About a year ago, I was at the Park Street station on my way back to Cambridge. As I waited for the train to come, I did what I always do when I’m waiting without a book: I paced the end of the platform. Rather than slowly pass my foot over the knobs of the textured, yellow safety strip,—a favorite pastime of mine—I kept to the flat brick on a well-defined route that visits the supporting columns which dwell nearest to the tunnel’s opening.
Normally I’m not struck by public graffiti, but every once in a while something unexpected crops up. This time one of my columns read: “Kill all yuppies.”
I was very excited by this message. No, I’m not in favor of killing all the yuppies. That suggestion’d put me too close at risk. There’s a very good chance, indeed, that I’m a yuppie. So, no. Please be kind to the yuppies. But here’s what’s different. Normally the graffiti that I’ve encountered are either some sort of tag—you know, a personal statement of existence and potential ownership, “Kilroy was here” or “AlL St*R” or something along those lines—or alternatively they are some commitment of love or hate (often accompanied by a slur or two). You seen them, something like “Joe is a fag” or “I love Tiffany.” Anyway, all of these examples are personally directed. They don’t extend beyond an individual. Sometimes I’ll find one that condemns a whole group of people, like my yuppies example, scrawled on a public alleyway. But those even those are gang-related or race-related. Yuppies represent something new.
Whoever wrote it got my attention because his hatred was not race-directed. It points to a larger social movement. The new segregation, if it is really new, will be intellect. And these upwardly mobile persons are central enough to earn the distinguished role of spokesperson. But what exactly are yuppies mascots of? Well, that sort of brings me to some more recent graffiti.
The Ashmont train station is undergoing some pretty hefty repairs. Officials have suspended the Mattapan High Speed Line service for a year, and the train station is hidden from plain sight by several, several ton mounds of dirt. Like most other forms of transportation in the city, the Ashmont station is going underground. It’ll take some time before things are back in order. For now, there are lots of make-shift wooden structures to take the places of the bus depot and station entrance. And that means there’s plenty of board space for community art—I mean graffiti.
The last time I was at Ashmont I noticed some of the newer pieces as I walked by one of the wooden panels. This time a website caught my eye. I haven’t seen many hypertext tags outside of the internet, but there it was: a link to someone’s myspace page. Kilroy has entered a new age and he’s updated his message. Now the statement is “I am not here, I’m here. Come find me.” It’s a revolution. Personalization on the web is at an all-time high, and movers in the field want more of it. Collaborative filtering, social navigation, blogs! They’re all in style, and they don’t look like they’re going to go away any time soon. I can’t say I mind it, either. In fact, I want to be more a part of it.
This is not the same technological revolution that your slightly older brother talked about only decades ago. No, the paradigm is different: we can read the writing on the wall. Literally. Before technology brought with it an increased level of impersonality. The assembly-line metaphor bled into everything—it’s still around, of course. Don’t worry, the transactional framework driven by the glory of mass manipulation of raw goods to form an endless supply of identical product is still very much alive. And people are still applying manufacturing-inspired methods completely out of context. And the effect is still very isolating. But lo! the very same push to maximize profit that once aimed to cut time and kill interpersonal relationships has turned a corner. Personalization is the new rage.
But will personalization help build bridges among people; won’t it keep us even more securely glued to our seats in front of our computers? I’m afraid that it can. Technologically-backed social ventures, like AOL Instant Messenger and other chat programs, have made it easier for the quiet kids to remain quiet and alone. Chat tools give the user the appearance that they’re interacting with other people. But some researchers suggest that the analogy is only that: apparent. The real satisfaction one gains from honest-to-goodness, face-to-face conversation is so much greater than its virtual manifestation that it’s almost silly to make the comparison. So, what’s going on?
The invitational nature of MySpace is different than AIM. A person’s page is like his home. Each click to that site is really a visit. That’s why it makes the news so often. Sometimes the visits aren’t just virtual. And everyone uses it: college kids, little kids, married couples. The range of demographics represented by MySpace’s users is enormous. Unlike Friendster, which originally withheld a user’s access to a stranger’s page by default, MySpace let everyone see everyone else from the get-go. Friendster was a place for people who were already friends. MySpace, I believe, was built to get people to go to and listen to new bands in concert. The idea that you’d actually meet strangers was the founding idea. Now it’s just a place find others you’d like to bone à la Craig’s List’s personals but less so. But the idea that you might meet the person attached to the website is still very much there. Isn’t that exactly what that graffiti from Ashmont Station was all about? The internet takes all the scariness out of meeting a stranger, because you don’t physically meet, and the meeting is still completely anonymous. (There’s a trade-off, though. The relationships that form are even more tenuous than those so-called and ever important “weak bonds.” Online relationships tend to be superficial and sometimes socially damaging. Like I said before, they permit the loners to find each other and stay alone. Even those of us who aren’t loners end up as loners the longer we stay online rather than outside.)
So we’ve found a cause for our mascots. Like the term itself, today’s yuppies herald the dawn of a new form of impersonalization: isolation through personalization. Technology is poised to use what it knows about you and your preferences to make a friendlier, easier experience. In the process, you get to interact with others—real or not. The interaction is deep enough to convince you that you’ve done something meaningful. You’ve made a friend or learned a new fact. (Wikipedia is a blessing and curse.) But have you really; can you rely on your friend or apply your fact?
Your iPod list has exactly the music you want to hear. And so now, people go through life not listening to each other but to themselves, plugged into a clean, white box whose world revolves around the most important person—its only person: its master is me. Time Magazine got it wrong. The person of the year is not You; it’s me. This is the society recorded in graffiti today.
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