I once read that in a single year, California changed the nature of America more than any state ever has, maybe more than all the rest put together.
It goes something like this: from the beginning, America was seen as a land of freedom and opportunity. Any peon could leave Europe, start out here with nothing and make their way in America if they kept their noses clean and worked hard at it. Ben Franklin personified this dream, and long-etched into the national memory was the image of him entering Philadelphia alone, owning nothing he didn’t carry, before starting the career that would carry him to great heights. For the first couple hundred years, this Puritan heritage dominated. People went early to bed and saved their pennies to earn them.
Then out of nowhere, Mexico threw the Southwest at us, we signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo for it in 1848, and the California gold rush started in earnest in ’49.
“There’s gold in them there hills,” and though you might have to work extremely hard to get it, one good nugget or a couple months panning in the right spot and you’d be set for life. Forget the pennies. It wasn’t just California, and it wasn’t just gold, but the get-rich-quick dream for the common person had its roots there.
To some extent, and much greater than the first, this American dream is still with us today. In the post-Civil War boom, any immigrant child could envision growing up to be another Andrew Carnegie. The stock market, investments, oil wells, inventions, start-up companies – often very literal gambles, but the payoff was to be taken care of for life, or even one of the richest people in the nation. Prosperity was one idea away if you knew what to do and how to do it.
I haven’t heard it said, but I say that some time in the 1910s, California gave birth to a third dream, the one most feel today: the dream of fame. Forever children had wanted to be kings and princesses; now thanks to Hollywood, you could grow to be so on the silverscreen.
Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Clark Gable – they were famous. For doing something, granted, for being exceptional in some way, but no longer being exceptional in a meaningful or productive way. People like Henry Ford and Audie Murphy still accomplished worthwhile things and were well-known, but for how they presented themselves, not what they did, and their celebrity was no different than someone who could tap-dance well.
Television brought fame home, and though the size of the screen shrunk, the room for people in it expanded. Not so the standards.
Reality television has prided itself in the exploration of the ordinary, but game shows weren’t considerably different in this regard. In both we want to see people “just like us.” Celebrity remained the ideal, but the requirement of accomplishment fell away and celebrity existed for itself.
Whether it’s a new dream or just a fulfillment of the old one, I won’t even bother to guess, but through Silicon Valley, California gave us all the ability to be famous for nothing. Stupidly swinging around a microphone-stand and falling, lip-syncing a song, having a sex-tape leaked, making a general buffoon of yourself. Talented people can advertise themselves as well, but even embarrassing attention has stopped being unwelcome. That’s the gift of the Internet, of Google, Yahoo!, YouTube, that any person anywhere can be famous for anything.
Dreams never are wholly or universally true, but our aspirations do shape our accomplishments. I am, no doubt, being melodramatic, but sometimes I am legitimately frightened of what the future holds.
I can’t desire anything more than being famous, yet I’m of the last generation to remember life without the Web. How will they dream to be more than being a fad or meme?
I wake up in a cold sweat having seen the place I’ll grow old in.