I Lived Like It Was 1996 for a Week
During the past year, magazines have bombarded us with “the return of the 90s.” Clothes, art, music: all of it rolls through the rotating door of style. What’s with this bullshit? Seriously, who would want to return to an era where the only positive aspect is that people from the 80s can remember their youth? I was born in 1993. I don’t give a fuck.
In that era, children played with Pogs, Pokémon cards, and Tamagotchi. The computers were dumber than humans, and the internet consisted of 3,000 nerds. As for cell phones, they existedbut no one had them—apart from your super-modern uncle, maybe.
Twenty-year-olds and teens lived without much: VHS movies, video games, making plans to meet up via their parents’ corded phones, and going to the movies as often as possible, checking the times through Moviefone. There wasn’t anything fantastic going on. What do people miss so much about it, then? This is what I wanted to find out.
I prohibited myself from using all technological inventions from after 1996 for a week. That means seven days. No more cell phone, no more computer, no more internet, no more DVDs, no more iPhone—I’m not going to make a detailed list, but basically nothing remained. I had to force myself to listen to No Doubt. I’d never lived like this. I had no idea what to do with the boredom.
Phones Are Better Than People
You’ve likely already seen I Forgot My Phone, the short film by Charlene deGuzman that dramatizes our dependence on smartphones. It’s pulled in almost 20 million views and counting thanks to that magic social-media formula of saying something everyone pretty much agrees with: we’re all hopelessly and pathetically addicted to our devices, which makes us tragically unaware of the fragile beauty of real-life moments passing us by on gossamer butterfly wings of authenticity.
The message at the heart of the film is yet another argument that technology erodes our genuine relationships and makes us stupider and less empathetic. You’ve likely heard a variation of this before—cell phones, or the internet, or computers, or television, are making things worse. As usual, it’s wrong.
Granted, smartphone abuse is a real thing—according to one study, 72 percent of Americans said they’re within five feet of their mobile devices at all times, and 9 percent said they used their phone during sex. In another survey, 51 percent of UK residents said they experience “extreme tech anxiety” when they’re separated from their phones. And common activities like texting or using social media trigger our brains’ dopamine and opioid receptors in much the same way narcotics do, meaning you can really be “addicted” to Facebook. But while it’s certainly reasonable to argue that we should draw the line somewhere—tweeting while driving is clearly dangerous, for instance—it’s not clear where that line should be.
Consider some familiar scenarios, some of which crop up in deGuzman’s film: you’re at a concert, or a restaurant, or a sporting event, and you take your phone out to take a photo or a video or send out a Tweet or Facebook status. OH NO YOU ARE MISSING OUT ON THE WONDERFUL EXPERIENCE OF BEING WITH OTHER HUMANS!
Yeah, right—have you met most people? They’re boring as shit. More likely, you are avoiding an awkward or boring conversation by checking your phone, or you’re communicating with those you’d actually like to talk to. Before smartphones, people dealt with these situations by drinking too much, pretending to be interested in someone, or just staring at the clock until the party was over. We’re not missing much if we duck into our phones instead.
Over the next month, in celebration of the forthcoming release of Tao Lin’s latest novel, Taipei, we will be featuring a weekly selection of photos taken by the author during his recent trip to Taipei, Taiwan. While there, he took thousands of pictures with his iPhone, pictures which he has divided into albums titled things like “Taipei fashion,” “Taipei carbs,” “Taipei babies,” and “Taipei animals,” among others. The images were taken between January and February 2013 during one of his semiannual visits to the Taiwanese capital, where his parents live.
This week’s photos are named after a term* in Taiwan, which Tao’s mom says she first heard on TV, for people who seem unable to stop looking at their phones while in public.
All photos and captions by Tao Lin.
*literal translation from Mandarin is something like “head-lowered [‘group’ or ‘troupe’].”
Taipei will be released on June 4 from Vintage and is available for pre-order now. To read an early excerpt from the novel that we published in 2011 titled “Relationship Story,” click here.
This woman is staring at her Samsung Galaxy thinking, What am I trying to look at? what is my finger wanting to push? The screen is black.
The teenager with white shoes is trying to convince himself that no one can see what he’s looking at and that, even if they could, he shouldn’t feel embarrassed, or whatever, because he’s only, at the moment, looking at his Gmail account. The man in the red-striped shirt is trying to cancel his Boingo account for what must be, he thinks, the 20th time, or something insane like that, in probably not even a full year.
This man is rereading an article titled “CNET Asia’s Top 10 phones.” His LG Optimus G is ranked number seven. He doesn’t know how he feels about this. Being worse than six phones, on a list of ten phones, seems bad, but being listed at all—how many phones are there? hundreds? thousands?—seems good.
An Interview with Jerky Boys Creator Johnny Brennan
My parents still don’t know why I turned out the way I did, but one man deserves at least 30 percent of the credit (or blame): Johnny Brennan, creator of the Jerky Boys.
In early 1994, I bought a copy of the now classic prank phone call album The Jerky Boys on cassette at the now sadly-defunct Just Music in Longview, Washington and when the album was done playing I was a changed young man. That evening during my nightly argument with my old man about my “attitude,” I had a secret weapon he didn’t know about: Frank Rizzo.
But the Jerky Boys were not only a good offense against the evil forces of Mommy and Daddy, they were the perfect brand of comedy for anyone who had a slightly anarchistic sense of humor. Brennan and his sidekick Kamal Ahmed elevated prank phone calls to the level of theater, thanks to such memorable characters as the neurotic Sol Rosenberg, the flamboyantly gay Jack Tors, crotchety old coot Kissel, and other misfits. This was hilarious shit and soon it was pure Jerkymania all across America.
Eventually the hype died down, Kamal (who voiced the characters Tarbash, Kissel, and a few others, such as the memorable Curly G.) left in the late 90s and Brennan focused more on doing voices for Family Guy. But you can’t keep a good prankster down and now Brennan and his characters are back and making brand new calls that will soon be released on The Jerky Boys website. Brennan has also kept the Jerky Boys brand going with a great podcast on iTunes, interacting with fans and discussing the background behind some of the classic Jerky calls. Brennan recently made one of his first live appearances at Gotham Comedy Club in Chelsea, dazzling rabid Jerky Boys fans with stories from behind the prank call trenches. I got him on the phone (naturally) and we discussed it all—the assnecks, the pissclams, chocolate juice, lamby nipple chops with minty pickled sour sauce; the whole enchilada, tough guy.
VICE: So you just did your first live gig last week? Tell me about that.
Johnny Brennan: Yeah, it was great. Doing it live, it’s a completely different form of comedy. I noticed when I started doing the podcast that the fans really enjoyed the behind the scenes stories from their favorite calls, like for example finding out who Brett Weir really was. The calls are so legendary now that people just really love finding out the stories behind them. So I just figured instead of doing a podcast from my studio at home, why not just go out and interact with people live? It’s really cool.
It’s hard to believe were coming up on the 20th anniversary of the release of the first album. The Jerky characters are now almost like best friends to fans.
Well, yeah, but remember the bootlegs had been around for years, going back to the late 70s, early 80s. Before it was released in 1993, it already had a long track record. The New York Times called it the largest bootleg in history, and then when the album came out it still sold millions and millions of copies. And I got direct from the horse’s mouth why that happened — people told me “Johnny, dude, we are so glad we can finally buy these calls on CD because our cassettes that we’ve passed around for eons are completely destroyed.” Back then all you had were cassettes and when I made some of those original cuts, CDs weren’t even invented yet. So people passed those tapes around for years and played the shit out of them so much that they were ruined, so when all those bootlegged calls like “Auto Mechanic” or “Sol’s Eyeglasses” were finally released on CD, people were just so freakin’ happy.
And now you’re releasing new calls on your website every month?
Right, they’re called the Jerky Boys Six-Pack. I tried to get the ball rolling in May but I had a couple of legal issues I had to take care of, but they’ll be coming. They will be five brand new calls and then one classic Jerky Boys call where I give commentary over it.
Stop Sexting and Visit VICE.com on Your Cell Phone
Up until today, the only things that fancy internet phones were especially good at were sending pictures of your genitals to someone you just met and finding butt-buddies on Grindr. Really tough questions that only VICE could answer, like how to rub one out at work or what it is like to be at the Westminster Dog Show on acid, were left a complete mystery when you were wandering around the city away from your desktop computer. Sure, you could visit VICE.com on your phone back then, but it was a little hard to get around. Well, all that has changed because we’ve just optimized VICE.com for your mobile viewing pleasure. So, after you finish doing stupid things with that miniature-microwave you hold up to your head all day—like text your mom an emoticon or order a cheeseless pizza—you can check out all of the great articles and videos we post on VICE.com in a super neat and organized format. You’ll never have a hard time finding the “The Westminster Dog Show… On Acid” or instructions on “How to Jerk Off at Work” again. Huzzah!