Archive for April, 2009

01
Apr
09

Deservitude

Do me a favor, and take four minutes to watch this clip:

What you just watched, if you took the time to do so, is the 80th-highest ranked video on all of YouTube.com.  That’s YouTube, where 15 hours of footage is added every minute of every day (63 hours of footage were added to the site in the time it took you to watch that clip).  YouTube, a site that currently consumes more bandwidth than was consumed by the entire Internet less than ten years ago.  It’s a whole lotta videos, folks, and somehow, this one fluttered up towards the top of a giant pile of babies doing funny things and handheld camera phone footage from the forty-seventh row of a Jonas Brothers concert.

Why?  As YouTube clips go, it seems tremendously average.  All it consists of is a semi-well-known comedian doing some shtick on an episode of Conan.  I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t scream “Charlie The Unicorn” to me.  It’s funny, but it’s probably not the funniest thing you’ve ever heard, and it’s not something that cries out, “share me!”  But what it does, and this I believe is why it’s rated so high, is it strikes a chord with a concept that is so inherent in our current collective mindset, and examines that concept in a new, unusual way.

I call that concept deservitude.  Louis CK, the comedian in the clip, calls it “everything’s amazing, and nobody’s happy.”  You might call it taking the privileges of this world for granted.  It’s the idea that once we acquire something, anything less than that thing is inadequate.  It is the rarely examined down side of progress and innovation, and it’s relatable, because we see it in those around us, and we see it in ourselves.

But I don’t think that’s the entire reason this video became so popular.  This appearance on Conan took place on October 1, 2008, yet it was the fourth-most watched video for this past month of March.  Why did it take five months to catch on?  To answer that question, I say look at the stock market.  On the first of October, when Louis CK was on Conan, the Dow Jones was at 10,831.  Today, and for most of the month of March, it’s dropped more than 30%, and that’s why I think this video has become so popular.  The correlation is obscure, but I promise you it’s there.

On the surface, the video simply says that we’re all spoiled, and we don’t recognize it.  It’s an observation that could be made any time, by any comedian, and might be worthy of a chuckle or two before moving on to the next joke.  But we’re watching it now, amidst news of forclosed houses, AIG bonuses, economic stimulus packages, and rising unemployment.  Every time we turn on the TV, we feel like our country is going to hell in a handbasket, and Louis CK is slapping us in the face and saying, “Chill out, no it’s not!”

Now admittedly, we are in a recession, and it has certainly hit home for a lot of people.  But the average person hasn’t lost a job or a house (at least not yet), and they likely still feel like the walls are crumbling down all around them.  I know, I’m one of them.  But the reason we see those walls as falling down has a lot more to do with this idea of deservitude than we might like to admit.  Louis CK is just asking us all to put things in perspective, and acknowledge that we aren’t in hell just yet, in fact, we’re far from it.

Consider this: as I previously mentioned, the Dow Jones is today around 7,600.  The very first time that number was ever crossed was only twelve years ago.  Twelve years ago we were rejoicing at 7,600, and now, it’s a sign of the apocalypse.  I’m sure if I were a banker or a financial analyst or had some other fancy “plays with money” job I’d have a different opinion, but could the reason we think this is so awful at least have something to do with the fact that we just got too comfortable with things when they were going well?

Need proof?  Look at this.  Turns out, some American women would rather see themselves objectified than try to find a more affordable apartment or switch off the cable TV.  Can’t we live without the little luxuries we’ve become so accustomed to, or do we really need to go to such painstakingly desperate measures?

Remember life before the iPod?  I do, barely.  I remember going on field trips and everyone wishing the bus wasn’t so bumpy, because all that skipping on our Walkmans was interrupting Billie Joe Armstrong’s latest angsty rant.  Then the first kid at my high school showed up one day with an iPod, which was about the size of a cinder block, and it was the coolest thing we had ever seen.  The original iPod, introduced in 2001, held 1,000 songs, which when it was first introduced by Steve Jobs was estimated as the size of the average person’s entire music collection.  Today, my current iPod (which is far smaller than the original version) has 10,500 songs on it, and that takes up about a third of its capacity.

This is interesting for a couple reasons.  First, obviously, the growth in just eight years is tremendous.  But secondly, Apple has, along with increasing the capacity of its product, increased our capacity and our “need” for music.  Whereas in 2001 our entire music library was 1,000 songs, today it’s increased tenfold or more.  The current iPod on the market that holds 1,000 songs is the size of a AA battery, and is marketed as, essentially, the “workout iPod,” because nobody in their right mind would make that the only iPod they owned.  A thousand songs isn’t our entire library anymore, a thousand songs is the kind of number that delivers just enough variety for a three mile run on the treadmill.

All of that goes to say, maybe if we could remember the attitude we had when we first heard about the iPod, wide-eyed and amazed sitting around the lunch table or huddled in the break room, we wouldn’t be turning to porn just so we could maintain our 30,000 song lifestyles.

This isn’t an anti-progress statement, it’s a pro-gratitude statement.  Progress is great.  The fact that we can acheive such mind-boggling things through technology, innovation, and hard work is phenomenal, and it is a cornerstone of the American culture.  What we tend to be lacking, however, is genuine appreciation of that progress.  Rather than appreciating it, we tend to feel like we deserve it because we’ve become so used to growth and progress in our lifetime.  Don’t get me wrong, that is a good thing.  The problem is, when we reach a point in the story where that growth stops, or heaven forbid, declines, we end up taking it that much harder.

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