in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Thingdom: the thing is king (and the king is a thing)

So you paid your money to get into a ‘nightclub’. Sexy boys, screaming bitches, sweaty bodies. Life, heat, movement. Right? But when you got there, it was something else…there were all these weedy, unfriendly guys hanging around, arms crossed and heads nodding, whispering in each other’s ears. Oh dear, you’ve found yourself at Club Sausage. How did that happen? How does this happen? And not just to nights, but to whole musical genres, whole scenes? Whodunnit? What made the sausage sizzle flag, then sag? The nerds did. The otaku. And their infernal equipment.

What’s an otaku? I think William Gibson’s description sums this up nicely (and I think he’d love that I swiped this off wikipedia in five seconds). An otaku is a Japanese word for nerd, that can be roughly translated as a 'pathological-techno-fetishist-with-social-deficit'. But who are these otaku? What do they want? And what do they get out of their obsession? How does it start? And what are the side-effects? It’s not the equipment they want – at first. At first they want to capture ‘it’, ‘the thing’. Or to become something. They think, ‘I want to be an (insert equipment-mediated hobby here) enthusiast’. A connoisseur. An expert. So in the first phase, there is the ideal, and then there is ‘the thing’ that can be had through it… but then there is ‘the equipment’ that helps you get the thing. Otaku start with some idea or ideal they want to capture (or maybe it’s just the idea of capturing, again and again) but somehow, they end up totally focussed on the means of capturing it. Obsessing over the equipment. And then relating to other otaku through the equipment. Then, after a while, ‘it’ is never even mentioned, it’s just presumed, a background. Eventually… maybe the thing is no longer necessary, or just so obvious it doesn’t even need mentioning. And then, further along, what happens is that the equipment itself becomes the thing. You end up using microscopes to analyse microphones. Maybe that’s when you’ve really got a sausage club on your hands, when you get a bunch of guys who no longer even remember the thing. They just want to exist in the land of the best possible equipment. Like those men who don’t even take photographs anymore. They just collect cameras.

There’s that old phrase that ‘the difference between the men and the boys is the price of their toys’, but I think this misses something fundamental, something that only becomes clear once you put it up next to that other shopworn phrase ‘money is no object’ and make it rub up against a third sentiment, which can be most clearly expressed with the following phrase: ‘I like nice equipment.’ But otaku don’t just like ‘nice equipment’, they identify with it. Truly. Madly. Deeply. IT nerds relate much better to (and through) computers than they can to people. Sad but true. To them, computers are somehow warmer, zanier, cuter and funnier than people. They hum you calm. That’s why electronic music is always threatening to ‘turn sausage’ on you, because, well, it is the sound of ‘nice equipment’, a way of comparing the sounds of equipment, through sound equipment, with sound equipment. But maybe all music (asides from a capella choirs) is susceptible to this, can all become another sausage club victim. Anything involving men and equipment is always threatening to turn sausage.

Of course there are female otaku, too, but for most women, relating to other people is about, well, just that. Relating to people is actually about relating to other people. But, in a way that most of the women I know find baffling, or maybe just a little bit sad, for the otaku, relating to people is just another way of relating to equipment. Or maybe it’s just that they’re unable to do anything else. In then end, there is only the hum of equipment. And this is actually something the otaku finds deeply comforting.

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PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.