For centuries, technology was of little interest to anyone outside its own developers and users. These days, technology seems to be pushing the country towards a cultural and moral meltdown. Technnics aren't simply a source of wonder and surprise, but of fear, resentment and widespread puzzlement.
The flashpoint of much of this unease -- perhaps a metaphor for it -- is the place where kids, culture and technology converge -- the Net, the Web, music, TV and, lately, movie theaters.
Pop culture been much more than entertainment for kids ever since rock and roll. One of the few enduring legacies of the Boomers was to elevate popular culture to a central place in American life. That evolution has only deepened. For kids today, culture is a primary recreation, but movies, TV shows and music are also something else -- a universal language and common interest, almost a shared ideology.
Many people define themselves by the shows, CDs, Websites, computers and movies they like. Culture isn't just something that's fun for the young, but more and more something that defines who they are. Liking "South Park" isn't just an expression of what's fun. It's a statement of individual identity. Technology has heated up this process by delivering more culture in faster, more graphic, more explicit and less censorable forms.
That's why the growing tendency to blame techno-driven culture for violence and other social problems is so pressing an issue for kids, who have no political voice or spokespeople, and who are presumed to have no rights beyond those which parents and politicians grant them. In fact, morality and the young has become a cheap, sure-fire political issue all over the country.
The massacre in Atlanta this week tragically underscores the irrationality of America's approach to violence, kids and culture. Would the killings have been prevented if the killer had been kept out of violent movies? Should adult access to e-trading sites now be restricted? Outrageous responses like that would never be considered for adults. They shouldn't be for kids either.
The giant conglomerates that control much of American pop culture are happy to go along with these prevailing winds, yet seem strangely ignorant of the technologies they are acquiring and developing and the ways in which so-called "children" use it. This is going to prove a monumental mistake.
The music industry, greedily confusing freedom and piracy, has driven an entire generation towards the now entrenched habit of acquiring music for free. The movie industry and the theater chains are now embracing this generation-alienating philosophy in their embrace of faux morality. They adopt the pretense that kids will be safer if they see only violence, but not sex . But by pandering to so-called moral guardians, adopting useless and quixotic rating systems, imposing ticket booth interrogations of kids and parents, the people running Hollywood seem not to grasp the growing power of the young to access and control their own cultural lives, and make their own choices about what they watch or see, thanks mostly to technology.
Earlier this week, I received more than 1,000 e-mail messages (second only to the "Hellmouth" series) in response to a two-part series called "Ticket Booth Tyranny," which talked about the sudden post-Columbine ticket booth harassment of teenagers trying to see movies with profane language or sexual imagery.
The movie industry may be mollifying some fuddled parents and scoring some points with the moral guardians in Congress, but if the e-mail I got is any indication, this is one of the most profoundly short-sighted trade-offs in entertainment industry history.
These messages were angry. They saw clearly through the posturing and pretense. They spoke directly to the lunacy that occurs when corporatism, technology, politics, morality and culture get tangled up with one another.
"I'm 17," wrote Sean, who's entering the University of Michigan in a few weeks. "I'll be eighteen in September. I drove last weekend with my date to see 'Eyes Wide Shut.' They carded me, and wouldn't let me in. The chain decided that they were enforcing an '18-year-old only' policy for this movie. It was humiliating. All summer I've worked as a counselor helping retarded kids, but I can't see Nicole Kidman's butt? I've got a DVD player, of course, and will see this movie soon enough. But I'm never going back to that theater. I might not go back to any theater."
Matthew works for a multiplex in Maryland. He's also 17. "I'll turn away sometimes 10 or 20 people a night, not because I can, but because my job is on the line. Before we obtained 'South Park & American Pie,' anyone who would sell tickets, or usher, had to sign a paper stating that they would enforce the regulations or face dismissal if underage people got in under their watch. The policy posted at the box office states that anyone that looks underage to the ticket seller is to be carded. Again, sometimes people are carded walking into the movie by an usher. One night, an usher kicked 30 people out. First night of 'American Pie,' the theater did over $1,000 in refunds to underage kids."
It's hard to be rational about this idiocy. "American Pie" is an often hilarious spoof of teenaged sexuality that features four horny high school kids plotting to get laid. Without exception, the four are thoughtful, sensitive and good-hearted, both to their friends and their girlfriends.
There is nothing even remotely as vulgar or disturbing in this movie as much of what's on any local newscast almost every single night. Or a score of cable channels or accessible websites. "American Pie" could safely be shown in high school classrooms as a guide to sensitivity in sexual relations. The idea that a 16-year-old kid could see this movie and turn violent or otherwise be morally damaged is amazing in the 20th century, sure to be remembered for monumental advances in technology.
Matthew said he's also instructed to make sure that "children" under the age of 17 are accompanied by their parents into any "R" rated movie. "I think along the same lines you stated in your article - if the parent wants the kid to see the film, and they're there buying the tickets at the box office, the kids should be let into the film. That is the ratings system in action - advising parents, instead of forcing moral values on their kids."
Matthew and many of his fellow usher e-mailers made it clear that they have no desire to be in charge of enforcing and defining moral values for other people.
At least a dozen other ushers wrote in to say vigilance varies according to:
- Whether the manager's on duty or nearby. -
- Whether the ushers know the kids trying to get in. -
- Whether the usher is about to quit for another, better-paying job and doesn't care who gets in. -
- Whether the usher is in a good mood or not. -
- Whether the lines are long. -
- The gender and attractiveness of the ticket-buyer. -
- The pressure from the parent company. -
Several of the ushers wrote in to suggest seeing restricted movies close to Labor Day when many movie chain workers are about to go back to high school or college and don't care if they get fired or not. Employers are also desperate for help, and less likely to toss benevolent workers out.
Jon Winters messaged to say he and his wife recently built a home theater in their house. "We prefer to wait until movies come out on DVD and watch them in the comfort of our home." He and his wife went to see "Eyes Wide Shut" but wished they'd waited to see the movie at home. The projector was out of focus, and the sound from an adjacent screening room was bleeding through the walls.
"In the future we will wait for the DVD no matter how badly we want to see the movie. At least I can control the technical merits of my home theater."
Jon's message is significant. Among other things, the Net and other digital technologies offer precisely that kind of choice and control. His sentiments were repeated by hundreds of other people restless about their movie-going experiences even without being hassled at the ticket booth. Jon said he's building a home theater. The best high definition projectors will function as computer monitors, he said. "My friends freak when I pull up GNOME on my 72" HD projector. I can surf the Web and check e-mail during TV commercials. Lots of fun."
Almost as much as getting booted out of a movie theater because you haven't passed some arbitrary biological morality benchmark.
Many other e-mailers said they were also eager to find alternatives to theater going. They cited crying babies, people talking, high prices, out-of-focus projectors (this generation is especially used to clarity in images), sound "bleed-thru;" high prices for bad snacks; the absence of "Pause" buttons, and the movie industry's self-imposed censorship ratings.
Movie theater operators may have much bigger problems to worry about than the oral sex discussions in "American Pie."
"This ratings bullshit is the last straw for me," wrote JimB. "I am going DVD. These people are so gutless. I have the right to see what I want. I don't believe for one micro-second they are worried about my morality or well-being. They are just trying to keep the religious crazies off their back. I'm old enough to be a camp counselor, but I can't watch a friggin' movie like American Pie. I've given these a-holes countless dollars over the last few years. No more." JimB is 16.
Many of the messages had this familiar themse: the Net and the Web provide an alternative to moralistic restrictions like those going on in movie theaters. And adults are clueless when it comes to the nature of kids lives during this time of technological change. "I've been seeing violence and sex all my life," wrote Don from Portland, Oregon. "I remember seeing the LA Freeway shootings, and cable shows and magazines and radio and all sorts of other stuff. Do they think by keeping us out of movies that we will not be exposed to stuff like this. Some of the stuff I've seen is graphic, but I can't say it's hurt me. I'm a straight A student and looking forward to college. I've never broken any laws. These people are just outrageous." Like many of the others, he was saving for a DVD player.
Adam, who's also 16, was denied permission to see three movies last weekend "South Park," "American Pie," and "Eyes Wide Shut," even though his parents said it was fine for him to go and sent him a note to that affect, which included a number for the theater to call if necessary.
He was escorted from the lobby.
A middle-aged couple offered to take him and his friends into "South Park" but backed out when the theater manager said they had to stay inside with them for the entire movie.
Adam said he and his friends were furious. "And I can turn on HBO anytime late at night and see people having sex. Just how is South Park supposed to hurt me? Or American Pie? I want to study film when I go to college. Are these movies supposed to damage me? Undo my parents teachings? Turn me into a murderer? I ama a kid who actually likes going to Church! I don't need moral lessons from ushers. Are they supposed to keep some kid from grabbing a machine gun and shooting me in school? Or keep me from doing that? Don't these yahoos know that I can stuff on TV or online that's a million times more violent or sexy than this anytime I want. Screw these theaters. As soon as I get the money for a DVD player, I'll get what I want on the Net and I'll never go back. I don't have to spend that money for overpriced popcorn and humiliation."
Cathy wrote that her father listens to Howard Stern every morning when he drives her to school. "He says stuff all the time that is sexual and vulgar. He talks about women's vaginas. I can listen to him but I can't go see 'American Pie'?"
In fact, the restrictions on "American Pie" in particular -- a movie directly about the lives of many of the kids forbidden to see it -- had hundreds of e-mailers in a fury.
MReynolds messaged that he believes the current epidemic of ticket booth moralizing is part of a larger pattern. "There seems to be a large segment of the population that welcomes regulation of everything from cryptography, to television, to the Internet. And almost all these campaigns to regulate our freedoms (I consider the ability to encrypt my porn a freedom) are encapsulated behind the banner of 'we must save the children from these evil things!'"
MR may be more correct than he even knows. Technological historians like Langdon Winner have written about the outbreaks of moral outrage that often accompany periods of great advances in technology -- the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, the development of the Net and the Web.
They are, he says, almost akin to religious upheavals.
"The writers who have isolated technology as an issue have repeatedly stressed that what is involved is not merely a problem of values or faith," he writes in Autonomous Technology, "but, more importantly, a problem in our understanding of things. There is, they assert, something wrong in the way we view technology and man's relationship to it."
There sure is. Thus most Americans blame technology for teenaged violence, even though there is little to link the two, and violent crime among younger Americans has been dropping sharply for years despite enormous increases in the availability of techno-driven pop culture, violence and sexual imagery.
The Internet has altered the very context in which kids, morality and technology interact. It makes censoring the cultural lives of the young, or bovine symbolic gestures like the theater operators are now making, ludicrous. They young don't become more moral, just more cynical.
Technologically-inspired ratings systems, V-Chips and filtering programs don't work. They can't raise moral children, or get lazy and irresponsible parents where they want to be -- off the hook.