Reading Frank Harris’s Contemporary portraits, I began to think about encounters, and how seldom I encounter an acquaintance on the street or in a restaurant or store. There’s a temptation, no doubt, to brighten up the past at the expense of a dull present, a temptation that gains force as you get older. So it may be with the thought that forty years ago—the precise lapse of time doesn’t, so long as it’s a plausible distance from now—universities were smaller, more collegial, more porous institutions. But it is true that the automobile has dispersed us; appliances, air-conditioning, and the whole array of devices to divert ourselves at home have removed any necessity to venture out except to shop, & now even that is often a mostly impersonal affair.
Spontaneity now requires a great deal of planning. I think of “play dates”. A notion as foreign to my experience of childhood as the initiation rites of the Nkanu. After school, we went out and “played”. We did so until dinner. After dinner, we went out again & played till it got dark. Older folks had no part in this.
I have the sense that the lives of upper-middle-class children—many of my students, for example—are now often been so scheduled with lessons and camps and, yes, play-dates that the very idea of an hour with “nothing to do” inspires something like the old horror vacui. What rushes in to fill the void is not reading, not watching bugs, not building things with an Erector set or alchemizing with a chemistry set, but chatting on the cellphone, watching TV, or playing video games. In a word: consumption, the duty of every individual in a corporate age.
During junior high school, I watched my share of TV—McHale’s Navy and Leave It to Beaver in reruns after school, at night The Avengers, the Smothers Brothers, Ed Sullivan. When I was younger, it was Uncle Al, Howdy Doody, the Lone Ranger, Woody Woodpecker, and at night Sid Caesar, Dinah Shore, The Rogues. But I also pored over John Canaday’s history of art, was puzzled by the images of the Larousse Mythology, built model cars (all doomed to destruction), built with a friend a telegraph (it even worked once or twice), and played endless games of disorganized baseball. My parents provided the opportunities; taking them was up to me.
The secret world of eight- or ten-year-olds even now is probably more anarchic & riskier than parents know or want to know. But the environment has come to be perceived as full of dangers, and children as fragile vessels requiring protection at all times. On every aspect of growing up there are experts, many of them well-meaning no doubt, but who also have an interest in making the raising of children an affair that requires their advice and intervention, not to mention marketing. (The entry of expertise, scientifically credentialled, into everyday life is apparent already by the end of the nineteenth century; expert advice about masturbation and other evils, brought under the aegis of scientific medicine, goes back further.)
Especially among people familiar with computers and the Internet, there is a tendency to respond to social issues with technological fixes. Automated reputation-building, for example. One’s view of the adequacy of those solutions depends in part on what sense one has of the alternatives. I doubt that anyone who has walked down Broadway or the Boulevard St. Germain will be easily persuaded that any “virtual reality”, produced by computer or by Las Vegas, could take its place. You might prefer the simulation. There is, after all, no danger of losing your wallet or your composure. But that is a preference for something else, just as a preference for Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein is a preference for something other than Mary Shelley’s novel.
What makes this more than an innocuous matter of preference is that sometimes the options compete. That competition is played out in the allocation of public and private capital. The mall, made possible by the automobile and the flight to the suburbs encouraged by it, has succeeded in emptying many American downtowns. I remember being quite excited about the “shopping centers” that were springing up on the outskirts of Cincinnati as I grew up. The wholly private, controlled space of the mall is the antithesis, as others have noted, of the street. Many people prefer the mall, regarding the city as dirty and dangerous. Which, in some parts, it is. There are irreconcilable values at work—irreconcilable, at least, in the present—: safety and predictability on the one hand, unexpectedness and variety on the other.
As usual, I find myself puzzled. I don’t entirely trust my memories; I’m not sure my early experience can be generalized. The student-teacher relation no doubt biases my perceptions of my students’ upbringing. To get past commonplaces and distortions would take serious research that I’m not equipped or moved to carry out. Nevertheless I wonder at the coincidence of two tendencies, the first to an increasing, perhaps necessary, organization or regimentation of everyday life, and the second to what you might call an “economic” approach to human relations—that is, the application of rational choice models to friendship, dating, trust, and so on. Is the distancing, the pretended “objectivity” of the second a response to the actual conditions brought about by the first?