Walking away empty

Meeting someone that you admire is an interesting experience. I’ve been in that position twice in the last couple of months and it got me thinking about what it means.

In civilisations that existed before the advent of mediated communication, it is likely that the vast majority of the people that you knew existed were people you came into physical contact with. Maybe you’d heard the name and reputation of an opposing tribal leader or a famous bounty hunter, but that was probably it. Today things are much different. Without knowing the statistics, it seems that we become aware of the existence of more new people in a mediated way than we do by meeting someone in person like we might at work or at a party.

This is certainly not a new phenomenon, but it is profound and has broad repercussions. In the mediated era, technological advances have made possible an incredible atomisation of fame or recognition. In the beginning of both television and radio, the amount of voices that were shared was necessarily more limited than we have access to now through more egalitarian systems like the internet. This meant that these voices needed to be broader and appeal to a wider cross-section of the public. The internet has meant that a single person writing from a kitchen about a niche topic can build an audience and some level of popularity or notoriety.

It seems to me that meeting someone you respect or admire is generally considered something interesting, cool or inspiring. I think that’s a good place from which to start coming to terms with the experience, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. I’m going to describe my two stories not so much as brushes with fame but as personal interactions with a previously mediated identity. Neither of these people are famous by traditional definitions, but both have substantial respect and notoriety in their given niches, both of which I was deeply interested in.

The first was an interaction I had with a gentleman by the name of Horace Dediu, a writer and analyst best known for his work on his website Asymco. He primarily writes about the way the technology business works. His writing has significantly impacted the way I think about the devices we all use everyday. He came to Melbourne as part of a recent string of speaking engagements and I took the afternoon off work to attend.

After the talk had finished, he stayed behind for a while to talk to audience members. I considered leaving straight away, but i didn’t. I paced around awkwardly for a while before being the last person to approach him. We spoke briefly about the content of the presentation. I thanked him for visiting Melbourne for the first time, then I shook his hand and left.

My other meeting was with a hip-hop producer by the name of Marco Polo. He’s a Canadian beatmaker who has been responsible for some of my favourite hip-hop albums of the past few years. He’s taken the classic New York hip-hop blueprint and somehow made it harder and more cinematic at the same time.

I was thrilled to hear that he was doing a record signing at Obese Records in Prahran, so I made sure I had my vinyl copy of one of the albums in my backpack. I hung out in the store for a little bit, got a few things signed and asked some questions I had on my mind about what he’d been working on. He told a few stories about things that were coming up and some projects that never quite materialised. It was cool.

The thing about these meetings is I always find they are a little bit anti-climatic or somehow unsatisfying. On both occasions I couldn’t have realistically expected either interaction to go any better than they did, but after you shake their hand and say thank you, it’s a pretty jarring feeling. It’s over. You go back onto the street you were on before you had met them. You’re the same person, living the same life. None of their fairy dust rubs off. I’m not a better writer or producer because I met either of these two people.

It’s an expectation problem. I don’t think I’m alone in this when I say that some part of me envisions this utterly implausible scenario whereby I ask a few questions and they say ‘hey, you’re a smart guy, let’s get a drink and plan something we can work on together.’ But they aren’t going to discover you. They aren’t going to be your friend or your pen pal. It’s like the old dream where the band comes to town and the lead guitarist gets sick, so they call you in because you know how to play all the songs. It’s a preposterous projection, but because of our media we feel like we know these people. At the same time it seems underwhelming when someone you perceive as some sort of superhero is just a regular person who needs someone to go to the shop to get them cigarettes while they sign stuff.

They couldn’t possibly be anything else but normal humans. Why would we imagine anything but that way? But it happens.

I thoroughly enjoyed both of the encounters I’ve discussed in this piece, but found that there is something fundamentally empty about the whole experience. As hard as we might try to convince ourselves otherwise, we do not know these people. In reality, they are barely more than strangers to us. But when we hear their voices, see their faces and read their words, we are convinced that they are like us. It’s either a damning indictment on the banality of real life or a revealing insight into the power that mediated identities can exert.

Maybe someday the majority of the audience of this site will know me not as a physical presence but as a mediated identity. There might be a person who paces around a room I’m in nervously, not sure whether to approach me and say hello. If I see that happen, I’ll write about it. It’ll be interesting to see what it’s like on the other side of the river.