These Kids Today

By | Friday, December 15, 2023 2 comments
I generally like Jeff Stahler's Moderately Confused comic strip, but when he dips into "things used to be better back in my day" themes like these from the past week or so...
... it absolutely makes me cringe. I get that these comics are primarily for a newspaper audience, which skews older, but I tend to find jokes like these fall flat. I can't recall the last time I got an instruction manual that wasn't a pamphlet that said either "follow the instructions on the app" or "follow the instructions from this video [insert URL]". So to use that as a joke, as if it's strange or unusual, just points to the individual as out of touch. It's not clever or novel that a manual would say the equivalent of "YouTube it" because they almost literally do. It's not clever to suggest an app being sold as "easy" is in fact more complicated than just calling in an order -- it's how/why the "none pizza with left beef" became a joke/meme back in 2007.

The problem is that Stahler here is not making observations on how things have changed because the changes are so old as to be obvious. It's like trying to make a joke about how much less pollution there would be once everybody switches from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles. It's not ironic after more than a century of hindsight. (If you're not aware, automobiles were marketed in the early part of the 20th century as helping to cut down on pollution because their widespread use would mean less horse manure in the streets. While cars did indeed cut down on horse manure in the streets, their proliferation has obviously had a greater impact on pollution levels.) These types of jokes only work when you take the current changes taking place to an extreme or absurd conclusion. But if you're already living in an era where that extreme conclusion has already occurred, you're just pointing out the status quo and not in a clever or novel manner.

Stahler doesn't rely on these types of jokes as a matter of course; that's why I've only got three examples from the past few weeks of his strip. And he's certainly not the only newspaper cartoonist to make these types of "jokes." It just so happens that today's strip falls into that category very strongly, after a previous one from Tuesday that also did. You don't see these types of attempts at humor in webcomics, I think, primarily because webcomikers tend to skew a bit younger and don't have the context to have seen those changes take place. How many under-30s have ever ordered a pizza without using an app?

For Stahler, maybe these are new experiences for him; I believe he's in his late 60s and, coupled with decades of a freelancer's lifestyle, he's probably not as likely to be on top of how technological changes have restructured day-to-day living for the average person in the US (currently, the median is 39 years old). So I don't begrudge him for thinking that these concepts are new; there's a good chance they are for him. But observational humor doesn't work as well when your point of observation is increasingly further away from most people's.
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I thought the mirror one was sad, but I laughed at "YouTube it" and nodded at the pizza one—I have recently gotten manuals that were basically the warranty details and everything else was a link. I'm trying to think of what I got that when I opened it, a tiny piece of paper fluttered out and pointed me to a site—no documentation, even the slightest. (Although my favorite in the last couple year was one that the referred to the Nixies. The documentation was original in Chinese and their translation software/site chose Nixie, the ancient super-cool now-hipster bulb style, instead of…LED.) We also often call restaurants these days. Some ask us to call for a better price because they pay so much to DoorDash and GrubHub even for pick-ups!

I may, in fact, be the target audience of Stahler, dang it!

The clearly-translated-from-another-language instructions are always funny because of the absurdities they sometimes come up with. But I would caveat that it's the juxtaposition of specific discordant wording that makes them funny (as is the case in your nixie example) and not just poor translations generally. "All your base are belong to us" was funny in 1991 mostly because it was novel at the time, but not so much in 2023. The humor works when the object of the humor is the complexity of the language itself and how a seemingly minor mis-translation can radically change the meaning (e.g. I'm recalling a TV commercial from a couple decades back when a foreign-born NBA player was hawking razors and said "I am no longer irritating" instead of "My skin is no longer irritated") and not the simple act of translating something poorly (e.g. any old example in media of someone using Pidgin English).

As far as just calling a restaurant or whomever up vs using an app, I appreciate how/why calling is better in a lot of respects, but I frequently run up against communication challenges because of the poor fidelity of phone lines. I can't tell you the number of times when whoever answered the phone mixed up "no mayo" with "no tomato" or some other set of near-homophones. I 100% don't like the added complexity (and the corporate grifting!) that occurs with app ordering, but I definitely have a greater success rate in getting what I actually ordered!

But I do wish that was the intention of the changes and not just an accidental side-effect.