Wednesday, May 8

Segway Prejudice: A Story About The Media, Economics, And My Father

The following has happened a lot more than once.

It's a beautiful day and a Saturday afternoon. Living in a scenic, suburban town in northern New Jersey, a man and his wife decide to hit the outdoors and go for a walk. They live near a lake and the path around is just over two miles. Seems like the perfect way to get out in nature and enjoy each other's company.

The woman steps out the front door and waits for her husband in the driveway. The man heads downstairs and out the garage. After he flips open the garage door with a switch. he hops on a Segway and meets his wife outside.

And off they go.

When they reach the path along the main road in town, they encounter many other people - runners, walkers, cyclists. They notice the man on the Segway and they sneer. They shake their heads, mutter beneath their breath, openly laugh at him.

"You know, you could always walk, lazy ass!"
"You actually bought one of those things?"
"That's just ridiculous."

These are real things that real people say to a man they have never met before. I'm calling it Segway Prejudice because I can't think of a catchier name for it right now. It's a very real phenomenon. And, I would argue, extremely problematic.

Behind the scenes.

The man and woman in the above anecdote are, of course, my parents. I've heard these stories from my father a number of times now, in which he's chastised, ridiculed, or silently debased for riding around a quiet suburban town on a Segway, purely by virtue of his mode of transportation.

I think this is a feeling we've all had, to be honest; if you disagree, I would challenge you to look deeper at yourself. There was a professor at my college who rode one to class and lord knows I found it hilarious. It's a strange, unique bit of technology and, for many reasons, has hit a nerve in the American consciousness since its debut in 2001. People find the device to be a waste of money, a reflection of American laziness, an example of capitalistic excess, and, a lot of the time, just a ridiculous thing to watch people operate. That's the climate in which my father purchased a Segway - he should have known it was coming.

So why is this case so problematic?

When I was three years old, my father, mother, and I were vacationing down the shore at Seaside Heights. My mother was pregnant with my younger brother at the time. My father was in the water and he was doing some bodysurfing. Everything was normal until he forgot to put his arms in front of him as he caught a wave. He was thrust head-first into another man's back and instantly his life was forever changed.

My father suffered a spinal cord injury that day and became paralyzed from the neck down.

His story is a successful one, though. After intensive rehabilitation, unyielding support from a large Irish family that just doesn't quit, and every cheesy bite of wisdom Robert Fulgham and Mitch Albom have likely ever conceived of, my father left the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation on his own two feet. Today, he can walk short distances with the aid of a cane.

Well now I feel like an asshole.

Don't. That's not the point of this article.

People ridicule my father riding his Segway without understanding his injury. They don't know about all the physical things he used to do and still yearns for. To run, to play basketball, to enjoy the outdoors with my mother. These people don't know that the only way my father can enjoy a long walk with my mother (who loves long walks) is via Segway travel.

These strangers are not ignorant, either - this isn't a willful lack of knowledge, it's innocence to the situation

So this is not about blame, at least not of the aforementioned nameless individuals. Hearing my father's tales of drive-by insulting left me wondering how we got to this place. Collectively. Why is Segway Prejudice not an isolated incident, but a common feeling, attitude, and impetus for action?

I think it's a three-point case study.

The Today Show sucks.

When the Segway was unveiled to America, there was a brief moment of wonder. We've always been fascinated by visions of the future that may look nothing like today. The Segway was a glimpse into the future -- and perhaps not even the distant future. The gyroscope technology that makes the Segway possible isn't the stuff of high-priced laboratories -- it could be relatively easily manufactured and replicated.

This is the narrative the news media fed us and it became the talking point whenever someone brought up the Segway conversation topic. I distinctly remember watching a Today Show interview with the Segway's inventor. They goaded him right into that narrative, which, of course, was good for business, so it's not as if he had no incentive to foster the good PR. Yes - this device IS the wave of the future, and it could be yours today!

The debut of the Segway wasn't real news, of course. It hardly even classified as cultural news and wasn't an especially big deal in the tech world (although I'm sure the Nintendo Wii is thankful). But its unveiling must have coincided with a slow point in the news cycle, because it was a sizable flash in the media pan.

As conversation-setters, the news media crafted a conversation around the Segway that was a pure binary: Is the Segway the way of travel for the future or isn't it? And as all non-news pieces tend to go, it was posed as a question. What do YOU think, dear viewer?

Wouldn't you know it -- there was a dialogue backlash. People thought the device would encourage laziness and only contribute to our obesity epidemic. Sales never hit the point that would reduce the technology's cost and make the devices ubiquitous (save for city tours, it seems). Yet the company stuck with the provided message -- this technology is useful and going places.

And thus the narrative began to conflict with the devices' use value. Eventually the company seems to have partially caught on. The website directly targets its niche potential -- police patrol, tours, etc. -- but the insistence on behalf of the public that the Segway would not SHOULD not become the wave of the future lingers to this day.

George Oscar Bluth

Mediated depictions of the Segway generally became more prevalent several years after its debut and already absorbed the public dialogue surrounding the new media-induced backlash.

Case in point: GOB. (pronounced: "jobe")

Illusions, Michael.

Aka - George Oscar Bluth, played by Will Arnett, in the cult television hit Arrested Development, which first aired in 2003.

Nobody who's watched the show will deny the fact that because GOB rides a Segway, he is even that much more hilarious. It becomes a crucial tenet of his character, who is so out of touch with reality that he believes his Segway brings him to an elevated status. All it truly accomplishes is putting his pointlessly-rich family several thousand more dollars deeper into the hole.

That's part of the ideology that permeates the Segway. It becomes an extension of character ridicule (for further evidence, see Paul Blart: Mall Cop -- or just take my word for it and save yourself two hours you'll never get back). For those who've never seen a Segway, these are often the gateways to experiencing the device and understanding what purpose it serves. For those who have seen one, it becomes another point in its ideological schema.

And before I move on -- I should clarify that it IS really funny. GOB is awesome.

And what of these "Benjamins" you speak of?

Rounding out the sphere of Segway Prejudice comes everyone's favorite discussion topic: economics. There seems to be two crucial economic points of view that come into play.

Firstly, and most prominently, stems from economic disparity. Segways aren't cheap. So folks of a lower tax bracket to see those with considerably more wealth riding around on Segways is bound to breed class resentment. At this point the Segway narrative has already been established and it is always/alreeady presumed to be public knowledge.

So if the Segway promotes laziness and is a product of pure American excess, to see the Segway nonetheless in use is an affront to their good nature. A person who is lucky enough to afford things like Segways and still chooses to waste his/her funds on what amounts to (in the public eye) nothing more than a rich person's toy is a pure slap-in-the-face to the economically disenfranchised.

At least, this is how it plays out. The narrative is co-opted by the economic argument. And I think we're all aware that economic arguments often lead to significant aggression and violence.

Secondly, there is still economically-fueled disparity amongst wealthier Americans to poo-poo other wealthy individuals' purchase decisions. It often appears in the upper crust of American society that, depending on who you ask, there's a "right" and a "wrong" way to spend money. And Segways fall into the ladder category -- a fruitless investment.

My parents live in a well-to-do suburb chock full o' wealthy white dudes, many of whom are even better off (financially speaking). So I'm inclined to point to this second terrain of economic disdain, which sickens me even more to my stomach. Class disparity is a terrible thing as it's very often unjustified (IMHO), but I'll leave the Neo-Marxist debate for another post. But I can think of nothing more pointless and devoid of human decency than the lucky ones squabbling over material goods in a world of privilege.

And that's how you make the shittiest sausage ever. Here's how not to eat it.

So there it is. Blend these puzzle pieces together on high for twenty minutes and you should get a nice, thick Segway Prejudice smoothie. Since this is a blog and not an academic journal, I feel like this is redundant to say, but just in case: I'm well aware that there is a degree of generalization in my analysis here. But in my own experience and given my own knowledge of media systems/structures, I think what I've outlined paints a legitimate enough roadmap that I'm willing to smooth over the edges.

If I might reiterate one point only to emphasize why I wrote this in the first place, I'd like to say that this is NOT a blame game towards individuals in the community I grew up in, nor is it a finger-pointing piece against The Today Show (although I really do hate The Today Show).

Things don't change unless you start somewhere and I firmly believe the place to begin is at a point of understanding. I'm attempting to map out the cultural processes that formulate Segway Prejudice, but like most cultural vestiges, it's not easy to change them just by asking The Today Show to think five years in the future. They're not at fault for sensationalizing non-news items -- the economic and industrial production model of the 24/7 news cycle is. Good luck scolding that beast into changing.

But we CAN change. We can change the way we receive media messages and the way we internalize them. We can become self-aware of where our opinions and beliefs originate. And in so doing, we can stop ourselves from looking at a guy you don't know on a Segway and finding him despicable, lazy, or stupid.

Because maybe he's none of those things. Maybe he's just a guy who wants to spend quality time with his wife.

FINAL NOTE: WE CAN STILL THINK SEGWAYS ARE HILARIOUS, because honestly, they kind of are! There's something clunky and awkward about human beings riding those things. I've ridden my dad's Segway. I totally looked hilarious. But hilarity need not escalate to prejudice. Keep the good nature in comedy. My dad is the cheesiest guy in America - he'll happily take the joke if he doesn't crack it before you do. I'm just entreating us all to consider the permutations of our opinions and infuse a little more sympathy into those daily moments where you think you need none.

Tuesday, May 7

The Strokes: Come On Down To The Machine

There's a lot to say about The Strokes, but not a lot that hasn't already been said. Steven Hyden's recent piece about the band's career arc as it leads to their new and final album bespeaks most of the cultural weight that accompanies everything these guys put on vinyl. All of that has been rehashed (well, re-re-rehashed) as their fifth and final album with RCA entitled Comedown Machine has recently released, not with a media bang but a whimper.

The Strokes are important and for many reasons. But one thing about their long and storied career that warrants some revisiting is their ingenuity. This is an aspect of their songwriting that gets often overlooked, mostly because the reason they got so damn big to begin with has a lot more to do with what the band meant to so many people.

Myself included.

When I was 17, I saw The Strokes at the Roseland Ballroom in NYC. In retrospect, this was one of the weirdest shows I've ever attended (by now I've seen a few). The lineup: The Mooney Suzuki, Jimmy Fallon, and The Strokes. Up first, The - wait... Jimmy Fallon?

Yup, the One, True King of videogames in the "late night" space was once a temporary musician. You no doubt remember his "hit," "Idiot Boyfriend," that of the faux-disco bassline and nail-biting falsetto. Turns out the guy had an entire album of material, which he unloaded on the young and tragically-hip audience between comedy bits concerning a Troll doll. It seemed ill-timed and even iller-conceived.

The Mooney Suzuki, on the other hand, were just ill. They rocked. They killed it. They [something so hip that it's not quite in style yet, but rest assured, it's a good thing]. I learned about and loved a new band after that day.

But The Strokes took the stage following Fallon's fallibility and I didn't know what to expect. I was so fucking nervous. I really LIKED Is This It, but I was young and couldn't have told you why. If nothing else, the album was different -- pithy, solid, and steadier than Justin Timberlake's SNL career. It had swagger before people were hashtagging it, but swagger of a different sort -- the kind where you don't realize you even have any.

That's a lie, of course. The Strokes were well aware of their image and presentation. But my hormone-ified high school peabrain couldn't quite process all the layers upon layers and I just went along for the ride.

That concert was revelatory for me, although I didn't even realize it until years later. It was part of my musical evolution - in which I graduated from being a ska kid to a rock snob to a lover of just about everything. This would mark that first transition: from rudeboy to rockist. It was finally starting to feel official, although it wouldn't solidify until I had my mind effectively "blown" by a one-hitter and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, & Thyme.

The Strokes remained a thread throughout it all, though. I picked up Room on Fire when it dropped and I loved it. While is sounds redundant, Room on Fire was one of those albums that grew on me the more time I spent with it (a la Radiohead's Hail to the Thief). But nonetheless, they still had my attention.

I may even be the one person in the world who puts First Impressions of Earth on a pedestal. It doesn't hit every note they were shooting for and it's a bit disorganized to be sure (You Only Live Once + Ask Me Anything + Red Light = UM WUT STAHP), but it was also several steps into bold new territory -- certainly farther than I expected them to traverse based on the baby steps between their first two albums.

First Impressions is what I'm talking about when I say The Strokes were ingenious. The opening track takes their trademark tightened rudiments and mechanics, then hyper-refines it like three drum machines in a musical playground. The Strokes then follow that up with a dirty little bassline ("Juicebox") pulled straight from Saturday Morning Cartoons. The album title is remarkably applicable; in fourteen tracks, The Strokes looked up from their $300 jeans and realized there's a whole wide world out there. They set out to engage with it - to remarkable results. This sometimes-uplifting, sometimes-manic depressive, sometimes-alcoholic, and sometimes-nuclear album represents the one thing The Strokes weren't previously ready to present: something risky.

So maybe I shouldn't have been surprised when, after a hiatus, Angles was released. It was aggressive, but only because of where they had previously been and their position in the pop music pantheon. Ah, yes - that faded, crumbling structure of emotional antiquity, upon which frescos and busts are built for those who stood the test of time and emerged with stories to tell. The goddamned hipsters built one out of cardboard and were shocked when it didn't look the same after a couple harsh winters.

The Strokes, in all their wisdom, knew their cultural impact was bound for collapse, so they changed it up -- a lot. And it sucked. Oh well. Julian Casablancas notoriously mailed it in (literally - he didn't step foot in the same studio as the rest of the band) and released a solo album (Phrazes For The Young) that some see as a truer Strokes album than this garbage. Then again, some aforementioned journalists of much greater clout claim Angles as their favorite album. So who am I to judge, really?

Then again, who are any of us? (I promise to avoid general musings on the merit of criticism here) I listened to Comedown Machine deeply mired in that state of critical confusion and I emerged a reasonably satisfied fan. This isn't an album that will have you rediscovering your youthful edge. Gone are The Strokes of old, but gone, too, are the anxieties that come with that sea change. Angles was too much, too fast for the band, built from a desperate need to un-hibernate and make something different. Now, as the band returns closer to the mean, the results are much more substantial.

Doing a track breakdown of Comedown Machine feels irrelevant. Sure, some stand out ("Tap Out," "50/50") and some are forgettable ("Partners In Crime," "Happy Ending"), but this is an article about artistic trajectory, dammit, so here's my media-shattering declaration: The Strokes still have "it." But what's changed is what that "it" is. If you're still looking for attitude-driven, uber-hip hazy teenage anthems, you need to stop listening to this band. Hell, you should have stopped listening to them around their third album. Just as First Impressions marked the end of what brought them into this world, it was also the album that propelled them into outer space. They saw some cool shit up there and wrote about it. Now they've finally come back to Earth. Via a spaceship of some sort. A machine. A...... comedown....... machine.


I'll finish by echoing Hyden's closing sentiments. The Strokes are in a really good spot right now. They've shed the weight of pop cultural pressure with the silent release of their last RCA album and find themselves in the role of an aging-but-talented Unrestricted Free Agent. If they don't find themselves a smaller label that encourages their newfound tempered experimentation, they're doing themselves and their fans a major disservice. It's murky territory and there's no guarantee they'll embrace the adventure together. But at least now we all know that The Strokes can find their way out of a storm.