Focused on the Rear View Mirror

Too much attention to where we have been can mean that we are perhaps missing beguiling possibilities just around the corner.

It’s a natural impulse to look to the immediate past to make judgments about the future.  In a sense it is all we have.  And yet for all the changing norms affecting how we connect with each other, it’s still too easy to become wedded to selective memories and romanticized histories.

I seem to recall ever-widening eyes while older members of my family rhapsodized about their own childhoods on horseback, or camped out for the summer near the family’s not very successful silver mine. The stories seem to come from a Technicolor world filled with older family members that were larger than life.  One could imagine that they were not that different from those all-American stoics who patiently guided the Smith family through the giddy summer of 1904 in MGM’s Meet Me in Saint Louis.

By contrast, my adolescence seemed to unspool around a far less exciting existence seemingly shot in grainy black and white. To be sure, I have sense colorized it, especially the bits that took our family back to the wonderful mountains not too far from that old mine.  But I still marvel at the elders I’ve constructed who lived unpredictable lives in fabulous times.

There’s a point to all of this.  We tend to create memories that are equal parts history and fantasy.  After all, we are not digital devices. Accuracy of recall is a strength of hard drives, not  humans. We often select what are perceived simplicities of the past, especially forms of family intimacy that probably overstate the closeness we desire and the tensions we’d like to forget.

It’s worth remembering that too much attention to the receding landscape in the rear view mirror can mean that we are perhaps missing beguiling possibilities just around the corner.

It’s inevitable that new forms will rise and challenge the dominance of previously invincible media. 

Nowhere is this more true than in our preferred ways of connecting with others. We know how and when connecting works for us.  We understand our strengths, even as we puzzle over new digital platforms and their peculiar rules of engagement.  But as the great media theorist Marshall McLuhan cautioned, media types and forms of address evolve ceaselessly and irrevocably,  as relentless in changing the landscape as the flow of volcanic magma from Hawaii’s Mount Kilauea.

There’s no going back. Old forms of media don’t necessarily die out. They co-exist or become transformed.  Think of radio today, sixty-five years after television captured its place as the nation’s preferred medium.  Radio is still with us and doing reasonably well.  But it’s inevitable that new forms will rise and challenge previously dominant media.  In his day Plato decried the growing interest in written texts. Similarly, John Philip Sousa was none too happy to have his music imperfectly captured on noisy shellac recordings.  And yet the work of both  is alive because of the “new” media they reluctantly anticipated.

The challenge is to get the mix right for an individual life.  We need to be more conscious of the expansion of social media and cell technology have cost us and what they’ve allowed.  Choices must be made because our lives can easily be trashed and overwhelmed by media distractions.

One example: It’s easy to poke fun at online dating services. They are sold to us mostly by peddling notions of romantic love that haven’t been in vogue since the 50s.  And yet just when we think we couldn’t push ourselves any further from authentic personal relationships, a  friend beams with pride over the new person who has entered their life through a digital porthole. Cole Porter didn’t write love songs about online romance.  But that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen.


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