Open Mic Night

Better.

Politics, celebrity gossip, business headlines, tech punditry, odd news, and user-generated content.

These are the chew toys that have made me sad and tired and cynical.

Each, in its own way, contributes to the imperative that we constantly expand our portfolio of shallow but strongly-held opinions about nearly everything. Then we’re supposed to post something about it. Somewhere.

From businesses we’ve never heard of, to countries we’ve never visited, to infants who’ve had the random misfortune to be born into a family that’s on TV – it’s all grist for obvious jokes and shortsighted commentary that, for at least a few minutes, helps both the maker and the consumer feel a little less bored, a little less vulnerable, and a little less disconnected. For a minute, anyway, it makes us feel more alive. Does me, anyway.

But, in my observation, the long-term effect of each of these can be surprisingly different.

What makes you feel less bored soon makes you into an addict. What makes you feel less vulnerable can easily turn you into a dick. And the things that are meant to make you feel more connected today often turn out to be insubstantial time sinks – empty, programmatic encouragements to groom and refine your personality while sitting alone at a screen.

Don’t get me wrong. Gumming the edges of popular culture and occasionally rolling the results into a wicked spitball has a noble tradition that includes the best work of of Voltaire, Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde, and a handful of people I count as good friends and brilliant editors. There’s nothing wrong with fucking shit up every single day. But you have to bring some art to it. Not just typing.

What worries me are the consequences of a diet comprised mostly of fake-connectedness, makebelieve insight, and unedited first drafts of everything. I think it’s making us small. I know that whenever I become aware of it, I realize how small it can make me. So, I’ve come to despise it.

With this diet metaphor in mind, I want to, if you like, start eating better. But, I also want to start growing a tastier tomato – regardless of how easy it is to pick, package, ship, or vend. The tomato is the story, my friend.

This doesn’t mean I’ll be liveblogging a lot of ham-fisted attempts to turn “everything” off. But it does mean making mindful decisions about the quality of any input that I check repeatedly – as well as any “stuff” I produce. Everything. From news sources to entertainment programming, and from ephemeral web content down to each email message I decide to respond to. The shit has to go, inclusive.

To be honest, I don’t have a specific agenda for what I want to do all that differently, apart from what I’m already trying to do every day:

  • identify and destroy small-return bullshit;
  • shut off anything that’s noisier than it is useful;
  • make brutally fast decisions about what I don’t need to be doing;
  • avoid anything that feels like fake sincerity (esp. where it may touch money);
  • demand personal focus on making good things;
  • put a handful of real people near the center of everything.

All I know right now is that I want to do all of it better. Everything better. Better, better.

To underscore, I have no plan to stop making dick jokes or to swear off ragging people who clearly have it coming to them. It’s just that it’s important to me to make world-class dick jokes and to rag the worthy in a way that no one is expecting. I want to become an evangelist for hard work and editing, and I want to get to a place where it shows in everything that I do, make, and share. Yes, even if it makes me sound like a fancy guy who just doesn’t get it. Fuck it.

So, yes. I am cutting way back on trips to the steam table of half-finished, half-useful, half-ideas that I both make and consume. And, with respect, I encourage you to consider doing the same; especially if that all-you-can-eat buffet of snark and streaming produces (or encourages) anything short of your “A” game.

If I’m not laughing at your joke, complimenting your insight, or leading the Standing O for something you spent 10 seconds pecking up on your phone, it may not be because I don’t get it; it may be because I think we’re both capable of better and just need to find the courage to say so. In as many characters as it takes.


Better” was originally posted to Merlin’s personal blog, Kung Fu Grippe, on September 3, 2008. Here’s the text of the original post, which appears here in a revised and updated edition.

PDF of Merlin’s Essay, “Better”

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