A few months ago, I overheard some students in one of my college classes refer to the “original six” episodes of Star Wars. I usually try to give students privacy to talk amongst themselves before class but this I couldn’t ignore.
“Did I hear you right?” I asked, “does your generation actually think of Episodes 1-6 as the ‘original’ Star Wars?”
These are 19 and 20-year olds and Episode III came out when they were 4. Of course they only know a world with six original Star Wars movies. I don’t usually feel old, but this struck me. “I remember a world without the internet,” I told them. They laughed.
Do you ever think about that? The internet is really new. But in just a few decades it has radically changed how news travels, how we shop, how we take pictures, and how we consume music, movies, and books. It has also changed how we relate to each other.
I’ll turn 35 this summer, and though I usually don’t care about my birthday, I can’t ignore the significance of turning a number ending in 5 or 0. I’ve experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows of my life since I turned 30. I’m a lot better at many things than I was at 25. I’m more comfortable in my own skin than when I was 20. However I measure things--my age, the internet, or Star Wars movies--I’ve changed and grown over time.
There are many institutions in our lives which help us change, almost always for the better. Family, friends, churches, services organizations, workplaces, schools, sports teams, government, and the media. These things form us into better people, into better communities, and better societies. I worry that the internet is superseding them all; that it's become the singular institution all other things are filtered through.
I’m worried the internet is remaking them all in its own barbaric image, and no, the irony isn’t lost in me that I’m writing to you via the internet and that I’m inviting you to a performance on the internet! Everyone can perform online, and we are often cajoled into performing inauthentically. We say things we wouldn’t say to someone’s face, things like that. It’s like the internet is built to regress our society to its tribal origins.
I worry the internet is turning these important but older institutions into performative, rather than formative ones. I worry that the institutions that have formed me won’t be powerful enough for my college students or for my own toddler. I want to be part of the solution, not the problem. So though I’m performing on the internet, I guarantee you that I’m always trying to be authentic, that I’m trying to build up people around me. Classical music and specifically Mozart happen to be the best way I know to do that right now.
The Sonata I’m getting ready for next week ends with a gigantic set of variations on an original theme. The theme is beautiful, elegant, and luminous. It’s a real challenge for a composer to create variations of the theme that forms it into something new, something even more special than the original. I dare say Mozart dazzles us. Each new variation inspires a new and better path.