Have you ever been sent a link to a New York Times article, and you click it, and it starts to show you the story but then pops up a paywall saying you’ve reached your limit of free articles? And it’s infuriating because you haven’t seen a free article in like four years? So your limit of free articles is apparently zero? Well, I have a solution but you’re not going to like it: just cough up a bunch of money and subscribe to the Times … which I now do.
Well, at least there’s some good stuff in there. I read a fun column titled “Future Cringe: Things We’ll Regret About the Present,” for which they invited a few dozen guests from academia, media, and business—as well as a guest AI “writer”—to weigh in. With this post, I weigh in as well.
Why bother? Well, some of the responses were spot-on, such as how we’ll one day be embarrassed at having overused the word “journey” metaphorically, and at how we did too much with CGI in movies, and how we were generally reckless with our privacy online. But some of the other notions were off-base, like suggesting we’ll be embarrassed about ever having observed daylight saving time (which is in fact a highly useful convention), or about having worn “beanies and workwear because no one’s working and one ones’ that cold” (contributed by a young woman who clearly doesn’t know how cold a balding middle-aged man’s head can get, and is apparently unaware that unemployment is at its lowest rate since 1969). And there’s the poet who wrote “It’s cringe not to have a New York Public Library card in 2023” (i.e., she evidently doesn’t realize most American’s aren’t eligible for this card). So I see room for improvement here. I’ll share my observations, starting, ironically enough, with a few cringe-worthy expressions the Times article’s contributors used.
(Is it okay for me to steal the Times’ concept here? Sure! First of all, they’re not the only ones to have this idea. Second, at least I’m crediting them with the prompt. They may have ripped me off, without crediting me, in their recent article about prepping for a colonoscopy. They suggested mixing the laxative drink mix with a Top Ramen flavor packet … a wacky idea I posted three years ago here. The only difference is I was obviously joking…)
Terms from the column that made me cringe
The phrase “cancel culture” appeared three times in the article. I’m already tired of this phrase, and even the word “cancel” in this context. There’s nothing that new about publicly shaming people; offenders used to be put in stocks. Our generation thinks “cancel culture” sounds clever but it isn’t. We’ll all realize this one day.
Cringe as an adjective: this came up three times too, with the person who said “it’s cringe not to have an NYC library card,” and another saying “professional clothing is … going to be so cringe” and “saying L.G.B.T.Q. is going to become so cringe.” At least the Times, in their introduction, used “cringe” correctly as a verb … why are so many people pretending it’s an adjective?
YOLO: I can’t believe a contributor used this acronym, especially in a column on current cultural trends that won’t stand the test of time. As I described here, the term “YOLO” was embarrassingly passé ten years ago.
My list of what we’ll someday cringe at
For one thing, I’m really tired of the phrase “lean in.” It’s just not that meaningful, and it’s become really trite and arguably patronizing. More than four years ago the Washington Post declared “the end of leaning in” in this article, which challenged Sheryl Sandberg’s overall message to women. The article also noted how, as even the president of LeanIn.org acknowledged, “the phrase ‘lean in’ has been used to mean many things — some of them very far from what Sheryl intended.” And yet I still hear “lean in” all the time. There are muscles in my face that are sore from all the eye-rolling.
Another thing I predict we’ll look back at with embarrassment is the promotion of cannabis like it’s some kind of healthy, holistic, responsible way to self-medicate for anxiety and other ailments. Bay Area freeways are studded with billboards promoting weed like it’s the next big “wellness” thing, like meditation or yoga or “just taking care of yourself.” I sincerely hope future generations return to seeing pot for what it is: a hedonistic drug that dudes like Jeff Spicoli use because they’re young and irresponsible and like to party. Marijuana is not part of a sensible adult lifestyle just because a growing number of states have been foolish enough to legalize it.
Perhaps hand-in-hand with the cannabis lifestyle is all this home food delivery: Uber Eats, Grubhub, DoorDash, etc. Isn’t it bad enough getting takeout because we’re too lazy to cook? Now people are so freaking lazy they can’t even run a 10-minute errand to pick up their food? Is it that their sweatpants are so grubby they’re afraid to be seen in public? Or they can’t find their shoes? Or maybe food delivery is all about catering to people who are too drunk or high to drive? Whatever the case, I find this trend depressing and hope somebody someday asks, “Why did everyone get so lazy back in the ‘20s?”
Moving right along, I really hope we eventually look back and shudder at how we parents have bullied our children into filling up all their time with organized activities designed to look good on college applications. As described here, one silver lining of the COVID pandemic, for my younger daughter, was that with so many formal activities suspended, she finally got to just hang out with her friends, whose schedules had historically been booked solid. Does it need to take a pandemic to free up these poor kids’ afternoons?
In a similar vein, perhaps we’ll one day regret, with a pang, pushing so many kids into STEM. As I’ve explored at length here, much of the hype around tech—and the antipathy toward more traditional fields—is inaccurate. STEM grads don’t earn considerably more money, and a study conducted by the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics found that tech doesn’t actually employ more of the workforce than it did 20 years ago, and its share of the job market isn’t expected to significantly grow.
On a lighter note, perhaps Americans will eventually wince at the silliness of how automakers market their vehicles, with brands nested inside brands, e.g., AMC Jeep Cherokee Renegade Sport Unlimited. Do we humans really respond to that? Like, I’m supposed to feel better about my truck because it’s the Sport edition? Or the Unlimited? What does Unlimited even mean here? If my Jeep Cherokee is also a Renegade, does that make me even cooler?
Vitamin water has got to go. The idea that people are vitamin deficient is arguably bogus, whereas drinking one’s calories is an unequivocally bad idea and a huge part of our obesity crisis. At least if we renamed it “Stupid Water” people might not have to ask later, “What the hell were we thinking?”
Another behavior we’ll probably cringe at in retrospect is this trend of grown men and women zipping around on electric Razor scooters. Come on, people. Have some dignity.
Now, as I’ve argued before in these pages, anyone who uses a Keurig ought to be ashamed of himself. What a joke those things are. I hope everyone grasps that eventually, and the Keurig goes the way of those Space Food Sticks from the ‘70s.
Now, the next cultural circumstance I’ll mention isn’t exactly ubiquitous, but it does crop up from time to time: people who apparently cannot conceive of the reality that not everyone uses an iPhone. Someone will tell me, “Just get it from the App Store,” and I’ll say, “Is there an Android version?” and then I just get this blank stare of disbelief, as though I’d just said, “I don’t actually have any sex organs.”
Speaking of tech, this brings me to my final prediction/hope: that one day we will be duly embarrassed by our current infatuation with A.I. It’s become impossible to look at a newspaper or magazine, or even have a conversation, without somebody raving about the latest, greatest A.I., particularly (as of this week) CHATGPT. In fact, one of the contributors to the Times article about future cringe was the CHATGPT chatbot, which wrote:
Overreliance on technology: Our overdependence on smartphones, social media and other digital devices will likely look outdated in a few years as new technologies emerge.
Man, this is just classic A.I. bullshit. At first glance, it seems impressive that it’s a fairly legit sentence, grammatically, and is pretty much on topic. But the statement isn’t persuasive in the least. It begins to assert that we are overly dependent on digital technology, but then instead of supporting this idea it wanders off into a pointless generality about new technologies improving on old ones. I mean, what technology doesn’t look outdated when it’s replaced by something newer? Isn’t that exactly what it means to be outdated? The statement is tautological and conveys nothing of value. It doesn’t deserve to be quoted in the Times, and in general I’m still unimpressed by A.I’s writing “ability.” Of course, with A.I. we might get off easy if one day we just look back with embarrassment. A.I. could end up doing a lot more damage than vitamin water, Grubhub, and “lean in.”