Peak Reference -- The Point At Which We Can't Cram Anymore References Into Our Head -- Is Coming
I didn’t see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off until two years ago when I finally stuck it in the Netflix queue and then after a few weeks of ignoring it, stuck the DVD in the player. I didn’t see Weird Science until 1997. Breakfast Club the same year. That Buzzfeed quiz floating around asking how many eighties movies you’d seen so that you can justify the fact that you were alive in a particular random ten year subset of time? I only got a twenty or so on that quiz, and it was only that high because of the efforts of a few franchises: Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, Star Trek, Star Wars, and Sylvester Stallone.
Here’s the interesting part of it though: it was very difficult for me to parse out exactly which movies I’ve seen, and which ones I just know everything about. Footloose? I don’t have the slightest clue if I’ve actually seen that movie. But I know who’s in it, can quote a few random lines from it, generally recall several of the more memorable scenes, can give what sounds like an educated opinion on it, and would instantly know what it was if it happened to be on television while I was flipping channels. But for all that, I’m not entirely sure that I’ve ever actually seen it, so much as picked up everything relevant about it from the cultural osmosis of television and Internet.
There are dozens of films like that on the list. And I know for a fact that I haven’t seen the great majority of them. And I also know that twenty years ago, I didn’t have these unconscious culturally acquired false memories of them. Because, and I will let you in on a secret completely impossible for you to guess from your exposure to me on the Internet, I have been deeply uncool for the entirety of my life. References never made sense to me. Other people would make them when I was in junior high, usually about whatever edgy television show that I wasn’t allowed to watch. I didn’t get the jokes. I didn’t get the euphemisms. Sometimes I’d try to mimic the patterns of the jokes, because I didn’t always understand that they were just quoting something and I thought they were making them up on their own, and that I just didn’t get why it was funny. That backfired badly, as desperation often does.
Something changed though. It’s possible that it’s just that I grew up and figured out what everyone else did when they were twelve, but I think the Internet is at least part of it, the endless cavalcade of denser and denser references, matching video clips, the ability to synthesize a thing without actually experiencing it. When someone drops a reference that you don’t get, what do you do now? Google, click the Wikipedia link, maybe watch an obvious clip from YouTube, and boom, as quick as a bathroom intermission, you can mimic expertise in the conversation you paused.
Walk into a college classroom to give a lecture (I’d recommend being a professor first, you get in less trouble) and start dropping references to eighties movies. They laugh. They get the references. And they’re not just being polite. That’s not a thing. Why do a bunch of nineteen year olds get references from movies that were already a decade old when they were born? I didn’t even get those references at that age, and I lived through that decade and those movies. I probably could have listed five movies from the 1970s when I was a freshman in college, which is roughly the equivalent time period. These kids, they’re absorbing our culture, mimicking our references, slowly becoming sentient.
What we’re working towards is a plateau, a point of peak reference. That’s the point at which we can’t actually cram anymore references into our heads. When the last several decades all become one enormous synthesized mush in our brains. Mixed metaphors? We’ll be mixing references six layers deep in every sentence.
And it will be gorgeous.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.