Culture And Hipsterism: Where To Draw A Microwaveable Line

Generation X has been famous—infamous—for its counter-counter culture, its counter-counter-counter-counter culture, its “with the lights out it’s less dangerous” reflexive distrust of mass culture and popular media. When I see Tumblr posts like this, I feel as though, for all its flaws, much of what defined Generation X, as a generation, has been vindicated.

I also think we were often a bunch of uptight assholes. Many times, we’d speak out against technology or privilege itself, without addressing the true problem at hand: inequality, environmental wastefulness, etc. Some of us would critique culture at large as vapid, as though every television show or magazine should be a rigorous artistic or philosophical encounter (I was a bad offender here). Almost universally, attacking something as simultaneously delusional and wasteful, full of bad-faith as to its purpose and utility, was the root password to Generation X. Indeed, as much as “the monster was really an old white man trying to make money” describes most Scooby Doo episodes, “Daria is frustrated by fellow students, whose activities are shallow and predictable” is pretty much every other Daria episode.

In many ways, DIY and hipsterism has been a response to—if not a full-on rebuke of—Generation X-style social critique. It’s okay to spend more money than absolutely necessary; it’s okay to fuss; it’s okay to have to look something up, to have to know something before you begin. At its best, this new attitude rejects the most shallow, hypocritical aspect of “punk”—things must be so simple and unpretentious that the ethic itself becomes a complicated, pretentious performance; e.g., maybe, if you’ve been playing an instrument for years and years, using more than three chords to write a song is actually the EASIER way to go.

In my own personal life, I have arthritis, and a fountain pen is a lot easier for me to use to write things out by hand; arguably, I need one. I keep coming back to fountain pens, in fact, because they sit right at the nexus of what I’m thinking about here—I think they’re useful and necessary, but you can spend $1,000+ on one and not get much better functionality than a $100 pen, and you can spend $15 on one and get three-fourths (say) of the benefits of the $100 pen. If you actually write seriously, or even as a serious hobby, then you need a better pen than a ballpoint; once you move past BICs and whatever you have floating in that drawer of free and “reclaimed” pens, you automatically move from “punk” into a more hipsterish discourse on utility and purpose. At the same time, 20 year old Brian sits at the back of my mind giggling and snarking (with Daria) at the likes of Visconti—”what you write is automatically more important when the pen you use is worth enough to feed a poor family for three months” and Montegrappa—”because looking like something from the meth-addled nightmares of a Marine Corps boot camp dropout is exactly how you telegraph class and sophistication through a pen”.

I guess, if Generation X was guilty of anything, it was looking for an easy way out, a shorthand, a cheat code to authenticity and self-actualization. The fact of the matter is, there is no cheat code, there is no quick and easy, McDonald’s one-size-feeds-all way into authenticity; that’s the point of authenticity. A lifetime of shunning BMWs and Starbucks coffee won’t really do much to combat structural bigotry, or reverse global climate change, and pointing out that your peers are shallow and easily amused doesn’t automatically make you profound or insightful. I don’t want to fall into the conservative trap of embracing the past-past, though—the fact that blind rejection has its limits in no way validates blind acceptance. And indeed, sometimes kids today need a good dose of Angel Daria on their shoulder: witness the Rocketbook “Wave” Notebook. I mean, I can’t even.

Let’s review the concept, which admittedly is half-cool. Because I am from Generation X, we will review the stupid part first, of course: there’s the whole thing where you can microwave the notebook to “erase” or blank the ink, ostensibly to reuse it. Now, this trick is 90% from the provided Pilot “Frixion” pens and the special ink they use; at 140 Fahrenheit the ink turns clear. I assume this feature of the ink is related to being able to erase it with an eraser; regardless, the makers of the Rocketbook have “hacked” this ink feature by making their notebook microwaveable so you can blank the ink all at once. You can microwave-to-blank “up to” five times per notebook.

About that. Yeah, you can only microwave a Rocketbook to blank it a total of “up to” five times. So, you’re not really saving much money compared to buying a nice heavyweight paper Clairefontaine notebook from France, or a lightweight high-tech-paper-chemistry-technology Mnemosyne notebook from Japan. In fact, let’s do a little math—here is my favorite notebook, listed on Amazon; this Clairefontaine notebook has twice the pages for half the price; for the money, you can buy 4x the writing space of the Rocketbook notebook. The Rocketbook itself will give you “up to” 5x its space through microwaving. You can use any writing instrument you want with the traditional notebook, including things like fountain pens or drawing pencils. You can buy one notebook lined for writing, and one notebook blank for drawing. You have options. What’s more, just like photographers who shoot and scan film, if you buy and use traditional notebooks, then you automatically have a physical backup of whatever you put in your “cloud” storage. “But Brian,” you might point out, “part of Rocketbook is its app, the text and OCR reading, and the automated QR code storage!” And you’d be right, which brings us to the half of the project that’s actually cool.

Each page has a section at the bottom with a QR code and a place to mark which cloud service to automatically store to (iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox, etc.). I agree that the idea is awesome; it’s also limited—you can’t, for example, store drawings in one folder of one service, and handwritten notes in another folder in the same service. Another limitation: you cannot scan in multi-page PDFs; if you’re putting together a package of drawings or notes (for example), then you will need another workflow and tool above and beyond Rocketbook. Since there are already apps that automatically “scan” text in from your smartphone or iPad camera, the only thing that Rocketbook brings to the table is its full app “system”, so these limitations are glaring. I maintain, also, that there’s nothing about the app, and its QR/”cloud”-upload functionality, that couldn’t be replicated through something like stickers. While one could even, theoretically, make and print one’s own stickers for the system, I think enough people (myself included) would be lazy enough to just buy the damn things, even if they’re obviously overpriced.

Cue Daria: “But then they wouldn’t have a chance to sell you a glorified $30 plastic notebook that will end up in a landfill after five uses.” And indeed, otherwise, the project wouldn’t be nearly as sexy and Kickstarter-worthy*—”the reusable, microwavable notebook” is exactly matched to a clickbait culture: it sounds cool, whimsical, and futuristic, but the reality is much more complicated. In addition, and this is 40-year-old Generation X Brian speaking, the fact that the creators had to marry a “microwave it!” gimmick to their QR system just to get attention is perhaps the real problem at the heart of Rocketbook—the future is already here, and already amazing: scholars, writers, and doodlers stretching back to the dawn of writing would have killed if they could have had the ability to snap pics of their hard handwritten work, to have it all automatically, magically, vacuumed up and typed out.

Of course, we live in an era of a bad mixture of ignorance and entitlement, where a percentage of people actually expect a software upgrade will enable them to charge their iPhones in the microwave; people want convenience and are willing to go to absurdities like putting everyday objects into the microwave; it seems that, as with alarmingly so many things in this post-post-modern world, the eventual reality becomes an odd echo of the parody (see also, “Fuck Everything, We’re Doing Five Blades”). In the end, it isn’t surprising that “microwave it!” was the feature that pushed the Rocketbook project over the top, and landed it to #1 in Amazon Wirebound Notebooks as of this writing. And in the end, 40-year-old Brian is just waiting for the novelty to wear off, when they release a “Generation 2” that includes multi-page PDF support and an option to use “bring your own” notebooks with some cool-looking, overpriced stickers.

By the way, here’s a good, balanced video review of the Rocketbook from someone who actually likes the product.

*Yes, I know they actually used Indiegogo, Kickstarter’s awkward younger cousin