The Ralph Kramden Thesis (or,The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Digital))

Anya Kamenetz, author of DYI U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, recently sat down with Cathy Davidson, a well-known digital humanist, “over a salad and iced coffee at Payard French Bakery in New York’s Greenwich Village” to talk about things digital.  (Evidently the interview will also appear in Fast Company, “the world’s leading progressive business media brand  . . . Written for, by, and about the most progressive business leaders”!) The interview, despite headline slugs about a “bold plan for change,” is pretty uninteresting, probably a lot less interesting than the book it’s plugging.

In the course of the conversation, Davidson talks about how she learned about the importance of attitude in “her extensive arm rehab” for an injury she received on vacation.  Davidson sets the scene: ““Here we were on Capri, one of the most beautiful places in the world, with my friend Diego, an art collector who discovered Basquiat. He and [Davidson’s partner] Ken are bobbing in the water below me, they’re waving, and I decide to go down the ladder and the next thing I know, my whole life has changed.”  Bad things can happen on vacation.  But, what struck me about Davidson’s description is how it outlines a particular kind of vacation: Capri, boats, art collectors, Basquiat, etc.  This isn’t your week-in-a-Motel-8-next-to-the-Santa-Cruz-boardwalk type of vacation.  The “Capri incident”  – – with its name and place dropping – – belongs to a refined genre of vacations, a definitely class-anchored status-dream of exotic places and people.

I don’t really care where people vacation, but the association in the interview between “Capri” and technologically inspired “plans for bold change” reminded me of a thread that runs straight through today’s “digital sublime.”  A quick flip through one of the founding texts of the digital age, Nicholas Negroponte’s 1995 bestseller, Being Digital, reveals a similar intimacy among things digital, powerful people, and important places.  Negroponte travels a lot in the book: Vancouver, British Columbia; Mount Fuji, Japan; memories of his boarding school in Switzerland; MIT; headquarters of this corporation and that.  He also brushes elbows with lots of movers and shakers: “sixty-five-year-old tycoons”; a “socialite” described as “a wealthy and charming woman”; an admiral; Nobutaka Shikani, owner of a Japanese “newspaper and TV media empire,” brilliant scientists, etc.

These sketches from the lifestyles of the rich and connected offer more than just status frisson, as they collect over the course of Being Digital, they also begin to point to a specific class consciousness.  Negroponte, for instance, bemoans the regulations that force NYNEX to “put telephone booths in the darkest corners of Brooklyn (where they last all of forty-eight hours).”   In so many ways, the “darkest corners of Brooklyn” represent the antithesis of “being digital”: outer-boro (vs. Fifth Avenue or Greenwich Village), State-regulated (vs. market liberated), dark (vs. enlightened), dangerous (vs. safe), backward (vs. modern), hardware (vs. bytes).  In sum, the master binary here seems to be: Brooklyn-bound working-class vs. footloose, continent-hopping digerati. You don’t have to be Tony Manero to understand that the digital future will never belong to darkest Brooklyn.

Maybe this kind of imagination also explains why Negroponte  keeps thinking about technology in equally class-sodden terms: VCR’s”schlep atoms” (as opposed to “no-return, no-deposit bits”); bandwidth is more like a “ski lift” than “plumbing”; the best metaphor Negroponte can imagine for “human-computer-interface is that of a well-trained English butler.”  And, Negroponte implores us to the necessity of machine-to-machine communication by asking: “If you were to hire household staff to cook, clean, drive, stoke the fire, and answer the door, can you imagine suggesting that they not talk to each other?”  Imagine!  The proper machine, like the proper household staff, listens to his master’s voice.

In a more recent paen to the idol of the digital,  Me++ (2003), William J. Mitchell follows Negroponte’s bass line but adds new riffs, especially on mobility and lightness.  Mitchell’s digital protagonist is the gadget-hungry nomad, or as he calls it – –  “the spatially extended cyborg.”  In more concrete terms, his main character is somebody like the “jet-lagged business traveler” who, thanks to gadgets and networks, can now “travel very lightly – -with credit card and passport, some portable electronic equipment, and a carry-on bag.”   The difference between the past and the digital now can be summed up in a series of recurring contrasts: heaviness vs. lightness; big vs. small; sedentary vs. mobile; simple vs. complex; fixed vs. portable; things vs. access.  In Mitchell’s “chronicle of progressive dematerialization,” even homelessness has been re-dematerialized from life on the streets to lacking “access privileges.”

The working-class is the gestalt background against which Mitchell paints his picture of life A.D. (“After Dematerialization”); it signifies by its absence.  Here is Mitchell on affordances and tools: in B.D. (“Before Dematerialization”), the “possibility of gripping large objects of arbitrary shape in the hand” created a niche variously occupied by luggage, large weapons, and the ultimate “winner” in this competition – – the “gentleman’s cane”; today, that winner is the laptop computer.    Missing from his B.D. tools and affordances are things like hammers, wrenches, and cranks – – surely, demographically speaking, much more the conqueror of hand niches than the “gentleman’s cane.”  Dematerializing the body entails, in Mitchell’s argument, dematerializing labor.

Here is Mitchell’s description of contemporary production processes: “We produce the artifacts we want by bringing together designs, energy, and materials . . . The nodes of these networks [of production] are sites at which materials are organized, according to some design, through the controlled application of energy.”  This is a scenario straight out of Harry Potter and the world of magic wands.  Things aren’t made; they’re organized.  Labor – – along with its very corporeal realities of muscle, sweat, and strain – – is “dematerialized” magically into “the controlled application of energy”!  In Me++, the “spatially extended cyborg” is in such a rush to board his flight to Singapore or some sunny Italian isle, iPhone and fanny pack in place, that he can’t even see the descendants of those “villagers [who] rose with the roosters to work until sunset in nearby fields” but now rise with alarm clocks to clean the airport, manage reservations, usher passengers onto skyways, and serve drinks.

The digerati may not need plumbing, phone booths, incompetent employees, or even bodies, but they do need an ideology to demarcate their identity and to guide their imagination of technology.  We can understand this ideology a little better by introducing the “Ralph Kramden Thesis.”

In a 1955 episode of The Honeymooners, titled “TV or Not TV,” after hearing that neighbors, Trixie and Norton, are buying a new television set, Alice demands that Ralph also buy a television.   Ralph refuses because he claims he’s “waiting for 3-D television.”   Alice accuses him of “being cheap” and notes that the Nortons have a washing machine, vacuum cleaner, television, and “even an electric stove.”  Ralph rebuts her with the value of money over things:

Alice draws attention to Ralph’s body and so, in her own way, to the connections among class, technology, and modernity.  Jackie Gleason’s success as Ralph Kramden flowed from his portrayal as one of the last, unabashed avatars of the working-class on prime time American t.v.  He is loud, vulgar, emotional, parochial, and rash.  His gross physicality – –  flailing gestures, rubbery face, and huge belly  – – roots his blue collar personna in the body, a grotesque body of excess and appetite.  Alice and Ralph’s run-down apartment – – with it’s stand-alone sink and gas cooker – – is an invocation of Gleason’s own Brooklyn working-class roots and a self-conscious class marker for audiences soon to be treated to the clean, shiny suburban living rooms of Father Knows Best or the cool modernity of Peter Gunn and 77 Sunset Strip.  Ralph is primordial and the signs of his class identity gravitate around a resplendent materiality – – the body, the voice, gestures, and shabby environment.  Ralph can never fly to Capri armed only with credit card and smart phone.

In the end, Ralph ends up “sharing” a television with the Nortons, but the television set becomes a source of comedic conflict and disruption.  “I gotta admit, Ralph,” Alice says at the show’s conclusion.  “Once in your life, you’re right.  We never shoulda got a television set.”  A television show that rejects television.  But, the blue collar humor of The Honeymooners demands this contradiction. Ralph’s battle against television represents a battle against modernity, and more specifically a battle between working-class and middle-class.  Technology marks the boundary between classes and between past and present.  You can’t make fun out of working-class resistance to bourgeois modernity if you let Ralph and Alice enjoy that modernity.

There’s nothing new about the bourgeois ideology of technology and modernity.  In Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu exhaustively chronicles the processes of differentiation that create and renovate class identities.  Much of this differentiation gets worked out around the opposition between body and mind, matter and spirit, nature and culture.  Working-class meals in France, for instance, feature heavier, thicker foods and are governed by an ethics of plenty (“Eat ’til you’re full.”);  middle-class meals in France are dominated by lighter, refined foods and are governed by an ethics of form (“Use the salad fork, not the dessert fork.”).  “The disappearance of economic constraints,” Bourdieu writes, “is accompanied by a strengthening of the social censorships which forbid coarseness and fatness, in favour of slimness and distinction.”  Lightness, form/design, refinement, discipline, slimness: these are markers that inscribe and re-inscribe bourgeois distinction.  Digerati like Negroponte and Mitchell and others are repeating the same processes of class distinction with new objects.  They are integrating technology into the conventional bourgeois habitus: social difference and value are measured by distance from coarseness and fatness, by the distance from Ralph Kramden’s Brooklyn walkup and bloated body to Mitchell’s “networked city” and “cyborg selves.”

In a nutshell, then, the Ralph Kramden Thesis: All things being unequal,  the (unbearable) lightness of being digital both demands and disowns the fat men from Brooklyn.

 

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