On Friday night, I was busy tweeting about Aziz Ansari’s new show, “Master of None.” I was fascinated by the first scene in particular, in which Ansari and his sex partner, Noel Wells, turn to Google to determine the risk of pregnancy after a condom breaks. (“Is pre-ejaculate viable?”) A scene that began almost as pornography becomes a generic image of millennials alone together with their devices. This image is Ansari’s show in a nutshell: The characters feel called upon to live like their parents and grandparents—to work, marry, and have kids—but they can’t occupy that black-and-white adulthood:
Of course, I tweeted these images at the wrong time—just as the news of the terror attacks in Paris was spreading over social media.
When I noticed that my entire timeline was consumed with the Paris news, it seemed petty, even narcissistic to tweet about a television show. So I stopped, and I noticed other people stopping, too. Suddenly, tweets with jokes and pop culture references stood out like sore thumbs against a backdrop of shock and horror. There was only one thing to talk about.
At the same time, the backlash was swift for people who did tweet about Paris, or changed their Facebook avatar to a French flag. Where were they the day before, when Beirut was the target of suicide bombs, killing a no less horrifying number of people? Why didn’t Facebook allow residents of Beirut to indicate that they were “safe,” as it did for Paris? The more people talked about Paris—and the more the media reported on it—the louder the complaint became that there was a racist double standard at work. Deaths in Paris seemed to matter more than, say, deaths in Kenya, where 147 students were killed at Garissa University in April. As if to drive home the point, the news of the Garissa massacre began to circulate on social media as if it had just happened.
For all the incessant talk about how our devices isolate us—how we are all bowling alone instead of socializing with our fellow human beings—moments like this demonstrate the hyper-scrutinized social life of the millennial. The much-vaunted self-involvement of our generation is another word for never being allowed to forget yourself, never being allowed to think or do or tweet the wrong thing. Here comes everyone, watching you.
But, of course, no one is watching you as closely as you are watching yourself, and this should be the final word on what a thousand Greatest Generation op-eds proclaim to be the narcissism of the millennials. Narcissism might be another word for paranoia, and these are good times in which to be paranoid. “They” probably aren’t reading your tweets and judging you, but they might be, and you’ll never find out which it is.
Even writing this piece is making me nervous. Is Aziz Ansari’s television show an appropriate occasion to have thoughts about the deaths of hundreds of people? Or vice versa: Do I sully their memory by wedging television criticism into the event of that Friday the 13th? It’s easy to say yes to the latter, but impossible to live by that standard. Someone is dying right now, and if you want to find out about it, check in online; there are bombs going off somewhere, or they just did, or they are about to. Are you really reading about television while atrocities are happening? Are you really posting a selfie?
Nowadays, it can feel like there’s never a safe time to goof off on social media. On Friday, I was tweeting about “Master of None” because it was late afternoon, the end of my work day. Per the advice of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, I tend to get up very early and to go to bed very early, so late afternoon is when I like to unwind by, say, tweeting about TV. It feels normal to live by this kind of schedule; work gives our lives a steady and cyclical rhythm of on and off, stress and healing, light and dark. Almanacs are all about work, after all, the kind that farmers and other pre-industrial laborers have been doing since forever. Even the seasons are structured by the earth’s fertile and fallow cycles. There is nothing more normal than working and then resting.
It was not so long ago, in generational terms, that the news only happened once or twice a day, though even that—the newspaper in the morning before work, the evening network news as you ate dinner or relaxed with your family—was a relatively novel development. Today, the news is literally always happening. Indeed, the more closely you follow the news, the more you are probably convinced of this normalized abnormality, the exceptional and unprecedented nature of the era when we’re expected to shift emotional modes at the drop of a dime. Perhaps this is because the idea of “normal” times is just a comforting myth that we imagine in order to help make sense of everything that make us feel fear, anger, and despair. There is a certain comfort, for Aziz Ansari and the characters in his show, in placing your faith in older generations, believing that they, somehow, can tell you how to live in these bewildering times.
The novelty is not the news itself. It’s our networked hyper-awareness, and the obligation to adhere to a whole new set of social norms. On Friday, you couldn’t tweet about you, because you had to tweet about it, and you were, even if you didn’t mean to. Not to tweet about it felt like a deliberate choice, a noticeable omission. Whatever people had been doing, they were plucked out of it by the event, and by the mandate to pay attention, to grieve, and to do so publicly.
In this way, “the news” gives us a radically different sense of time than would a farmer’s almanac. It gives us a progression from novelty through surprise into reaction and anticipation. Time stops as the news gets faster and faster. Eventually, it becomes a ceaseless wave, resolving into an almost imperceptible drone. We are always on the clock.
When he was writing Poor Richard’s Almanac, Franklin thought seriously about how to spend his time. As he recalled in his Autobiography, he made a diagram for how he would occupy every hour of the day, how he would make his time as useful as possible, drain every drop of work out of it.
When he made that diagram as a young man, he might have meant it: The young Ben Franklin was an astonishingly productive and accomplished person, and really did crazy things like regulate his time into submission. But when he wrote his autobiography, he was an old man, with a different, wiser perspective. To put it in 2015 terms, he is trolling us. While he models the kind of rationalized industry that the age of reason made into a religion, the elderly Ben Franklin had learned what a “convenient a thing [it is] to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”
This is a joke, though his readers don’t always notice. It can be hard to see the humor through the patina of Founding Father reverence, but when he wasn’t creating America and inventing everything, Benjamin Franklin wrote books about farting and was a notorious philanderer. Along with aphorisms about being early to bed and early to rise, Poor Richard’s Almanac also teaches that “Neither a Fortress nor a maidenhead will hold out long after they begin to parley.” Early to bed, indeed.
When Ansari shows us his parents and his grandparents, we see hard-working, long-suffering immigrants; his father had an abacus that was cruelly broken when he was a child, and he was never allowed to get a guitar. But the best part of Ansari’s show is the sheer goofiness of his actual parents; Ansari gets his father a guitar, the guitar he had never been allowed to have, and his father complains that it’s too hard to learn to play it. Instead, he prefers to play video games.
The show reminds us that world-shattering crises were not invented in the 21st century, and that no one who expects things to stay the same is ever right. To feel the ground fall out from beneath your feet is as timeless an experience as there is. And yet, our generation didn’t invent goofiness, nor sex, nor fart jokes, and it’s always a good time to remember that, too.
Aaron Bady is a writer in Oakland, and an editor at The New Inquiry.