THE BLOG
04/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Future Shock and Unplanned Obsolescence

As some of you know, I'm working on a book right now about the television, movies, toys, video games and pop culture that I - and every Gen Xer - grew up on. That's all I can really say about the project right now, but I wanted to pass on my new front-page piece in the Denver Post's Sunday Perspective section about the topic, because I think it touches on a phenomenon that so many of us are struggling with these days.

The piece looks at the concept of unplanned obsolescence in Hollywood - specifically, at how many recent films we've considered timeless are being quickly fossilized thanks to ever-evolving technology that outdates their storylines. It was fun to write, but also disturbing in the sense that it focuses in on just how fast our world is now changing, and how the Toffler-ian concept of Future Shock has come to define our society.

What we look at as "outdated" is no longer stuff that's, say, 10 or 20 years old. That stuff is all but ancient history. Today, anything - gadgets, software, political ideas, etc. - can be outdated in a matter of weeks, because the pace of, well, everything has accelerated to supersonic speeds. Our fast-changing views of cultural history - as represented by the quicker aging of cinematic productions - is just one example of that acceleration.

There are obviously positives and negatives to this, of course. It's terrific that our knowledge of natural sciences is growing exponentially. It's not so terrific that, say, fact-based proposals to solve major problems can lose their enduring agency with a few salvos from the half-baked crazy people who commandeer the warp-speed 24-7 news cycle.

At a personal level, this can feel jarring - it can feel like we're all the nose-bleeding characters on Lost, bewildered by blinding flashes as we unknowingly travel through time (and I'm already wondering how quickly Lost will go from being considered a cutting-edge high-concept masterpiece to a television antique). And I think we're all struggling in our own way to make sense of this revolutionary pace of change - struggling to come to terms with a world that feels totally out of control, for better and for worse.

This, in fact, might explain why Lost has such a devoted followership, and why shows like Mad Men are such hits. The former, thanks to both its plot and its semiotics, is a metaphor for both the perplexing chaos and of modern life, and the belief (or at least hope) that such chaos isn't pure randomness, but that there is actually some grand master force/plan at work. The latter, meanwhile, look back at the period in which a seemingly (and I do stress "seemingly") stable, predictable and plodding world originally began changing so quickly and overtly tearing apart at the seams - and in the process, the show appears to help us try to understand why things started going crazy in the first place.

As I said, in my Denver Post piece, I look at this through the prism of classic 80s and early 90s films, and how they have suddenly aged. I figured it would be a simple way to address a small piece of this larger phenomenon.

Oddly enough, out of any single piece I've written in a year, this piece has solicited the most intense response (it's perhaps a sad commentary that an article about movies has elicited a far stronger response than any article about public policy...but that's a subject for a whole other discussion). There are those readers who either loved the piece, or those who detested it - the latter's ire at their belief that I attacked the quality of old movies and/or am somehow not educated in the history of old movies (never underestimate the elitism/pretentiousness of the auteur film crowd). Thing is, though, I didn't mean to suggest that the old movies aren't relevant or, by the way, stellar in their own right. What I meant to suggest is that their settings are now aging faster than they ever did, thanks to the speed of technological innovation.

You could argue that those settings don't really matter. And while I agree that great films are great films regardless of setting, those settings do draw in (or repel) the casual and/or younger viewer - ie. the mass audience, as opposed to the auteur-loving one. So my point is actually one of despair - despair that it will become harder and harder to make "timeless" classics that draw in a mass audience over decades, because the fossilization of the settings is accelerating.

Anyhow, read the piece here.