Updated: Dec 19, 2019
Like many fans of the cult classic movie Robo Cop, I'm convinced that the tale, set in a fictive (sort of), just-pre-apocalyptic Detroit, foretells just about every American cultural shift since it was released in 1987. I saw it that year, my senior year at the University of Michigan where my teachers were SDS-era lefties who'd hung around academia long enough to see history repeat itself with irony. Still railing against the Man, my literature professors lectured before students who feigned interest in Susan Sontag while secretly envying their Sherman McCoy-in-waiting schoolmates across campus at the Ross School of Business. During my years in Ann Arbor, the Tigers won the Series and Detroiters celebrated by overturning and torching cars. The next year, Mayor Young doubled down on the doomed American auto industry and bulldozed Hamtramck to build a GM factory. Stroh's closed the brewery the same year.
With lackadaisical commitment, I and some of my schoolmates tried to channel the spirit of Tom Hayden. We saw Lou Reed at the Hill Auditorium, but he was sober by then. We saw Miles Davis at the Power Center, but he'd long since become a spectacle of weirdness. Abbie Hoffman came and implored us to re-start the revolution, but a month or two later, Jerry Rubin turned up to tell us to ditch radicalism for millionaire-ism. We booed Al Haig at Rackham Auditorium and cheered for Mondale and Ferraro at their rally on the Quad, but it all felt futile. Walking to class on a sunny, mild day in January of my junior year, I saw dozens of my classmates bee-lining to the Michigan Union, stricken looks on their faces. Challenger had exploded. We were stuck on Earth. In 1960, ten thousand Michigan students gathered at the Michigan Union to hear President Kennedy make the founding statement for the Peace Corps. In 1986, Michigan students came to the Union to watch television or play billiards. That's what the Union was for, or the Brown Jug where Schlitz Dark had replaced Stroh's.
I was well-educated enough in 1987 to see that Robo Cop captured artfully the climate of desperation and futility that I was sensing then. I'm feeling it again in 2019. In the social order of the movie, a shrinking number of elites hold most of the wealth and power. They've transformed the other residents of Old Detroit into excellent sheep through fear and idiotic distraction. The have-nots shrink from the thugs who serve as witting and unwitting enforcers for their oppressors. They pine for the latest model of SUX brand automobiles, consume vapid TV news like movie popcorn, and stop in their tracks--before getting shot or blowing up a car, for instance--whenever they encounter a television, whereupon plays a single show hosted by a mustachioed buffoon who utters an unvarying punchline: "I'd buy that for a dollar!" The citizens of Old Detroit laugh uproariously every time at this leering non sequitur and the show's central narrative: the pratfall permutations of giggling, under-dressed babes, whipped cream pies and the aforementioned buffoon.
This last is one of my favorite running gags in the movie, a funny and bitter send up of a medium about which I had the kind of smug disdain that only college undergraduates can have. I'd wrapped a lot of analysis around it as well to which I added a sub-categorical point or two every time I looked at the Kill Your Television bumper sticker I'd affixed to the door of the fridge in our scuzzy apartment. It wasn't too difficult to be suspicious of TV in the 80s anyway. Most of my schoolmates didn't have one either, and the TVs in the dorm "lounges" were chronically dead, victims of spilled beer, indoor hockey and other dumbassery. We were too busy anyway, too discerning, too cool, too suspicious of its deadening effect on our intellects.
Those concerns seem naive now as the reports trickle in on the generation weaned from the breast by the iPhone, and on the rest of us who find--and choose to have--more and more of our lives mediated by a digital screen. We've built an elaborate scaffolding of equivocation around it all, the most troubling of which is the refrain one hears from parents who assuage their instinctive fears about, say, buying a smart phone for their second grader, or learning about the one-to-one iPad program in first grade: I guess it's the world they're growing up in; they should learn how to navigate it. The rest of us are addicted to the dopamine surges of sham empowerment we get from our devices and convince ourselves that we are doing something important, or being super-efficient multi-taskers, even though in our more sober moments (or when we receive the troubling Screentime reports from our iPhones), we know that we are rarely doing anything important, and in our increasingly rare reflective moments, we start to grasp the sweeping collateral consequences, how much we are not user but used, and often blithely complicit in exploiting others.
It's not the world that children have to grow up in, especially if they hope to have some measure of influence over that world. Nellie Bowles, a technology news writer at the New York Times, reported this spring in her article, Human Contact is Now a Luxury Good, that making careful choices about digital technology is now a status symbol among the affluent:
Tech companies worked hard to get public schools to buy into programs that required schools to have one laptop per student, arguing that it would better prepare children for their screen-based future. But this idea isn’t how the people who actually build the screen-based future raise their own children. In Silicon Valley, time on screens is increasingly seen as unhealthy. Here, the popular elementary school is the local Waldorf School, which promises a back-to-nature, nearly screen-free education. So as wealthy kids are growing up with less screen time, poor kids are growing up with more. How comfortable someone is with human engagement could become a new class marker.
But I detect a more insidious motivation among the Silicon Valley set who know that the alert will rule the world, and I think they're right, minus the megalomania. The alert will direct their own course whatever they choose to do with their lives. Good schools should prioritize human contact, use digital tools wisely, and infuse it all with an exploration of the ethical under-pinnings that make life meaningful.
To be sure, I am no pious Luddite. The warm beacon of my MLB At Bat app beckons me every morning, and I happily wander its seemingly endless rooms like the Met. Researching this article, I fell down an Internet rabbit hole that ended in an online fanzine for RoboCop enthusiasts. I learned that deleted scenes from the original movie name the buffoonish character-- Bixby Snyder--and the title of the show--"It's Not My Problem." In another deleted scene we learn that Snyder has been convicted for exchanging appearances on his show for sexual favors. In an unproduced script for a sequel, Snyder has become the President of the United States.