Other Wind
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Foggy Culture

Ecotone Topic—Suburbs

I talked with my husband a few years ago about instant teleportation, the ability to travel, to be anywhere, immediately. He loved the idea, but my first reaction to it was grief. I love to travel. How wonderful would it be to broaden the possibilities? Yet, isn’t physical distance a crucial part of traveling? If we could be anywhere instantly, would the exotic, the diverse, survive? My husband didn’t agree with my concerns. Why lament the loss of separateness? The more connected people are the more they understand each other. But to me, the differences that have arisen from being away from each other are exciting and rich. Cultures have gradually become different because of their separateness, so erasing the distance between disparate places might eventually homogenize us all. This process has already begun in the developed world even though we have much more primitive devises of connection than instant teleportation. Why is homogenization such a bad thing? At the time of the conversation with my husband, my reason was that “diversity is necessary in the cultural world just as it is in the ecological world.” I still believe this, but I don’t think global culture and diversity have to be at odds. Diversity does, after all, exist within cultures.

Perhaps what really unnerved me was the idea of the whole world becoming just like my world. I am suburban by nature and truth be told, I am at home in my world, so I will defend it before I pass negative judgment on it.

I like going to the mall. I like movies (not just “films”) and the Super Target. I like the fact that I am connected to a vast number of people across the country and the world through TV and pop music, through toys we all had as kids and food that we all eat. The manufactured Big League Chew bubble gum of my childhood, pink and stringy, is as tactile a memory as any homemade apple pie could be.

I am glad that I can travel on the interstate—the stronghold of suburban connectedness, and that while doing so I can find a bite to eat without thinking or planning too hard.

The insinuation that suburban people are drones irritates me. Most people—urban, rural, small town, suburban—fit in, whether by choice or automation, to the culture in which they live. The desire to be the same is a strong force in most communities and most of us are drone-like at some point or in some fashion. We are also unique.

The claim that small, independent businesses foster better, friendlier customer service than suburbanized chain stores seems forced to me. I’ve been in plenty of locally-owned establishments where the owners and employees haven’t taken any interest in providing a good service and in plenty of chain stores and restaurants where employees really care about doing a good job, about making the customer experience a warm one. Disparity in service has more to do with the individuals giving the service than it does with the type of establishment in which the service is being given.

Yet, while I know suburbs aren’t the horrors they are sometimes told to be, I must say the dwindling of opportunity and encouragement to experience elsewhere and other in the suburban world troubles me. I might enjoy suburbia with its comfort and ease of use, but I don’t want it to overrun its welcome. Malls are fun and interstates are nice to drive, but in general, they are shallow. Their emphasis is replication, quantity, speed. They don’t go deep like two lanes or like a thrift store in the old part of town.

The more suburban a place becomes, the less real energy it seems to have. It becomes more rote and more sanitary. Its people box themselves up in cars and houses or in malls. We get connected to the TV, to the Internet, to trendy clothes and toys, and forget to look outside and connect with the people in our own community and to the land over which we commute. We float on top instead of swimming to the bottom and looking for pearls. Floating is fun, but so is diving.

Away from the workday (which is not pleasurable to many of us), we spend much of our time taking in the breath of others—their presentations of things to buy, things to watch, things to like, things to distract. Many of us are losing our drive to breath on our own. Finding our own air is perhaps too hard in this world of manufactured ease. We are displaced, more connected with an abstract whole than the here and now, and this displacement is dangerous. It is a blinder, keeping us nice and easy despite all the noises we hear. The environment, the changes we’d like to make in our lives, the government, the making up with loved ones—all these can wait until the next commercial or until the clearance sale is over.

So, I suppose a better cause for the grief I felt upon the conversation about instant travel is not fear of homogenization in general, but fear of this specific foggy brand of culture growing unchecked. I fear one big mega culture of distraction and over-stimulation, of controlled experience, in which most people are stifled. In this sort of society, most of us might not go any deeper into the world outside our boxes than a glance out the window, and we would deceive ourselves in our separateness from that world.

wonderful entry.

Posted by: aldahlia on August 17, 2003 05:13 AM