We have seen the future and it is random.
We used to think it was whatever, but somewhere between the Y2K crisis, which never arrived, and the 9/11 one, which did, our lives went from whatever to random.
As usual, realization of this surfaced first among social critics recently liberated from the psychic carapace of middle school:
"Did you see that outfit she was wearing? That was so random!"
"Who invited those random kids to this party?"
"I never watch the news on TV. It's too, like, random."
Indeed it is. As are the data blizzards that assault us daily, the crimes that stalk our neighborhoods, the technologies that provide us solutions to problems we don't have, and the autistic spasms of our educational system. We're talking cultural fragmentation here.
It is not entirely clear just when our children became so overwhelmed by the randomness of the stimuli assaulting them that they selected "random" as their adjective of choice. Patrick Welsh, who teaches English to seniors at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, says "random" appeared atop the teen lexicon there about three years ago. That time frame mirrors its reported employment at other schools in the Washington area. Its use is now so widespread, Welsh says, that "I started a campaign against it. The kids will say, 'That was so random!' where we adults might say, 'That was serendipitous.' "
But he concedes that while "serendipitous" means finding something good in a chance or associated event, "random" is value-neutral.
"It's actually rather specific the way students use it," he says. "They throw it around a great deal, but it doesn't seem to have gotten watered down" in meaning the way slang terms like "funky," "cool" and "groovy" have in the past.
It would seem there's a reason for this: "The brightest of the bright kids are the ones who tend to use it," Welsh says.
Just how widespread such a usage is outside the Washington area is difficult to say. A California linguistics scholar named Tom Dalzell reports four citations for "random" so far in the database for the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English scheduled for publication in 2005. The earliest dates from a college undergraduate slang study conducted at Brown University in 1968, another year of extremely random events. Other citations document the word's usage at the University of North Carolina in 1982, on college campuses generally in 1993 and in the very California 1995 movie "Clueless." ( "She met some random guys at the Foot Locker and escorted them right over there.") Some scholars, reached via a linguistics e-mail network, report the usage was old hat in Chicago by 1995, but it is still hot among eighth-graders outside Seattle.
American popular culture is one whose very patternlessness is its only pattern. "Reality" shows? Trash sports? Sensitivity police? Is there any wonder we have an art enclave in Florida known as the Randomists?
Think politically. What could be more random than the California gubernatorial contest -- 135 extremely random candidates competing in a recall election that is itself emblematic of an almost totally unhinged electoral structure: In random we trust.
Think militarily. Once war was a question of invasions, battles and contending states. Now random violence after the war in Iraq has cost us more American lives than full-scale battles did during it. Terrorism is random violence by definition, whether in the Middle East or via sniper in West Virginia or the Washington suburbs.
Marshall Crook of Alexandria, a junior at the College of William & Mary, describes the slang use of "random" among his friends as "an expression of the confusion of surprise." Or vice versa. It also, he says, describes the sudden appearance of something in an unfamiliar context, or perhaps no context at all.
That concept is reinforced by random's use -- documented on the Internet by the online Surrealist Teen Lingo Dictionary -- as an exclamation of surprise: "Hey, random!"
God knows we have had enough surprises and unusual contexts in recent years, ranging (randomly) from the world of Steve Spurrier to that of Osama bin Laden. It's no wonder we needed to find a term for all that. But consider the term we've chosen.
Random is the flip side of that favorite slang term of post-World War II adolescent Americans: "neat." "Neat" was the achievement (or at least appearance) of order and symmetry in one's personal life equivalent to the butch haircuts, trimmed lawns and squared corners evanescent in 1950s public life. No loose ends left dangling. A well-tuned 1955 Chevrolet was "neat" in part because nothing about it had been left to chance.
"Random," on the other hand, recognizes that chance is the only mechanic doing tuneups these days -- on Chevys or anything else. It's a term more observational than disapproving. In fact, unlike the dismissive "whatever," which appears to accept chaos as the norm, "random" suggests that whoever employs the term in its 2003 slang usage has some awareness, however dim, of a "neat," non-random, world existing sometime, somewhere -- maybe in the distant past, perhaps in another dimension.
Maybe that was when we taught our history in the form of narrative rather than an assemblage of social trends and statistics. Maybe that was when our popular music had melody as well as rhythm. Maybe that was when we ordered society by manners and the world by power. It wasn't always laudable, but at least we understood the context.
How random was that?