Saturday, April 14, 2012

Me, Myself. But Why?

This was going to be about Rembrandt's true brilliance, since I visited the Met this week to see a new exhibit of his paintings. Did you know that, if you hold your hand up in front of your eyes to cover up the faces of Rembrandt's portraits, you can see small dark red, brown and grey "abstract"paintings he used to compose the robes and coats of his subjects (most often himself, since he worked cheap)? They resemble mini-Rothkos, or, perhaps more accurately, Rothkos resemble them.

But, then I got to thinking about phones and our sometimes less than brilliant age.

It's hard to turn on your phone in the morning and not see updates coming at you through LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook telling you far less than fascinating details of your contacts' and friends' lives. Somehow we survived without this stuff for thousands of years. It makes one nostalgic for far away drum-beats, telegraphs, and the Princess Phone, one of which adorns our current bedroom (yes, it is pink), as it once did my Darling Girl's own girl-room.

Why would someone want a phone to be smarter than themselves? We were doing so nicely with those dumb (scusa, Principessa) things with the long squiggly lines that plugged into a wall. People whom you actually knew called you on those contraptions, instead of lunatics with "courtesy calls."

You know what would be really courteous, Bub? If you hadn't bothered to call me at all, that's what.

Why do we do these things to ourselves? We have become like comic book characters with those little speech windows above their heads, except that we turn every thought, however vapid, into a Tweet, an email, or a text. James Joyce turned these kinds of things into great art, "stream of consciousness" English Department twits called it. But, we are not James Joyce; we are not even up to being Beetle Bailey, one of my favorite comic book characters, whose thoughts would seem like those of Marcus Aurelius compared to some of the Tweets I see.

What do you expect from people whose phones are smarter than themselves? Soon, our refrigerators, TV's, furnaces, autos, even our coffee pots will be smarter than us. When a TV gets to be smarter than most people, that's the time to invent a different culture, since TV has decades of cumulative dumbness that would make even North Korean rocket-makers look smarter than Mr. Ed, which apparently they are not.

A super-smartie named Reid Hoffman, who makes Bill Gates look like a with-it guy, has written a book called The Start-Up Of You. Why should anyone care? Because he was a founder of LinkedIn-PayPal-Flickr and a couple of other things that have made him a billionaire. And, we have this thing for billionaires.  Billionaire Hoffman doesn't think people will have jobs in the future, we will all be entrepreneurs like him, except that, presumably, we won't all get the billion.

If he had bothered to pick up his smartie-pants phone to call me, I could have told him that we don't need to wait for the future; people do not have jobs now. Everyone is out there making a web site, creating their brands, becoming human apps, and sending us updates.

Have we yet considered that this might just be a zero sum game?

Gosh, remember back in the sixties, when so many of us ran for the hills away from working at IBM, Bank of America (the real one), GM, because we didn't think they offered us enough personal freedom and "space?" How did we know that the 20th Century American corporation was the most efficient job organizer in economic history! There is much evidence that millions of us now have so much personal freedom and space that we're like walking Wyomings, bits of true beauty and lots and lots of empty space.

Morse Code
Employees today at LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, and Groupon must really feel motivated knowing that if their companies are successful they won't have jobs in five years or maybe two years, because their divisions will be extinct. But, not to worry, they can just go home and become their own businesses in a few minutes, selling their products to millions of others just like...themselves or us.

What is your product? You. What is their product? Them.

Me, Myself. But why?

And, where is all this going?

Rembrandt perfected face-books a long time ago and, without even knowing it, created one of history's great brands. We can still read volumes in the painted lines of his own face, which tell us valuable things about what it means to be human, which is to say, partially divine. He was much smarter than his own devices: brushes, palette, canvas. We should love him for that alone.

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