Not-so-common knowledge
Nov. 7, 2011
by Ivan Raconteur

My cultural references are fading.

I was reminded of this recently when I had a dream about a bad (evil, not incompetent) scientist who was developing life-like robots with artificial intelligence to commit crimes for him. This would be prime material for a made-for-TV movie or an extended episode of a comedy or crime drama.

In the dream, I became part of the action. It took place on and near the ocean. I was on a boat with Gilligan and The Skipper. I didn’t like that connection, because I figured it meant I had some kind of skill that would be useful for plot gags, but was not smart enough to be a threat to the bad guys.

That is the kind of reference to which I refer. I have been realizing lately that an increasing percentage of the population has no idea who Gilligan or The Skipper are, or any other characters from that era, for that matter.

I love talking to young people – those under about age 30. I have discovered that I can regale them with tales of our adventures in the olden days, you know, back before everyone had cell phones and laptops (when a laptop meant the front of your britches, where a cat might curl up for a nap, rather than an electronic device).

They love it when I tell them about some of the programs we watched or about the crazy old ways of doing things.

For example, if we wanted more than one copy of a document, we had to put carbon paper between sheets of paper in our typewriter, and if we made a mistake, we had to use correction tape, and go back and re-type the mistake before typing the correct characters and moving on.

Oh, we do laugh, my young friends and I, when I tell them stories like that. They think I am talking about some kind of black magic, rather than common office supplies.

People younger than a certain age have no idea what one is talking about if one mentions carrying phone change. Some of them have never even seen a phone booth, and have no idea why one would pay to use one.

If you want to really hear a young person howl, tell them about how phones used to have dials. They love that kind of thing.

Young people think it is quaint when you tell them about writing notes.

Back in the ancient times, if we wanted to communicate with a cute girl during class, the only way to send her a text message was to get out a sheet of paper and a pen, write down the message, fold the paper to make it aerodynamic, and throw it to her when the teacher wasn’t looking.

That kind of story is just a stitch to those who have grown up in the age of electronics. It surprises them to learn that we actually had books in school in those days, and the words weren’t written on animal skins or chiseled into rock tablets.

There are a lot of things about our school days that young people find entertaining.

They laugh like hyenas when one explains how, if a teacher wanted to show a movie in class, instead of popping in a DVD or streaming it on the computer, they had to wheel in a clunky old projector, feed an actual film through the mechanism, and hope the sound track lined up with the picture. Then, they had to pull down a screen on which to display the film. It was primitive.

There are all sorts of cultural references, from the things we did, to the shows we watched, to the products we used, that are part of our shared cultural experience – except that not all members of the population share that same experience.

One has to be increasingly aware of this as one gets older. If one is talking to a younger person and gets a blank stare while one is telling a story, it may mean that another cultural reference has gone straight over the head of the audience, like a flock of geese heading south.

When this happens, one has to patiently go back and explain what one was talking about before moving on.

Of course, that blank stare could mean that the person was listening to his iPod or Bluetooth device, and not paying attention to one at all, in which case the best thing to do is hit him with one’s cane to get his attention.

Getting back to this dream I had, the good guys eventually foiled the bad guys, and the crime spree was neatly resolved in the time allowed.

For those who really don’t know, Gilligan and The Skipper were a couple of inept sailors (that is, they were characters in a television situation comedy) who, along with five other castaways, had to find ways to survive on a tropical island while trying to get back to civilization.

By the way, the first season of that show was filmed in black-and-white. There was actually a time when TVs did not have color pictures. How crazy is that?

It is a wonder we survived.

I suppose I will eventually have to update my cultural references to match my audience, but one thing is clear; like common sense, common knowledge isn’t as common as it used to be.

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