes of hero and heroine. It’s a common habit for people to blame technology or “The 60’s” for our “new” isolation, but I think it’s much older than the Internet or the sex-revolution.

    I’d like to propose that ‘new technology’ is not a thing, but rather the concept. Be it the steel pow, tractor, or turbine. Its not what a piece of technology is, rather the place technology has that makes it meaningful in society. That said, I don’t think blame is fairly placed on “the internet” for our apparent degradation of community and commonality, any more than the advancement of the car made people more or less social.

    Perhaps we can also consider the new ability people have to express their isolation and liken it to the increased awareness in abuse or the supposed worsening on the news. Abuse and war are not new. Stats actually point to the opposite, with our lifespans increasing. But we assume that things are getting worse because we’re hearing more of it. As such, look at the generation that fought WWI and the despair and depression that followed the war that was supposed to end all wars. What do you think would have been posted on blogs? (All Is Quiet on the Western Front) anyone? Or perhaps the increasing fear of the government and society (1984 – George Orwell).

    I think its arguable that this lack of commonality and rise in isolation is new.

  • http://www.faithmeetsworld.com/ Rob Grayson

    Thanks for this post, which expresses many of my concerns so well.

    Interestingly, though, only yesterday I read a piece on the BBC news website about how some hitherto purely online retailers are beginning to open physical stores. I’m not saying this is necessarily the forebear of a widespread trend, but it does make me wonder whether, as a culture, we’re quite as ready to abandon face-to-face, flesh-on-flesh engagement as we think…

    (I tried to post a link to the BBC news story, but couldn’t seem to get it to work.)

  • biotrom

    Yes, but also this: http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/10/reinventing-the-to-do-list-a-multi-billion-dollar-opportunity/

    Recommendation engines could take the place of gatekeepers, for good or bad. And I suspect that if isolation becomes too much of a problem, new common things/spaces will emerge.