Slacker and the Failed Promises of the Internet

The movie is an artifact, hearkening back to a time when people were weird and algorithms weren't in control.

Promotional art for “Slacker” directed by Richard Linklater (1991) (Orion Classics)

“…Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself. It is admitted that the presence of people who refuse to enter in the great handicap race for sixpenny pieces, is at once an insult and a disenchantment for those who do.” – from An Apology For Idlers by Robert Louis Stevenson

I was born in 1983, just months after Time awarded Person of the Year to the computer. What that means is I’m an “Old Millennial,” young enough to meme but old enough to have experienced a childhood lived largely offline and totally cell phone free. It was the perfect internet saturation point. I had web access, for instance, but it was dial-up and accessible solely on our shared family PC, which meant that if I was “surfing the web,” everyone in my house was aware of it. I couldn’t just stay online all day. People needed to use the phone, and besides, there weren’t all that many sites to check out anyway.

Being online still had an allure of the new. It still crackled with the promise of an artificial paradise. It was a dream that hadn’t yet been ruined by the banal realities of constant connectivity. We still believed that the world wide web would be the digital hub of an entire global village where ideas would be disseminated and shared, largely free of corporate or government control. It was to be a neutral dream space where the best and most fascinating parts of culture would form a wonderful chorus of voices harmonizing in a shared spirit of openness. The dream failed, of course. What we got instead was something more resembling gambling addiction: loneliness, psychological maladies, cyberbullying, and lots and lots of pornography. But for a kid like me, growing up in the Midwestern suburbs and hungry for contact with a larger world full of strange and interesting people, the internet’s dream that failed resembled the trailer for Richard Linklater’s film Slacker.

The connection between the failed promises of the internet and Linklater’s film, which was shot 30 years ago this year (but not released until 1991), might not be obvious at first glance. Slacker is unfortunately one of those late ’80s/early ’90s cultural effluvia that got marketed to the masses as something it wasn’t. Balled up with the early ’90s countercultural gold rush—Grunge, Liquid Television, Quentin Tarantino, etc.—its formal ingenuity and big heart were mostly overlooked. The film itself is easy to describe. Largely eschewing traditional narrative structures, the camera moves from character to character in a series of long and meandering shots in which the bohemian elements of Austin, Texas, go about their day. Visually, it has a lot in common with Jim Jarmusch’s early films like Permanent Vacation and Down By Law, but with a lot less ironic hipster posturing. There’s a radical sense of freedom in Linklater’s camera, celebrating the monologues and awkward conversation of Austin’s eccentrics with a democratic large-heartedness that’s Whitmanesque in its openness. Everyone is given their due, even the guy who claims that we’ve been on the moon since the ’50s. Even the pinball-playing security guard. Even the anarchist professor. Even the young man who breaks into his home to rob him.

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Of course, Slacker is about a place. It’s about a specific street, in fact. The film was mostly shot on the eight blocks or so of Guadalupe Street, which skirt the University of Texas campus in downtown Austin. It’s a place, as James L. Haley writes in the officially published screenplay, full of “space cadets, goonballs, punk groupies, gently aging iconoclasts, coffee-shop feminists-gone-’round-the-bend, conspiracy dweebs luring in used-book stores, artists, anti-artists, and a whole purgatory of other refugees from the world of productive sanity.” What makes (or should I say “made,” since the very tech world I’m criticizing has pretty much cannibalized the Slacker cast of characters and monetized their lifestyles) Austin such a wonderful pressure cooker for the counterculture type is the unique confluences of higher education, state government, and the mental hospital. In Austin, these three elements blend, blur, and mix freely.

And perhaps not more than a little ironically, these are also the three elements from which the early internet and online culture sprang. Begin with some ARPANET, add a little Defense-funded university research and quasi-countercultural notions of freedom, and you have the basic building blocks of what would become the internet. But even from its inception, the revolution in the lab was markedly different from what was happening in the streets. As Elliot Neaman writes in his book Free Radicals, “There were actually at least two countercultures in 1968. The street mutineers dreamed of a political revolution, which was acted out as theater, using old scripts. In the second, politics became personal; emancipation came in the form of consumer choices. The first was collectivist and failed, the second was libertarian, individualistic, futuristic, and carried the day.”

“Libertarian” to a point, of course. The specter of total control via the internet was never far below the surface, and “individualism” became more of an advertising line than something deeply felt or pursued. The Palo Alto revolution led directly to our identity-based consumer culture, where atomistic nodes imagine themselves as anything they want to be, while at the same time being nudged, counted, quantified, and exploited in ways that have come to feel natural. In this sense, the internet was always fated to be more of a cross between gnosticism and finance rather than individualism and liberty.

It’s easy to say that it was a lie from the very beginning, but there are identifiable reasons why the dream of nonstop dialogue and fascinating conversation with time to “lean and loaf,” as Whitman wrote, failed to realize itself. Two forces, both countervailing and moving in seemingly opposite directions, made it impossible to digitize the Slacker experience: online over-saturation and the breakdown of the internet into a series of “micro experiences.”

The first is obvious. We’ve all experienced online over-saturation. It’s the reason there’s a sign hanging in my four-month-old daughter’s pediatrician’s office suggesting only two hours of “screen time” per day. It’s the reason people no longer know how to read maps or buy stamps. The internet has become more than an option—it’s how we think about the world and what we know within it. It’s made itself necessary for the most anodyne and common of activities. That ubiquity might suggest a total conformity of thought and feeling, but the opposite is actually true. As New School professor Dominic Pettman writes in his book Infinite Distraction, the internet tends to isolate us into niche, hyper-modulated experiences. There’s a certain amount of heterogeneity that you have to deal with in the real world, something that Slacker beautifully showcases. All the characters are misfits, but they’re wildly different from one another. What the internet does is lodge us into tribal stalls in which we only interact (mediated through a screen, of course) with people who think and talk just like us. It’s a breakdown into homogenous online tribes, and this disintegration of common culture based on a modicum of forced heterogeneity also means the death knell of the counterculture. You can’t have a counterculture if there is no primary culture to counter, so to speak.

Something else we’ve lost is the Slacker ability to slack. The internet presents itself as quasi-entertainment, all the time, even if what you’re doing is monetized, tracked, and encouraging of further quantifiable interaction. Simply put, it is no longer a giant, free hub of interaction. Instead, it’s the most efficient way business has to colonize our attention and monetize our daily lives. As Jonathan Crary writes in his fantastic book 24/7, “Billions of dollars are spent every year researching how to reduce decision-making time, how to reduce the useless time of reflection and contemplation. This is the form of contemporary progress—the relentless capture and control of time and experience.” He continues, “An attention economy dissolves the separation between the personal and the professional, between entertainment and information, all overridden by a compulsory functionality of communication that is inherently and inescapably 24/7.”

Having so much of our experiences forced online means that most of our lives are inescapably subject to the quantify/monetize logos. Could one wander, unnoticed, along the fringes of society if one wanted to? Is it even possible to work half-ass at a McJob in order to spend your free time reading Maldoror out of the line of sight of someone trying to make a buck off of you? And most importantly, are young people even interested in that sort of autonomy anymore? Perhaps the most disturbing thing about my generation is how we’ve defined rebellion down, blurring its edges and oversimplifying it so it somehow still collates with online exposure. Millions of preening young people, posturing for one another, with no gesture unquantifiable and nothing learned that the algorithm hasn’t taught them.

For me, Slacker is a melancholy artifact of what we’ve lost over the last 30 years. It’s still recognizable in many ways. People continue to fret over climate change and analyze pop culture to death like the characters in the film do. Watching it now, though, you can’t help but feel that we’ve traded older, deeper notions of freedom for a frenzied simulacrum of autonomy and monetized attention spans.

Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris ReviewBookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.

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8 Responses to Slacker and the Failed Promises of the Internet

  1. Axxr says:

    I was born before you, in the early 70s, and was there from the start as a geeky technology kid prodigy. I had a UUCP node starting in the early ’80s and email addresses when email started using bang-path-smarthost hybrids to leverage the newfangled DNS system for faster delivery.

    Here’s how I read the failure of the internet: free enterprise killed it. The internet died when people started to be paid, full time, to create what was on it. Once that began, the rest was inevitable. Prior to its commercialization, which many early “netizens” fiercely resisted for precisely these reasons, the only things to be found online were labors of love and interest done by amateurs in the time a lone amateur has available to them.

    It was the content specialist and the online application builder and the digital marketer who buried “Lena’s World of Ferns” beneath layers and layers of mindless sludge. It’s the same mindless sludge that was previously at the malls and the checkout counter newsstands, just moved online.

    I suppose it was inevitable that as soon as there were people there, hucksters began to see dollar signs, but it’s still sad. Because the early internet—the amateur internet—was beautiful and engaging and fascinating and personal, and led to real life friendships as often as not.

    What killed the internet was the almighty dollar that those who will stop at nothing to pursue it. Nothing more, nothing less.

  2. ControlE says:

    I’m 34, so I too am an “old millennial”. I shared a similar childhood growing up in the upper south/lower mid-west; though I wasn’t in the suburbs I was in the middle of nowhere- AOL was my connection to the world that I couldn’t get otherwise. I couldn’t ride my bike to my best friends house on a summer afternoon–it was a three mile ride on a busy two-lane highway—but we could chat on AIM. Much to the chagrin of anyone who attempted to call the house I spent hours online in the summer. I was talking to a co-worker who is a bit older than me about this the other day. Back then the internet was a smaller place. It wasn’t easily accessible for everyone with a phone, there weren’t apps designed to walk even the most technophobic person through posting their opinions, there weren’t social media platforms where people stayed connected 24/7. Going online was still something you did: you went online, then you went offline. When you interacted with people online the odds were pretty favorable that they were in roughly the same age range, they were tech savvy, and if you were interacting on a forum then you probably had a similar interest. Everyone was just better to each other online back then and I really think it’s because we were all pretty much the same type of person. It’s a different person that waits 3 minutes for a forum to load on a 28K connection and learns HTML to format their posts than the person who loads Facebook in 15 seconds and bangs out their political opinion in text message shorthand. We used to think of the internet as a special place like a fancy restaurant. Now the internet is just the Burger King built into the side of a Flying J that you stop at in your stained sweatpants to grab fries.

    Could it be that I’m just getting old? Can I just blame it all on Gen Z and be done with it? Gen Z killed the internet!

  3. Andrew says:

    Slacker was a lot funnier, better written and more interesting when Linklater did it again 8 years later with the weird rotoscoping half animation, half live action in Waking Life with the skinny kid from Dazed and Confused.

  4. Christopher Paris says:

    I was born in ’76 and my freshman year at UT Austin was in ’94. It was a really cool time, because most of the world still didn’t care all that much about what was going on in Austin, Texas. There were great independent radio stations, live music happening everywhere and packed record stores where discovering a new band/musician was a communal experience that required interacting with other human beings. Those were the days when people stood around in front of cd and record player listening stations to check it out before you bought something.

    People were up all night smoking in the coffee shops, reading and debating with each other along the drag (Guadalupe). Across the street was the main computer lab, where you went if you wanted to use the Internet for free.

    After I graduated, I left Austin for a professional degree and then work. For many years I longed to get back there. When I finally did in 2012, it was so overrun with moneyed hipsters that I left again after a couple of years. Maybe I’m just middle aged and jaded now, but the vibe in Austin feels to me like a packaged authenticity being sold by the real estate developers to move as many human beings as possible to Central Texas. Time marches on.

  5. Jeeves says:

    If you reverse the last two digits of your birth year, you’ll have mine. So I was raised before television (if you want to talk about monetizing consumption). But I think much of what you say makes sense, and I thought you wrote it very well.

  6. Ed says:

    That seems to be the general sweep or trend of history. Nineteenth and early twentieth century people thought of London or Paris or New York or Berlin as vast universes, with all manner of things going on in the streets, stores, shops, restaurants and theaters.

    By the end of the twentieth century, people had moved to the suburbs or were staying at home and watching videos, and if you were on the street you weren’t likely to have the kind of encounters that Dickens or Balzac or Dostoevsky chronicled. The Internet has made the withdrawal more absolute.

    The eccentrics who populate college towns can find each other on the web. They’re less likely to meet in the line at an artsy film house. I do have to say, though, that in terms of real world encounters, eccentrics and ranters are more likely to find each other in a college town than anywhere else in the country.

  7. Chuckles in WA says:

    This is a very well written piece. I first started using computers on a Teletype with a 110 baud modem, you DIALED the number manually on the rotary phone. Ninth grade, circa 1973. The next year we got a CRT terminal (screen.) I taught myself to program in BASIC on the HP 2000 computer we were connected to.

    In 1976 I had a Computers in Engineering class, freshman, and they wanted me to program on those stupid IBM cards in a dying language, Fortran. Not interactive programming. I told the professor I could do the projects in BASIC if he could get me a login to the HP system they had there. He did, and it all worked out fine, one of the few classes I passed the first quarter of college, as I was rather busy joining a fraternity.

    Commodore computers, Atari’s and the Apple computer reached the market. Hobbyists set up computers to be BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems)and then RBBSs (Remote BBS’s), which would exchange messages via modem with other like systems, designed to hop short distances since long distance charges were an issue.

    Most of what went on was technically oriented, but there was almost always a section for non-tech issues to be discussed, and while people pretty diverse in their opinions, discussions were civil and as times passionate.

    I had a long successful career in IT Network Management, but realized finally, on balance, systems weren’t being built that actually helped the users to do their jobs better, and the network management tools weren’t really all that great.

    I read long form posts all across the spectrum, I enjoy TAC, but also the socialist Current Affairs, and all sorts in-between, staying away from the flamethrower sites like Fox News or MSNBC.

  8. pacificus says:

    Ok, I’m probably the oldest guy here reading this. I remember the constant conversation concerning the early web (1992 or so) was “yeah its great, but how do you make money off it?” I have avoided the social media aspect of the internet, which is the focus of all the hand wringing here, and find my reading habits are not different than before I had digital access to a site like this one. My attention span is not noticeably shorter, in the sense at least of looking for and consuming long-form reflections on the things that interest me. I still count the internet as a huge improvement and feel like I have avoided all its worst temptations and deforming vices. I think the remark that the internet now resembles the soulless and consumerist shopping mall is spot on; yet it is not as if there are not places like this to suit the non-main stream people like “us”. It reminds me of Socrates’ claim in the Republic that democracy is a kind of general store of regimes–one can find aristocrats, oligarchs, men of honor, democrats, and would be tyrants in such a city, unlike all the rest. (557d) So I restrict my surfing (does anyone still surf the web?) to the tide pools as it were, out of the main currents and the big waves. What do you all do?

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