How we’ve privatized discovery and celebration

The movie “The Right Stuff” depicts the beginnings of America’s space program. Among its many wonderful qualities, the film conveys the sense of shared public excitement and wonder about the space age.

Each new space mission was an event. In homes and in schools, and even in front of department store windows displaying shiny new TVs, people gathered to watch news coverage of blast offs, orbits, and capsule landings into the sea.

Gaga over smart phones

We have no equivalent of that experience today.

Instead, we’re treated to orchestrated roll outs of the latest smart phones and tablet computers, accompanied by news coverage of people standing in long lines at electronic stores in hopes of plunking down credit cards to snag the new gadgetry.

Nowadays, rather than looking to the skies and wondering what it must be like to circle the planet in a space capsule, people are texting away madly on their phones while others try to avoid running into them on the sidewalks.

Entertainment, too

Thirty years ago, I attended a screening of “Singin’ in the Rain” at Theatre 80, a revival movie house in New York’s East Village. I had moved to Manhattan just weeks earlier to attend law school at New York University, and that evening I was desperate for a study break.

I had never before seen this classic film, and I figured that I would be among a few dozen others in search of a late night distraction. But the tiny theatre was packed, and people were clapping and cheering for the best scenes, including Gene Kelly’s iconic title number and Donald O’Connor’s brilliant “Make ‘Em Laugh.”

As each scene unfolded, “Singin’ in the Rain was becoming my favorite movie, and it remains so today.

Pop in that DVD

Today, revival movie theatres are all but gone, having fallen prey to VCRs and later to DVD players and streaming video.

“Singin’ in the Rain” and other great movies are at our fingertips in ways they weren’t in 1982, but watching them at home just isn’t the same kind of experience.

Insularity vs. community

Obsessing over new personalized gadgets instead of fascination with missions into space. Turning on the home entertainment center instead of joining a theatre full of movie buffs to watch an old classic.

We’re retreating into ourselves.

I plead guilty: I have a smart phone and a tablet, and I own a lot of DVDs and subscribe to Netflix. Would I trade them in for a redux of the Gemini space program and a comeback for the revival movie houses?

In a way it’s a silly question. We can’t go back in time on this one. And it would be utterly hypocritical of me to claim that personal access to this technology is undesirable. But I can say unequivocally that it’s more than soggy nostalgia that triggers my lamentations. If we want to rebuild community, it won’t be via our smart phones and DVD players.

-David Yamada

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