Leaving the 20th Century Behind

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 29, 2014

I assume anyone choosing to read this essay remembers the 20th century, and that young people aren’t my targeted audience. Gen X (1965-1979) and Millennials (1980-2000) can remember last century, and I’m sure they have their own objects of nostalgia, although I find it hard to picture people in their forties getting all weepy over punk tunes, claiming, “Hey, they’re playing our song!” Gen X’ers and Y’ers are closer to their past, but it’s quickly becoming old like mine.

Forbidden Planet

The other night I was checking out TCM and Warner Archive Instant, and realized I was prowling through the same old decades, looking for the same old favorites movies and movie stars, and wondered if it wasn’t time I got back to the 21st century. Trying to find a great Pre-Code flick or a gritty 1950s western that I haven’t seen is getting harder and harder. What I’ve discovered in my late night TV watching is I can choose to dig around the 20th century, or I can look for something new.

When I go the new route I’m often uplifted by an influx of current data about reality. I know I’m addicted to the past, yet I also know I get the best intellectual rushes from taking in reports from the event horizons of things going on now. I’m both a news junky, and a nostalgia addict, but I’m slowly discovering that keeping up with what’s new is healthier for my aging brain.

If you grew up in the 1950s and 1960s like I did, 2015 sounds like the far future. Most of my fellow baby boomers (1946-1964) identify more with the 20th century than the 21st. I’m not sure that’s good. We’re well into the 21st century now, and I think it’s time we leave the 20th century behind. Few people actually live in the pop culture moment. The old live in the past, and the young have so many choices that they experience the moment in an asynchronous consumption that is so diverse that it’s hard to imagine them identifying themselves as any particular generation. I guess they are the Net generation – because of Internet and Broadband networks – but the net connects them to everything. They can call up a 1965 TV show as easily as a 2014 show, which gives their pop culture content a timeless quality.

Back in my youth, baby boomers tended to watch the same few TV channels live, and listened to the same AM radio stations, and went to the same movies. This synced us up in ways that young people growing up today can’t understand. Boomers in the now tune into classic rock, watch nostalgia TV and collect DVDs of all our old favorite movies and television shows. For Christmas I got my wife a subscription to Spotify, and she immediately made playlists of her favorite 1960s and 1970s music.

Isn’t it time we left the 20th century behind? I don’t know about you, but nostalgia starting to run thin.

Among friends my age, the closest we sync with the present pop culture is with movies. Many of my friends go to one or two movies a week, and this gives us something to share. When it comes to music, we’re all living in our own isolated headphone space. There is some sharing of TV, but it’s few and far between. Sports is the one pop culture experience where millions focus on the same event at the same time, young and old. Unfortunately, for me, I’m not a sport fan, so I feel out of the loop there.

As a TV watcher, I stick primarily to PBS for live shows, and that syncs me mostly to my fellow baby boomers. I have a lot of friends who love NPR, and of all my friends who still watch the nightly news, we’re to a person watching NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Of course, the conservative people I know, stick to Fox News. As a group, baby boomers, whether liberal or conservative, are not that adventuresome when it comes to taking in new data. Neither NBC, PBS or Fox is cutting edge 21st century.

It’s only when I read new books and magazines do I get a feeling I’m living in the 21st century. When I’m reading about attacks on string theory, news of exoplanet discoveries, or the politics of wealth inequality, do I feel like I’m close to current. Reading the news feeds of Zite, Flipboard and News360, as well as digital magazines on Next Issue and Zinio, makes me feel like I’m actually keeping up with the present. And it’s documentaries on PBS and Netflix streaming that give me a sense of what’s really happening around the world now. Nightly news shows relentlessly show the same type of news stories so over the long haul of time nothing really feels new. Politics and weather disasters never seem to change, they’re so 20th century.  It’s only stories about science and technology breakthroughs do I feel I’m actually hearing about current news, and feel I’m in the 21st century. Hell, the details from the Middle East seem like the same stories I read in The Bible.

When I buy used books, I ignore any nonfiction before the year 2000, and I’m getting to I don’t like anything published before 2010. And in some ways, I feel the same about fiction. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s loving the old movies of the 1930s and 1940s, and for many years I loved film history up until the year 2000. More and more I want to see movies that are less than a year old. I was an English major in college, and have always loved books from 1800-1950, but even that taste is changing. I still love the 19th century, but now I often prefer it seen through 21st century eyes, like Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.

In other words, if I look at the past, I want to be with a fresh perspective, with modern eyes.  We can’t escape the legacy of the past, but we can avoid rigidly being frozen in old perspectives of reality. The 21st century is upon us, and I believe we need to pay attention.


2 thoughts on “Leaving the 20th Century Behind”

  1. A lot of thoughts to digest James but a post I enjoyed all the way through. You have a couple of years on me but our pre-adult life experiences are similar. Like you, I frequently look at the past but have never considered it an addiction. Maybe a personality quirk?

    Increasingly overwhelmed with the choices of what news/info/entertainment to consume and how to do so, I’m left with nostalgic feelings of longing for those simpler “good ol’ days”. Just two days ago I was told by someone I’ve known from High School that I needed to move into the 21st century just because I told him I preferred paper over ebooks.

    I gave up on nightly TV news as soon as I left home for college but maintained a newspaper subscription up until Michael Jackson’s death when editors seemed to lose track of what I considered newsworthy. The Internet is my source for news and in this day of media channel overload and saturation I seriously question why the broadcast TV networks seem to think they need to pre-empt normal programming every time the President speaks. (I’m still an over-the-air type of person – no cable, Internet or satellite TV here)

    With nonfiction I’ve drawn boundaries at each end of the 2nd half of the 20th century chiefly because I’m still curious about what I was missing at the time that might have shaped the world and indirectly me. I’m not as strict about fiction but my “Books Read” links for the last 10 years on my main page will reveal the truth.

    BTW – I was a NBC Huntley-Brinkley fan at the time and gave up caring about sports during college.

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