What is the Purpose of Life Anyway, or Why I Feel like the Brother of the Guy in The National

Sometimes, I feel like I’m the brother of the lead singer in the alt-rock band The National. He has a beard, I have a beard. (Well, sometimes. And by “sometimes” I mean often.) He has made a movie about how he went on tour as an assistant tour manager. I feel like I’m also a bystander, covering things with a casual bipartisan interest. We’re both members of the crowd, linked in an inextricable way to something famous and unattainable.

Just today I talked to an engineer from a company called Detroit Electric. It’s not a utility. They’re making a sports car that can go 190 miles on a charge, which is like having an expensive (and drive-able) smartphone. Brilliance reveals itself in short phrases. The engineer had The Bill Gates Pause where you can almost see neurons connecting inside his head, processing a millions things but only giving you a snippet. They pause because, like God, if they gave us everything at once we would die.

I understand how the brother of the guy in The National feels. You’re sidelined while the superstar gets the attention. The band, quite curiously, has two sets of brothers and then the lead singer. When I read on Pitchfork that the lead singer fully understands he’s the only one with a brother not in the band, I felt a strong pang of recognition. (I will tell you the story of my own brother someday, but it won’t be sarcastic in any way.)

Journalism is about revealing greatness. As writers, we’re not creating as much as divulging. We stand in front of the open window of innovation and say, see – here is a ticket to bountiful.

I went to an event in Las Vegas not long ago where this became strikingly clear. We all struggle with a desire to be famous – that’s why Facebook exists. We have something to say, and we feel other people would be interested in hearing it. I suppose this is what it means to be human, e.g., expressing a desire to be heard. As the film critic Roger Ebert, recently passed, once said: we all have a desire for someone to document us.

The invitation to the event made me think my attendance was a matter of solemn duty. My presence was requested.

I showed up with a friend of mine, perennially positioned as my photographer. We greeted the host and found our place. Within a few minutes, the host said there was someone she wanted me to meet. I told my friend, grab your camera. We chit-chatted for awhile, and – being incapable of being anything but inquisitive, I started asking questions. “Ah, yes. I bet that was a memorable experience.” I jotted down a few notes, then felt a soft tap.

Someone else needed by attention. I felt a glint of import. I rattled through a few more questions; we snapped a few more pictures. Then it hit me. I had not been invited to partake of the event. I had been invited to cover the partakers. I was there to make sure the invited guests felt invited. I was the person doing the covering; I was not the covered.

This can be a difficult role. There is power in the selection process, but it is a limited power. Once, at a car event in LA, I started asking questions about a new model coming out from Nissan. The engineer could tell when I was asking questions that could help him. It was a seven passenger model, something like a minivan but not as ridiculous. So I asked about safety, and legroom, and surround-sound. Then I switched gears. I asked about the molding on the side, the carbon fiber accents – the inner-workings. I had strayed off message. Owing to my penchant to explore something until it is no longer explorable, I had (excuse the pun) driven too far away from the landing site. He cut me off and moved on.

Why is that? Because there is a role to play. In tech journalism in particular, we are not uncovering a secret slavery operation in Congo. We’re not wiretapping for a drug ring. It’s one shiny object after another, strung up on URLs like Christmas lights for a season, only to be removed and replaced by other shiny objects. Make it too ornate and people get confused.

I guess that’s why I do this blog. Granted, part of it is that I can be wholly unedited. There’s freedom in knowing I am not covering anything. At the same time, it is a way to combat the impertinence of reviewing yet another inkjet printer. You can only say so many things about toner cartridges, although I hear Brother International has some big news on that front.

 
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