Innovation vs. Information Overload (Revisited)

information_overload_by_sculmully1-300x225

Louis CK’s eloquent rant on smartphones quickly went viral and is already considered an instant classic.

We should appreciate the opportunity to engage in this debate: are our electronic devices, so miraculous on so many levels, doing more harm than good?

I recently had lunch with a former professor and he commented that his students have, in recent years, had a difficult time paying attention. He has taught for over three decades, so his perspective is at once informed and somewhat alarming. He wondered how the “plugged-in” generation will adapt to the workforce. Would young adults in, say, the service industry, find it liberating or torturous to be forbidden access to their mobile devices?

There are no easy answers here, of course. Over the last century, we’ve heard pessimistic voices of experience predict the ways phonographs, then televisions, then video games, and then smartphones would impair our ability to concentrate, or even connect on a basic human level. To be sure, it is always a complicated equation: for every technological advancement there are obvious, even legitimate concerns.

Personally, I don’t think the primary issue here involves devices so much as ubiquity of content, a very 21st Century development. Whether intended—or dismissed—as forms of enlightenment or distraction, there is no doubt that we have quick, easy access to data that would have been inconceivable only a decade ago. Information overload may seem an archaic concept, but it is a very real, mounting concern.

The idea of us doing more things with less time, particularly in the workplace, is not a new phenomenon. Our proclivity for compulsive behavior, be it on the job or at play, is skewered to excellent effect in this old skit.

This had to be made in the early ‘90s because it nails the last vestiges of the old world order: the phones, the fax machine, the suspenders and especially the rolodex. This skit could not be set up the same way today for the simple reason that no office looks like that today. And while it’s amusing to see this harried office manager acting like the proverbial mouse on the wheel, it is disconcerting to consider we are, arguably, operating at a more frenetic pace today, and we scarcely need to move a muscle. All that activity occurs in one centralized place: the monitor of whatever device we are using. The activities this agitated worker bee is engaging in (still called multi-tasking, one presumes) are all occurring now; they merely appear more innocuous because they are trapped in electronic ether, a direct line between our devices and our brains.

Suddenly it’s slightly more unnerving to consider that if, like myself, it’s not uncommon for you to have more than ten windows open at any given time, along with Outlook, a spreadsheet and one or two documents, perhaps music playing, you are doing more than we are accustomed, or capable of doing. This is all happening, all day, inside our heads, and is this not a more intense—and damaging—type of information overload? It’s no wonder if, like myself, at least once a day you open a new window to look something up, get momentarily sidetracked (say, you see the window you’d previously opened and remember you need to finish that task or knock out that email) and then, when you turn back to the welcome screen for a fresh window, have no earthly idea what is was you meant to look for.

Perhaps we should be concerned less about gadgets and the ways we have managed, in these interesting and uncertain times, to outsmart ourselves into being busier every single day. Is this a trend we can slow down? Should we? Or are we advancing our evolution, fast-tracking an ability to connect, communicate and yes, commiserate, in a fashion previously unimagined? Most likely, it need (or should) not be an either/or; what we should try to avoid is blaming innovation and technology for symptoms and problems we’ve created all by ourselves.

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Remembering (and Celebrating) The Kids In The Hall

(10/16: After yesterday’s post, it seems appropriate (and always overdue) to remember how amazing KITH were (are)!)

(From PopMatters, 10/07)

The Kids in the Hall existed in a sort of parallel universe to the much more popular, much less brilliant Saturday Night Live. Though comparisons between the two are inevitable, perhaps because of the Lorne Michaels connection, Kids in the Hall should be appraised—and appreciated—as part of the crooked line connecting Monty Python, which preceded it, and Mr. Show, which followed. While attracting an intense cult fan base, the Kids faced at least three major obstacles that made crossover success pretty much an impossibility. They were Canadian and had a pronounced—and, for fans, most welcome—quirkiness. They were disarmingly intelligent, yet always willing and eager to embrace the oddness of life. Their one-two punch of ingenuity and eccentricity could be like Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons—you either got them, immediately, or you did not. Lastly, they dressed in drag. Often, and convincingly. Too convincingly, perhaps, for the average American sensibility circa 1990-something.

Although only one member of the ensemble is gay, queer culture was featured prominently—or, at least unabashedly—waaaaay before it was as widely accepted, or commonplace as it would thankfully be less than two decades later. Perhaps the primary reason it was easier for some to describe, or dismiss the show as a bunch of dudes in dresses is because it was, and remains, pretty difficult to pinpoint what they were up to. Precious few impersonations, less than a little political pot-shotting, The Kids in the Hall managed to consistently skewer piety and send up our ever-uptight social mores through the creation of insanely indelible characters: they understood that to effectively ridicule the world they had to make themselves ridiculous. In one skit, fur trappers cruise office buildings, killing yuppies in order to sell their “pelts” to a high-end haberdashery. In another a harried corporate big shot, in the midst of a stress-driven cardiac arrest, rips his heart out of his chest, pouring coffee on it and yelling “Get back to work!”. And how inadequate would our world be without the Head Crusher, the Chicken Lady, Buddy Cole or Cabbage Head?

The definitive sketch? Every fan will claim one, but it’s difficult to deny the exceptional “Retelling of a Complicated Italian Movie”, which features everything that made The Kids in the Hall so inimitable: as two guys in a bar discuss a foreign film, the happy hour crowd slowly assumes the roles being described. All of a sudden the storyteller is holding a pistol and melodramatic shots ring out. “Wow, what a complicated plot!” his friend says, still holding his buffalo wing as he collapses, clutching his bleeding stomach. You have to see it to disbelieve it, but it manages to be clever, surreal and, as always, hysterical. Naturally, one character is dressed in drag.

Bonus clip: this one, for me, illuminates everything that made Kids In The Hall so unconventially genius (and cliche-smashing) and, of course, exactly why it never had a chance to break big in the States (and it goes without saying that Scott Thompson is God).

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Innovation vs. Information Overload

Louis CK’s eloquent rant on smartphones quickly went viral and is already considered an instant classic.

We should appreciate the opportunity to engage in this debate: are our electronic devices, so miraculous on so many levels, doing more harm than good?

I recently had lunch with a former professor and he commented that his students have, in recent years, had a difficult time paying attention. He has taught for over three decades, so his perspective is at once informed and somewhat alarming. He wondered how the “plugged-in” generation will adapt to the workforce. Would young adults in, say, the service industry, find it liberating or torturous to be forbidden access to their mobile devices?

There are no easy answers here, of course. Over the last century, we’ve heard pessimistic voices of experience predict the ways phonographs, then televisions, then video games, and then smartphones would impair our ability to concentrate, or even connect on a basic human level. To be sure, it is always a complicated equation: for every technological advancement there are obvious, even legitimate concerns.

Personally, I don’t think the primary issue here involves devices so much as ubiquity of content, a very 21st Century development. Whether intended—or dismissed—as forms of enlightenment or distraction, there is no doubt that we have quick, easy access to data that would have been inconceivable only a decade ago. Information overload may seem an archaic concept, but it is a very real, mounting concern.

The idea of us doing more things with less time, particularly in the workplace, is not a new phenomenon. Our proclivity for compulsive behavior, be it on the job or at play, is skewered to excellent effect in this old skit.

This had to be made in the early ‘90s because it nails the last vestiges of the old world order: the phones, the fax machine, the suspenders and especially the rolodex. This skit could not be set up the same way today for the simple reason that no office looks like that today. And while it’s amusing to see this harried office manager acting like the proverbial mouse on the wheel, it is disconcerting to consider we are, arguably, operating at a more frenetic pace today, and we scarcely need to move a muscle. All that activity occurs in one centralized place: the monitor of whatever device we are using. The activities this agitated worker bee is engaging in (still called multi-tasking, one presumes) are all occurring now; they merely appear more innocuous because they are trapped in electronic ether, a direct line between our devices and our brains.

Suddenly it’s slightly more unnerving to consider that if, like myself, it’s not uncommon for you to have more than ten windows open at any given time, along with Outlook, a spreadsheet and one or two documents, perhaps music playing, you are doing more than we are accustomed, or capable of doing. This is all happening, all day, inside our heads, and is this not a more intense—and damaging—type of information overload? It’s no wonder if, like myself, at least once a day you open a new window to look something up, get momentarily sidetracked (say, you see the window you’d previously opened and remember you need to finish that task or knock out that email) and then, when you turn back to the welcome screen for a fresh window, have no earthly idea what is was you meant to look for.

Perhaps we should be concerned less about gadgets and the ways we have managed, in these interesting and uncertain times, to outsmart ourselves into being busier every single day. Is this a trend we can slow down? Should we? Or are we advancing our evolution, fast-tracking an ability to connect, communicate and yes, commiserate, in a fashion previously unimagined? Most likely, it need (or should) not be an either/or; what we should try to avoid is blaming innovation and technology for symptoms and problems we’ve created all by ourselves.

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Remembering (and Celebrating) The Kids In The Hall

This weekend PopMatters is revisiting an outstanding feature from a couple of years ago: The Best of TV on DVD. Definitely worth checking out. My entry, below, was on the gone but far-from-forgotten Kids In The Hall series.

The Kids in the Hall existed in a sort of parallel universe to the much more popular, much less brilliant Saturday Night Live. Though comparisons between the two are inevitable, perhaps because of the Lorne Michaels connection, Kids in the Hall should be appraised—and appreciated—as part of the crooked line connecting Monty Python, which preceded it, and Mr. Show, which followed. While attracting an intense cult fan base, the Kids faced at least three major obstacles that made crossover success pretty much an impossibility. They were Canadian and had a pronounced—and, for fans, most welcome—quirkiness. They were disarmingly intelligent, yet always willing and eager to embrace the oddness of life. Their one-two punch of ingenuity and eccentricity could be like Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons—you either got them, immediately, or you did not. Lastly, they dressed in drag. Often, and convincingly. Too convincingly, perhaps, for the average American sensibility circa 1990-something.

Although only one member of the ensemble is gay, queer culture was featured prominently—or, at least unabashedly—waaaaay before it was as widely accepted, or commonplace as it would thankfully be less than two decades later. Perhaps the primary reason it was easier for some to describe, or dismiss the show as a bunch of dudes in dresses is because it was, and remains, pretty difficult to pinpoint what they were up to. Precious few impersonations, less than a little political pot-shotting, The Kids in the Hall managed to consistently skewer piety and send up our ever-uptight social mores through the creation of insanely indelible characters: they understood that to effectively ridicule the world they had to make themselves ridiculous. In one skit, fur trappers cruise office buildings, killing yuppies in order to sell their “pelts” to a high-end haberdashery. In another a harried corporate big shot, in the midst of a stress-driven cardiac arrest, rips his heart out of his chest, pouring coffee on it and yelling “Get back to work!” (more on that particular sketch, directly below, here). And how inadequate would our world be without the Head Crusher, the Chicken Lady, Buddy Cole or Cabbage Head?

The definitive sketch? Every fan will claim one, but it’s difficult to deny the exceptional “Retelling of a Complicated Italian Movie”, which features everything that made The Kids in the Hall so inimitable: as two guys in a bar discuss a foreign film, the happy hour crowd slowly assumes the roles being described. All of a sudden the storyteller is holding a pistol and melodramatic shots ring out. “Wow, what a complicated plot!” his friend says, still holding his buffalo wing as he collapses, clutching his bleeding stomach. You have to see it to disbelieve it, but it manages to be clever, surreal and, as always, hysterical. Naturally, one character is dressed in drag.

Bonus clip: this one, for me, illuminates everything that made Kids In The Hall so unconventially genius (and cliche-smashing) and, of course, exactly why it never had a chance to break big in the States (and it goes without saying that Scott Thompson is God).

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Work Pig: Bringing Home the Bacon

 

Enough good things really can’t be said about Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson, also known as The Kids in the Hall. I celebrated them, in 2007, for the Popmatters “Best of TV on DVD” feature, here, and this was as succinct a summation as I was capable of conjuring up:

The Kids in the Hall existed in a sort of parallel universe to the much more popular, much less brilliant Saturday Night Live. Though comparisons between the two are inevitable, perhaps because of the Lorne Michaels connection, Kids in the Hall should be appraised—and appreciated—as part of the crooked line connecting Monty Python, which preceded it, and Mr. Show, which followed. While attracting an intense cult fan base, the Kids faced at least three major obstacles that made crossover success pretty much an impossibility. They were Canadian and had a pronounced—and, for fans, most welcome—quirkiness. They were disarmingly intelligent, yet always willing and eager to embrace the oddness of life. Their one-two punch of ingenuity and eccentricity could be like Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons—you either got them, immediately, or you did not. Lastly, they dressed in drag. Often, and convincingly. Too convincingly, perhaps, for the average American sensibility circa 1990-something.

That works, I think. You can, and should, encourage those not-in-the-know to check them out, but it seems safe to predict that KITH will remain forever a cult phenomenon, appreciated by a discerning minority. Not unlike Monty Python, come to think of it. Not the movies, but the actual TV series: everyone loves Python and everyone ensures they get their props, but I can’t say I know too many people who have actually seen more than a handful of the actual sketches.

Speaking of the sketches, it’s an impossible, and pretty futile endeavor to attempt isolating the single skit that best represents the whole (whether it’s MP or KITH or even a shorter-lived gem like The Chappelle Show). But it’s still funny, and possibly imperative, for fans to play around with the agonizing, if ultimately unimportant distinction. There are at least a dozen serious candidates, and different KITH fans would invariably choose different ones, but that is also part of the fun.  

Bruce McCulloch

One skit in particular I never get tired of is “Work Pig” (from Season 4) which, unlike many of the great KITH sketches, is not a collaboration, but pretty much a vehicle for Bruce McCulloch. It has all of the elements of a prototypical top-tier KITH effort: the quirky, dark, surreal humor, the clever (and always remarkably subtle) social commentary, and mostly the rather inimitable oddball sensibility. This skit, as anyone who has seen it will know (and for those that don’t, see below), works so perfectly because its skewering of the frenetic corporate circus is timeless.

But watching it again, recently, something hit me.

This had to be made in the early ’90s because it nails all the last vestiges of the old world order: the phones, the fax machine, the suspenders, and especially the rolodex. That skit could not be set up the same way now for the simple reason that no office looks that way today. And one is tempted to think: thank God. Who needs the bad old days when you actually put people on hold not merely because you were busy but because you actually talked on the phone. Plus, what else did you have to do? No Internet to surf, no e-mail to send and receive, just…work.

But wait. That is still happening; it just happens in one centralized place: on the monitor of a ubiquitous PC. The activities he is engaging in (still called multi-tasking, one assumes) are all occurring now; they merely appear more innocuous—or unthreatening, because they are all trapped in electronic ether, they are confined to a 12 inch screen. Suddenly it’s slightly more unnerving to consider that if, like myself, it’s not uncommon for you to have more than 10 windows (various sites) along with MS Outlook, and one or more spreadsheets and/or MS Word documents, and maybe a CD playing, you are bopping around doing a million things. Here’s the thing: it just doesn’t require you to bop around. It’s all happening, in your head. And how much more intense—and damaging—is that type of information overload? It’s no wonder (if, like myself) at least once a day you open a new window to look something up and get momentaritly sidetracked (say, you see the window you’d previously opened and remember you need to finish that task or send that e-mail) and then, when you turn back to the welcome screen on for a fresh window, have no earthly idea what it was you were looking for.  We’ve been moved out of the pigstys, perhaps, but maybe the joke is on us. Possibly, people will look back at our moment in time and ask how the fuck we outsmarted ourselves into being even busier every day.

Or, like the songs says, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. Like your mind.

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Kids in the Hall: An Appreciation

Kids in the Hall–from Popmatters.com

The Kids in the Hall existed in a sort of parallel universe to the much more popular, much less brilliant Saturday Night Live. Though comparisons between the two are inevitable, perhaps because of the Lorne Michaels connection, Kids in the Hall should be appraised—and appreciated—as part of the crooked line connecting Monty Python, which preceded it, and Mr. Show, which followed. While attracting an intense cult fan base, the Kids faced at least three major obstacles that made crossover success pretty much an impossibility. They were Canadian and had a pronounced—and, for fans, most welcome—quirkiness. They were disarmingly intelligent, yet always willing and eager to embrace the oddness of life. Their one-two punch of ingenuity and eccentricity could be like Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons—you either got them, immediately, or you did not. Lastly, they dressed in drag. Often, and convincingly. Too convincingly, perhaps, for the average American sensibility circa 1990-something.
Although only one member of the ensemble is gay, queer culture was featured prominently—or, at least unabashedly—waaaaay before it was as widely accepted, or commonplace as it would thankfully be less than two decades later. Perhaps the primary reason it was easier for some to describe, or dismiss the show as a bunch of dudes in dresses is because it was, and remains, pretty difficult to pinpoint what they were up to. Precious few impersonations, less than a little political pot-shotting, The Kids in the Hall managed to consistently skewer piety and send up our ever-uptight social mores through the creation of insanely indelible characters: they understood that to effectively ridicule the world they had to make themselves ridiculous. In one skit, fur trappers cruise office buildings, killing yuppies in order to sell their “pelts” to a high-end haberdashery. In another a harried corporate big shot, in the midst of a stress-driven cardiac arrest, rips his heart out of his chest, pouring coffee on it and yelling “Get back to work!” And how inadequate would our world be without the Head Crusher, the Chicken Lady, Buddy Cole or Cabbage Head?
The definitive sketch? Every fan will claim one, but it’s difficult to deny the exceptional “Retelling of a Complicated Italian Movie”, which features everything that made The Kids in the Hall so inimitable: as two guys in a bar discuss a foreign film, the happy hour crowd slowly assumes the roles being described. All of a sudden the storyteller is holding a pistol and melodramatic shots ring out. “Wow, what a complicated plot!” his friend says, still holding his buffalo wing as he collapses, clutching his bleeding stomach. You have to see it to disbelieve it, but it manages to be clever, surreal and, as always, hysterical. Naturally, one character is dressed in drag.

Share