Saturday, July 23, 2011

Not Quite An Addiction

It was about three weeks ago that I discovered the Cedar Point webcams.

I've felt compelled to check on them at least a couple of times a day ever since.

I'm not sure why but here are a few of my favorite hypotheses:

----- The technology fascinates me. I grew up at a time when it took a camera almost the size of a refrigerator to get a grainy black-and-white image to my poor old rabbit ear-equipped Admiral TV. The fact that much smaller cameras are now beaming several different clear color images all day long to a flat screen on top of my desk is amazing. It is perhaps the closest thing we have to the 21st century I imagined as a kid.

----- I've always felt more like an observer of life than a participant. Webcams are my natural environment. Until medical science succeeds in physically turning me into the fly on the wall I've always wanted to be, webcams are probably just about as good as it's going to get for me.

----- What I'm seeing on the Cedar Point webcams seems to me to strike just about the perfect balance between variety and repetition. What I see is always the same, yet it's always different, too. Although I can more or less predict in general what I'm going to be seeing next, precise prediction always eludes me. And unlike when I flip around my cable channels, I'm not likely to see anything shocking or repulsive or painfully false - or anything calculated to separate me from my money. (It's SO nice to be able to look at a video screen and not have to worry about a gun or a car chase or a pitch for a new miracle drug suddenly forcing its way into my eyes.)

----- I feel as if there's a lot to be learned from what I'm seeing - if only I can train my mind to look in the right way.

That last point might be the one that's most responsible for my returning to those images, again and again and again. Watching masses of people unself-consciously pass by as they go about their lives without knowing that they're being watched provides amateur sociologists like me with huge of amounts of data to analyze and possibly learn from. I've long ago given up on learning a damn thing from the speeches of our politicians; maybe - just maybe - counting up the most popular color tops people are wearing this season will prove to be far more educational.

And of course on the other end of the spectrum, far away from the wisdom one might possibly glean from minutia lies the wisdom one might be able to glean from the broad patterns and deeper rhythms that govern our lives (often without our even knowing it). There is, for example, the way about the same number of people seem to go to the park every day even though we can safely assume each person (or small group) is acting as a more or less independent agent. I bet the managers can predict park attendance with an uncanny accuracy even though they have virtually no communication with any of the people who are coming. How exactly does that work?

Once you start looking for such patterns, they seem to be everywhere. The rush of people up the midway just after the 10 a.m. opening of the rides is one almost too obvious to mention, but it seems to me to get more mysterious - not less - upon reflection. Why more or less the same number of people in the rush every day followed by a highly predictable lull? How come there's never a deadly stampede or an opening lull? How does it happen that of all the people who decide to go to Cedar Point on any given day, a certain more or less fixed (and rather small) percentage decide to be part of that opening rush? Or is it less a choice than a matter of luck - of traffic flow and random mood and partner coordination and a whole host of other things we have little power to control?

How is it that different people on different days nonetheless conform to the same patterns of personal space and walking speed and interactions (so different between people who know each other and those who don't)? How does it happen that of all the possible behaviors people *could* engage in as they amble by, only a very, very few behaviors are, in fact, engaged in? (NOTE: Few of them seem to be what one sees in movies set in amusement parks.)

And then, of course, there's the symbolic level above all that; the level that draws comparisons between the waves of people passing by and the waves of water I saw during my recent trip to Lake Erie or the raindrops falling from the sky during yesterday's storm; the level that sees that there's a virtually complete turnover in the people in the frame every 30 seconds and recalls that there's a virtual complete turnover in the people on earth every 100 years....

I personally haven't been to Cedar Point in almost 40 years. Certain changes are apparent to me as I look at the webcam images (though I suspect that they've occurred too slowly for anyone to have noticed them as they unfolded year by year).

Here are two photo I found from what I estimate to be the early 1970s:

It's obvious that these photos weren't taken today. What makes it so?

When you're done answering that question for yourself, read on to see one thing that makes it obvious to me.



Cedar Point no longer has a funhouse. It long ago bet its fortune on becoming the roller coaster capital of the world. Every year or two, it adds another one that is said to go faster or higher or in more odd directions than anything that has come before. These coasters (now 17 in all) have steadily replaced older, more sedate attractions such as the funhouse (demolished in 1981), the San Francisco Earthquake Ride (retired in 1984), the Sky Slide (gone as of 1991), Jungle Larry's African Safari (ended in 1994), the Pirate Ride (retired in 1996), and the Sealand (Oceana) Aquarium (razed in 2001). Tastes change. A faster world apparently requires faster distractions.

And to make things go even faster, they apparently did away with the park benches that once upon a time would have been obvious in any shot of the midway....

Other changes are apparent when one examines even older photos:



Today's crowds are much different.

For one thing, few people seem to have any desire to step foot in Lake Erie when there's a clean Soak City available.

But even though these crowds may be radically different than those of previous generations, they seem to conform to a set of unwritten rules in much the same manner that humans in every age and society apparently have (though the precise rules of course differ).

Did YOU get the memo that said women must wear shorts shorter than those worn by men? That jean shorts are the ones that are most strongly encouraged for women while baggy cargo shorts are strongly encouraged for men? That polo shirts and sport shirts are out and t-shirts are in? That hats and sunglasses are for those too weak to deal with the sun on its own terms? That white and blue are the best colors to wear?

Did YOU get the memo saying "Barrel-chested men and men with pot bellies are especially encouraged to come"? Or the memo saying that a certain number of strollers MUST be filled with a certain number of kids far too young to appreciate an amusement park or the park WILL NOT open? Did your memo explicitly state a solid majority of those strollers WILL be pushed by women even when accompanied by an able-bodied man?

And what about the memo saying that a certain percentage of women WILL be required to wear headscarves? Or the memo saying that 1 in every 125 visitors WILL be in a motorized wheelchair? Or the memo saying that interracial couples are welcome - but ONLY if the man happens to be black and the woman white?

No, of course you didn't. These memos don't exist. (At least I don't think they do!) Nonetheless the crowds that have been attending Cedar Point this month day after day and week after week clearly display the attributes they would if such memos had in fact been sent out and conscientiously acted upon. How is this possible in a society that allegedly values free expression and individuality?

That's a rhetorical question, of course. But it's representative of the sorts of questions that keep coming to mind as I watch the webcam images being conveyed to my screen.

And maybe it's the nagging need to come up with some plausible answers to these questions that keeps me coming back for more raw data....

On the other hand, bright shiny objects fascinate me, too.

And wind chimes.

And dust motes.

In fact, just about everything but sports and Sarah Palin.

Maybe I should consult a physician about this, eh?


  1. "Did YOU get the memo that said women must wear shorts shorter than those worn by men? "
    In my experience, college boys started wearing long shorts, sometimes below the knee, back in the late 80s or early 90s. It seemed like a stupid look to me at the time, but then so do a lot of things before they catch on.
    Somewhere along the line, a memo seemed to go out to a lot of girls telling them to say, "Ewwww, gross," whenever boys or men wore shorts that showed much thigh. Until then, the 1970s pro basketball players seemed to set the standard for shorts that didn't impair running. Possibly the "ewww gross thing" came about because most men don't shave their thighs.
    A careful survey might show that the short-shorts girls have no hair below their necks. I'll help you with that survey if you can get a grant for it.

  2. I can attest that babies and children in strollers can appreciate an amusement park. Maybe not the rides, but they enjoy watching the people and objects around them. A change of scenery is always interesting. Of course, a trip to the mall or Wal-mart is much cheaper and probably as interesting to a baby.

  3. I truly enjoyed reading this entry - my favorite paragraph is where you compare the waves of people to waves of water or raindrops...

    There's a similarity between this webcam observation and working in the open-to-the-street ticket booth of an old-fashioned movie theater, which I did for about the last three of my college years. I used to take my homework, but found it challenging to concentrate I could watch all these people going by...