Asynchronicity in the Internet Age

In the Fall of 2010, my husband and I decided to drop cable tv altogether, save the $9.99 monthly basic, basic plan so I could still have C-SPAN and BookTV while folding laundry on Sundays. I bought an Apple TV, and an HDMI dongle for my laptop, and we made our initial move to internet-based TV.

At the time, weaning myself from TV involved solving a few problems. I was an avid “All My Children” fan, a frequent watcher of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, a DVR watcher of Dr. Phil (my idea of a guilty pleasure) and House (the one show my husband and I watched together). A $7.99/month Hulu Plus account took care of everything but Dr. Phil. After detoxing from Dr. Phil, I find I don’t miss it, although I have an occasional jonesing for some unresolvable family dysfunction, but that’s what Facebook is for (albeit, sans Octomom).

Then there were the kids. My daughter, Mihiret, came to our family from Ethiopia at the age of 4 in the fall of 2008. She became a Disney Channel watcher. I believe it was partially in the spirit of Disney being an accessible cultural touchstone for a kid who is new here and wanting so much to fit in. For her, Hannah Montana and Selena Gomez are like extended family. She cried when I surrendered the DVR, and I felt like the worst mom in the world. But, when I showed her how our PS3 could give her access to our $7.99 Netflix account and all the Disney shows she watched anytime at her convenience, she was all over it. Her envious friends wished THEY could pick that same stupid episode eleven times in a row.

So we ditched our $129 HD/DVR cable bill for a combined basic cable/internet TV bill of $25.97 and never looked back. We got Mihiret a Roku box for Christmas, and she is thrilled. (BTW, if I had it to do over again, I’d go for the Roku so I would not have to hook my laptop up to get Hulu).

We had always, in the past, been Netflix members, but at the time we made this switch, we also ditched the DVD part of our membership. Friends of mine used to checkout whole seasons of TV shows on DVD, but I found that to be unweildy as DVD’s in our house, with two small kids, two dogs, three cats, two fish, and a mouse, don’t stand much of a chance.  But now that I am forced into the online world for any variety in my TV viewing, I have taken to viewing entire seasons of shows I had never seen while they were still on the air. I started with “Lie to Me” because I love Tim Roth, and it was diverting, but didn’t really grab me much. I tried “Mad Men” and found the first episode to be utterly depressing and reminding me of the awful, mean, psychopathic people I met in NYC during my years in marketing and brand management there, so I turned it off mid-episode.

Then I saw my first episode of “24” this year. It first aired in 2001 and I was watching it for the first time in 2012. The show had me hooked, and I became addicted to multiple-episode watching sessions after the kids went to bed. The first season was written in 2001 before 9/11, and the terrorists had to be dug up from the Clinton-era Bosnia campaign. Little did they know that they were entering on the most terrorist-obsessed, torture-lovin’ decade to come upon us yet.

But I’m not qualified to write a treatise on the cultural meanings and impact of the show “24.” In fact, from looking at both Google and Google Scholar, it appears as though writings on that topic have likely been annotated in more than one dissertation over the last 10 years.

Rather, this experience has made me wholly qualified to talk about what it’s like to experience a popular culture phenomenon out of synch with popular culture. And I’m not talking about trying to appreciate the genius of Charlie Chaplin or Andy Warhol in retrospect. I’m talking about popular culture that is freshly old, just yesterday, and not yet committed to antiquity. Internet TV FEELS like watching TV on a broadcast channel. That is, being a late boomer and having grown up in the TV age, my experience of TV is that everyone else is watching this while I’m watching this. But, with internet TV, I’m the only one I know of watching this at this point in time.

So, the usual ways of sharing popular cultural experiences on Twitter, Facebook and the like are not available to you. The hash tags are just slightly old and no one’s really using them anymore. There appears to be a window in popular culture, like suspended animation, when something’s relevance and aesthetic appeal lay dormant, like the career of Neil Sedaka during the years between the two releases of “Breaking up is Hard to Do.”

So, any Googling I do on the topic is just slightly out of date. The show was around recently enough to have been covered in all the current magazines, so you can actually read these articles and pretend it’s in real time, which is very, very strange. Unlike traditional online or library research, it feels much more like time travel — that you are occupying a few years ago rather than observing it. I didn’t need the wayback machine, or wikipedia, to find this stuff. It’s all out there live on the web, looking as fresh as this morning’s news releases, but bearing a date of 2005. Essentially, an article from seven years ago appears as new and relevant as the morning it was born.

This gives me shivers when I think about how the idea of permalinks, rdf, rss and xml are becoming more and more ubiquitous. When you search the New York Times for articles that pre-date these technologies, you are directed to archives, or scans, or articles in formats that are older, or clearly adapted. But, the separation of data from presentation, and the evolution of the semantic web, portend a future where the past can seem simultaneous. Stretch the seven years to 20, and combine it with augmented reality and you can pretty much gaslight ANYONE into thinking that they are, indeed, back in high school, failing that exam once again, in their pajamas.

A new form of torture. Which reminds me, I’m due to finish Season 7 of “24,” and not tweet about it.