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Sunday, 18 August 2013

Rate of Change

I'm currently reading The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes, as a result of an outpouring of enthusiasm on Twitter, along with Amazon UK pricing it at 99p a few weeks ago as part of a special promotion. It's not bad, but I have to admit I'm not loving it - I'm not much for thrillers in general, and the ones about serial killers have never appealed to me.

But something struck me while I was reading it, which I figured I'd try and discuss briefly here. The plot, without any major spoilers (because I'm only about halfway through anyway), revolves around a serial killer who travels through time, between the 1930s and the early 1990s, collecting victims in an order of his own choosing, rather than chronologically. At one point, reflecting on the House he uses to travel, he notes that his range of travel is limited to those years, with 1993 the latest he can go.

Having glanced through the table of contents, with chapters denoting the date in which they occur, I'd noticed that, and was wondering about it myself. My conclusion was that 1993 was probably the last year before the internet started to become widely known - it was certainly my first experience of it (and just as you'd expect from the early years of the web: reading snarky top ten lists about Star Wars and Star Trek).

This is important to the story, because one of the killer's victims survives an attack, and when she's recovered she goes looking for him by taking on an internship at the Chicago Sun-Times. All of her research is analogue, involving microfiche and sifting through loads of boxes.

So what struck me was this: a possible reason why Lauren Beukes set her story during those decades is that the internet would have made the search for the killer much easier, and that those decades were a lot more similar to one another than the years since the internet spread throughout our culture.

I've written before about how I think the 80s had more in common with the 50s than with the 90s. I might be over-generalizing, but I do think it's correct to say that the rate of change in our culture has accelerated since the internet took over. As I stated in that previous post, my sisters' experiences growing up were pretty different from my own, and this was with just seven and ten years of age gap between us all. I grew up watching Sesame Street, Mr Rogers, and reruns of Star Trek and Hawaii 5-0 and old Western TV shows; they had Barney and cable TV.

This is why, whenever I read Bill Bryson's more autobiographical books - like The Lost Continent or Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid - I can recognize certain aspects of my own childhood in his, despite the fact that he was born almost thirty years before I was. And going back even further, I can recognize some of what Bryson talks about in stories and sketches by, for instance, James Thurber, who died in 1961 and whose career spanned the 30s, 40s and 50s.

So when I think of the life I'd like to lead, if I ever marry and have children and all of that, my imagination uses my own childhood milieu as a template: suburban house, car, yard, dog and/or cat (I like both), family trips once or twice a year, and so on. On the other hand, this all might be unrealistic, for the simple reason that it's not sustainable anymore. If it ever was.

For one thing, house prices are way out of reach for most people, I'd say, particularly if they're single and not working in finance or tech. For another, every place is getting more and more crowded. It seems perverse to say this about California, when I live in London (which I sometimes find unbearably full; I kind of dread going to China as a result), but it's true - developments creep out farther and farther each year, and the freeways are crowded even at midday on weekdays.

So no house in the suburbs, which means no yard, probably no car (because they're a pain in the ass to have in the city), and probably no pets (not that I particularly want to clean up dog shit - this is one of those jobs that I could theoretically farm out to my notional children), because landlords are strict about that and apartments are no fun for animals that need space.

On the other hand, this life that I'd like, and that currently appears out of reach, is kind of a new development in and of itself, despite already being a relic. This concept of a suburban middle class, which a lot of us seem wedded to, has really only existed since the early 20th century, where before the middle classes (or mercantile classes, if you go back far enough) lived in the cities. Naturally, technology moved on between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, but not quite as fast as it did following the Industrial Revolution (and the rate of change sped up even more once we got flight and cars and electricity).

So I guess the whole convoluted point comes down to this: I'm kind of nostalgic for a way of life that seems to have been around for a long time, but actually wasn't. My grandmother - who was born in 1917, when flight was still new - probably saw the suburban way of life of the 50s and 60s and 70s as a new innovation, compared to her own upbringing.

The question, then, is what kind of life people just graduating from college now are envisioning for themselves. And further, will that gap between wishes and reality be even wider for them than it is for me?