Thursday, April 29, 2010

Domestic Transformer

From tiny towns to town houses, here's a a tiny apartment that employs sliding walls to transform itself into 24 rooms - all within 300 square feet - using mirrors used to hide the technology of mutability. Here's a pertinent quote: "The house transforms and I'm always here. I don't move. The house moves for me."

Difficulty seeing the video? Point your browser here:

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


The making of Ephemicropolis from Peter Root on Vimeo.

Peter Root spent 40 hours organizing staples into his very own tiny town: Ephemicropolis. Really, there's not much I can add. Only that I'm getting closer and closer to committing on this topic.

Difficulty seeing the video? Point your browser here: Ephemicropolis

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Archive II

I dig David Garcia's whimsical depiction of a mobile private library, which offers a visual sense of the pleasures contained in the iPod-as-enclave. Here's a fragment of the designer's description:
"Archive II is a nomadic library, a transport system and an intimate space. Inspired by ancient travelling [sic] libraries from the Far East, which visited courts and cities, Archive II transforms this into a personal space, where walking and reading coexist as refuge and transport."
Learn more: DesignBoom

Monday, April 26, 2010

Kicking Ass and Taking Pains

"F**k this s**t. I'm getting the bazooka!"

Long before one of the bad guy's goons utters this phrase, Kick Ass has long dispatched any pretense of reality. Yet this is no ordinary kiddy flick.

It's virtually impossible to review Kick Ass, the new comic-book movie, without going meta. Despite its visceral charms, this is a movie about comics. And amid its myriad references to other costumed heroes, many of this flick's fans patiently explain to critics that the pleasure of Kick Ass lies in its deeper questions, head-scratchers like What's the difference between Spider-man and Peter Parker?

That said, there's no problem experiencing the movie as a rapid-cut Superhero-Samurai-Mob-Western collage, shouting and clapping to its stylish and audacious kills [Check out the Red Band trailer -- Warning: graphic language and violence]. And I imagine plenty of folks are doing just that. I should add that kids in particular will surely dig the bone-crunching violence of this Hard-R flick. Many parents won't mind standing in line for this one, either. Why not? The poster features three kids in spandex (and Nick Cage in a Batman suit).

How bad can it be?

Pretty bad, as it turns out.

By now you've probably gotten a sense of the film's basic plot, at least after watching the commercials: Lonely geek (Dave Lizewski) is ordinary and boring, possessing no special powers or attributes, and he gets tired of getting sand kicked in his face. So he does what anyone would do. He becomes a superhero, albeit one who possesses no special powers or attributes. And he gets his ass kicked. Pretty soon though, he meets up with some other costumed crime-fighters, some who actually are pretty talented. Eventually the lonely geek discovers his inner champ by, well, kicking ass.

With his store-bought gear, litany of grievances, and feats of strength, Kick Ass is a hero for the rest of us. And like Seinfeld's "Festivus," Kick Ass is just as unfunny, just as cynical. OK, that's not entirely true. In one scene, Dave faces three street toughs set on wasting some other guy; he's outnumbered and unprepared. Their verbal exchange is pointed, darkly humorous, and surprisingly philosophical.
Baddie: "- the f**k is wrong with you, man? You rather die for some piece of s**t that you don't even f**king know?

Dave: "And three a**holes, laying it in on one guy while everyone else watches? And you wanna know what's wrong with me?"
In that scene, Kick Ass spoke to me. Because Dave's got a point. While trying to rescue someone's lost cat (superheroes gotta pay their dues, too) he stumbles into a beat-down. Surrounding him from a safe distance, bystanding yahoos hoist their camera phones, spoiling for blood. They watch; he acts. Here, Kick Ass engages a timeless question: What is a hero but someone willing to step out of the crowd and potentially sacrifice everything for others, especially when there's no sure chance of reward, or even survival?

In moments like these, I liked Kick Ass. Problem is, those moments are far too few. More commonly, this flick is amoral and therefore somewhat sad. Yes, good guys kill bad guys -- imaginatively, cleverly, bloodily. What these kills lack is a sense of proportion wrought by gravity. There is simply no weight to the violence, such as when a hero crushes a hapless goon in a trash compactor, or when a villain fries another hapless goon in a giant microwave. The aesthetic equivalence of these acts reflects a deeper senselessness to Kick Ass.

In both cases, the hero and villain inflict such violence (via mediating technologies, it should be noted) to cause their victims to burst, all because neither goon could provide the right answer to a pointless question. These saps are allowed to be compacted or microwaved because they are irrelevant to the plot. Indeed, the plot demands that they be ignorant. Otherwise, there's no reason for them to die so terrifically. Their purpose is to disappear in a gory spray. Perhaps that's why this movie features a would-be baddie who becomes a could-be goodie (at least for a while) after assuming the moniker, "Red Mist."

Kick Ass never bothers to ask why.

OK, this is the point where I haul out my hard-core-credentials. Yes, I appreciate anti-hero flicks like Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch. When I was a kid, I also thought Harry Callahan and Snake Plissken kicked ass in their own ways. And the complex and sometimes counter-intuitive ethics of movies like Watchmen inspire useful conversation and reflection. Hell, I'm probably one of the few people I know willing to admit to liking The Devil's Rejects, a reprehensible bloodbath by just about any standard.

I like The Devils Rejects and I pretty much hate Kick Ass.

For many people, the debate about this movie's value pits oldsters who bemoan the flick's meaningless mayhem against hipsters saying, essentially, "Yeah, Gramps. And jazz is the rhythm of Satan. How'd you tolerate The Beatles, by the way?" (see Harry Knowles' response to Roger Ebert's review for an example).

Incidentally, Ebert also liked The Devil's Rejects. But he despaired for the nihilism of the original Night of the Living Dead. Here's a quote from his 1967 review:
"It's hard to remember what sort of effect this movie might have had on you when you were six or seven. But try to remember. At that age, kids take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that's not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: Nobody got out alive. It's just over, that's all."

"I felt real terror in that neighborhood theater last Saturday afternoon. I saw kids who had no resources they could draw upon to protect themselves from the dread and fear they felt."
Ebert admits that he appreciated George A. Romero's undeniable talent as a cheap filmmaker, adding that he loved the director's splatisfying sequel, Dawn of the Dead (though, to be fair, he saw the same tacked-on "happy ending" that satisfied audiences for that 1978 classic). Still, his response to Night of the Living Dead is instructive, mainly because Ebert highlights the ethical abyss crossed when a movie portrays children as remorseless killers.

A moment of sloppy sociology, if you please.

There's an undeniable pleasure to watching children, especially little kids, seize the agency of adults (who never seem to enjoy the powers they've earned by their post-adolescent status). Taking charge without asking permission is an ancient rite of passage. You've seen it every time some class-clown pretends to be the teacher in a mocking manner once that dreaded authority figure leaves the room.

Kick Ass, one may imagine, amps up the fun by featuring a cutie-pie named Hit Girl who just happens to be a killer with a penchant for guns, knives, and the c-word. For her, adults become targets; her perpetual smirk, a promise of glorious comeuppance.

Her challenge ("So, you wanna play?") becomes a comment as much as a question, because every major character in Kick Ass wants to play. Dave wants to become Spider-man. Big Daddy (Hit Girl's pop) wants to become Batman (by way of Adam West, not Christian Bale). Even the goon with the bazooka can't resist becoming Tony Montana in Scarface.

Which invites a useful corollary. The pleasure of the alleged transformation of that bullet-riddled Brian De Palma burst of ultra-violence into an Elementary School Play (or any episode of South Park, for that matter) resides in some sense of substance, the gravity of shocking words and deeds uttered and acted by children.

Kids who talk like adults or kill like adults can be fun to some extent so long as they play with the rules without dispensing with them altogether. With guilty pleasure, we might smile a bit because we too remember playing those same elicit roles.

Even so, every game of pretend requires rules.

Pretending to fly is only fun when there's a real difference between the sky and the ground. You needn't face the constant threat of falling in a state of play, but it's no fun to fly if there's no sense of gravity. Moreover, the complete absence of rules offers no therapeutic release from worldly responsibilities. Instead it presents a spectacle without substance.

That's one reason that the digital effects wizardry of the Star Wars prequels mean so little to most audiences while the older, cheesier originals continue to resonate. Any pint-sized digital-Jedi Knight can flip and twirl about when fighting a computer-augmented Sith Lord. Only the real risk of falling draws our fear and admiration ("You came in that thing? You're braver than I thought!"). Otherwise we confront an ethical wasteland with no borders, no map to define our choices. Peter Gabriel said as much with his song, "Games Without Frontiers" ("If looks could kill, they probably will").

So we watch Hit Girl flip and twirl like Yoda. We know it's all fake, but the effects are undeniably cool. Then in one scene, we adopt Hit Girl's point of view as she takes aim at a goon, fires, pauses to reload, takes aim again, fires, and wastes another. The video-game aesthetic is unmistakable. Like a cinematic Kung Fu fight scene where the wires have been erased, we watch and may be dazzled, but we can hardly be moved.

At least we get the joke.

Wearing a Catholic school girl outfit, Hit Girl kicks ass as The Dickies shred a souped up version of The Banana Splits theme song. Gen-Xers nod at the reference while kids groove on the gore. But what exactly do we see?

Some folks say "empowerment."

I ask, power to do what?

Power, after all, is the point. At a critical juncture in Kick Ass, Dave intones, "with no power comes no responsibility," riffing on the Spider-man ethos. In that scene, Dave compares his courageous daring-do to the cowardly passivity of those camera-phone-snapping losers who stand by while the innocent die. Dave quickly rejects the empty notion that freedom from agency creates freedom from consequences, arguing instead that if you can act, you must act, no matter the price. It's a heady piece of existentialism for a summer flick, and it comes close to redeeming the movie for me. But not close enough.

For me, Kick Ass fails as entertainment not because of its mass murder-quantity body count or its impossible human gymnastics. No, Kick Ass fails because its characters have so little character. They kill and audiences cheer, but neither possess a sense of joy or pain or passion or fear. In the Kick Ass-world, people do not kill because they must; they kill because they can.

Sure, it hurts when Kick Ass gets his ass kicked. But kicking ass never seems to cause any pain.

At last, the movie ends and we depart like those children described in Roger Ebert's Living Dead review, no longer infantilized in the embrace of the cinematic crib while looking up at all those lights and colors. We enter the world of weights and measures, a community of consequences. We regain some sense of gravity. Yet we see superimposed upon the real world a parallel possibility of people turned into targets, children turned into video-game monsters. We know Kiss Ass is just a movie, a rather predictable one at that. Still we wonder, as we must:

Just how many real-life "Hit Girls" are out there, confusing character for mere power? And whose ass will be kicked next?

Quotations from IMDB. Kick Ass screencaps from trailer. Poster from Wiki Commons. Night of the Living Dead image from Media Circus.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Friday Fun Post: How I Met Your Motherboard

You may recall a few weeks back I wrote a three-part series on my first adventures with computing and webpage design. Now I'm happy to find a collection of similar stories. It's called How I Met Your Motherboard.

Be careful, though, it's best viewed on an Apple IIe!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Shameless Media Plug: Simpsons and Omnitopia in the classroom

I just came across an interesting new book, The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield (by Karma Waltonen and Denise Du Vernay).

In a potentially useful contribution to Simpsons research, the authors have constructed an annotated bibliography of essays, books, and other types of research about America's Favorite Cartoon Family.

I'm delighted to find that an essay I co-authored with Anne Marie Todd, "'Are We There Yet'? Searching for Springfield and The Simpsons' Rhetoric of Omnitopia," is cited. Moreover, a decent amount of material from the book is available via a Google Books search.

Teaching (or taking) a course that addresses the show? This book might be worth a look.

Visit the authors' Google Site: Simpsonology 101

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

County Road 16 (Near Longmont, CO)

During my recent visit to Colorado (highlighted by a tour of Denver's Colfax Avenue neon signage) I also took some time to photograph a set of farm ruins 28 miles north of Denver (Google Map). Two days of intermittent rain had broken for a spell, and the temporary promise of blue skies called me south. Storm clouds advanced further into the horizon, and I knew these shots wouldn't last long. Thank goodness for rental cars and frontage roads!

It's hard to say exactly why I'm attracted to ruins. Part of it is the challenge of finding some geometry within the collapse of planes and surfaces. As with so many things, the balance is always internal. By way of illustration, imagine a path across a hobbled surface of decomposing boards. You and a friend survey the safest direction to cross from one side to the other, the path that will avoid hidden nails and the dangers of collapse. Yet you see different trajectories and follow individual courses. You look at your friend and wonder, "why'd she take that path?" That's sort of what I mean about the individual nature of composition, especially with abandoned buildings. There's no one correct way to photograph them.

My pictures are, obviously, little more than snapshots. Partially I accepted that limitation with my choice of camera, a tiny Canon Elph purchased for hassle-free travel (lugging our D5000 cross-country via increasingly constraining airport rules is sometimes not worth the effort). But mostly these pictures reflect a roadside perspective based on flash-moments, not deep encounters. Like the ruins themselves, each experience lives briefly and then fades from view (the difference, one might say, between auto-ethnography and autoethnography). I was here; then I wasn't.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Denver: Colfax Neon

This past weekend's trip to Colorado was highlighted by the opportunity to meet some cool people and discuss a range of fascinating aspects of convergence at the Rocky Mountain Communication Association's annual conference [here's my keynote speech]. But my trip also afforded me the chance to do a little driving and clear my head a bit. With all the hassles and stresses of the past few months, it was a real treat to find some big sky and open highway far from everyday life. Along the way, I took the time to photograph some collapsing farm houses lining the interstate. But the evening's destination, strangely enough, was the big city. After all, Denver boasts some swell neon that I'd never seen.

Our previous trips to the Colorado capital had always been in daylight. The initial visit, back in '96, was at the tail-end of our first Route 66 cross-country trip. We'd made it to California and were returning via Nevada, Utah, and the plains states, heading home to Ohio. We'd just coasted down through the Rockies, amazed to see real snow even in the summer, and the three of us gazed eastward to see a long, flat horizon. In between: the Mile High City. We didn't know it then, but our drive through Denver would include a trip down the road that most folks claim is the nation's longest main street - which is a good thing, because Colfax Avenue really is a terrific stretch for Old School signage. But again, our visit then and those that followed were regrettably restricted to daylight hours.

I made up for that error this past weekend. The problem is that Denver has instituted (God knows why) draconian ordinances against animated signs. Indeed, I only saw two or three of them sparkling and blinking with tacky neon abandon. How shortsighted of Denver's so-called urban professionals! Even so, I enjoyed an evening's search for animated and static signs. Of the moving variety, the Bluebird Theater is clearly the best in town [Check out my video]. Once a vaudeville palace, the Bluebird now features traveling bands (and, if online reviews are to believed, some mighty surly bouncers). I'm happy to report that the attitude outside was relaxed. As is regularly the case, people would stop and wonder, "Why's this guy photographing a sign?" Maybe they'd look a little closer at the thing they'd previously ignored and begin to see it anew.

A mile or so west, I saw a couple other signs that would have looked wonderful in the age of animated neon. I could only imagine the smiles elicited by Pete's Kitchen when its happy chef was permitted to flip, I dunno, pancakes. Still, I set up my newly-bought tripod and tried out the twilight capabilities of my new Canon Elph. The results were more than acceptable for a camera so small it could be lost in the wash. The camera produced no real "noise" (you know, the graininess that accompanies low-light conditions) and decent color. A block further west, I also took some shots of the Satire Lounge, enjoying the chance to share the moment with another couple of shutterbugs who shared my neon vision.

Light drizzle turned into moderate rain. The Taxi Driver vibe, those gaudy colors and a hint of steam rising off the oily streets, appealed to me. Truth be told though, I couldn't get too far into the mood, since I also used the time to chat with a student who'd emailed me a question related to the peer mentor training class I teach. Even far away in Denver, it's hard to take a vacation from real life, thanks to my many electronic leashes (admittedly, each having an "off" switch). Really, I didn't mind. Indeed, maybe as thanks for my effort to help someone in need, the Roadtrip Gods smiled on me and cleared the rain sufficiently to allow a photo of the Rocky Mtn. Motel sign. Wow, what a piece of modern art.

Again, I'd seen this place by day two or three times. Each visit, I'd struggle to frame a decent shot. The horizontals and verticals of this sign are trickier than they look, and they required me, I'm embarrassed to say, to use a bit of Photoshop magic just to get a decent looking composition. The results were worth the effort. Just think about the cost of maintaining neon, especially with the dearth of professionals who can bend the glass and prepare the gas to produce that gorgeous, otherworldly effect. I've talked to a lot of motel owners who gave up on the whole thing, complaining about one too many drunk kids hoisting beer bottles, or one too many hailstorms doing thousands of dollars of damage in an instant. Why these owners maintain this sign in a seedy part of town, I can't begin to guess. But I'm sure happy they do. My latest Denver visit complete, I made one last pass down Colfax, reshooting the Bluebird in more pure darkness before heading north out of town. Grateful for the opportunity to glimpse some classic neon signage while it's still standing, I smiled into the darkness.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Animated Neon: Bluebird Theater (Denver, CO)

I'm back from a delightful visit to Colorado where I was asked to give a speech on the subject of convergence. Later, I'll post some photos from the trip (and maybe even the speech that got me there). In the meantime, click the pic to see the video I shot with the help of my teeny-tiny Canon Elph. For a light travel camera, this gadget does a pretty decent job!

Difficulty seeing the video? Point your browser here:

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Academic Market Update

Another article about long-term trends in academic hiring, this one marshaling a bevy of pertinent and devastating research findings about the state of the market for humanities Ph.Ds.

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter Conn lays out the facts and offers recommendations, but his conclusions cannot dispel the grim truth:
The obvious conclusions, though many senior faculty members in the humanities seem reluctant to admit it, are these: As a profession, we are enrolling too many Ph.D. students, we have been doing so for decades, we spend far too long in guiding them to their degrees, and we then consign them to a dysfunctional job market.
Read the entire piece: We Need to Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities

Monday, April 12, 2010

Life Moves Fast

I've finally completed my keynote address for the Rocky Mountain Communication Association [link] this week. My topic is "convergence." Revising my paragraphs, I continually return to the idea that convergent technologies appear to transform us all into mobile data terminals, helping us tag places with the invisible graffiti of "I am here" evaluation, connecting with us others by the digital fingerprints of our tweets and buzz feeds.

A recent Palm commercial entitled "Life Moves Fast" offers an image of this world and its pleasure of constant mobility (for those who can afford it, that is). The spot features an attractive young woman strutting down an urban catwalk. Flipping through screen options that float around her, the woman mutates the city to accommodate the momentary convergence of her desire [reminding me the 2009 Lexus City ad]. I think I'll use the Palm commercial as an example during a graduate seminar on media culture I've been asked to join during my Colorado trip.

In my remarks, I might also share the words of Rand Richards Cooper who wrote a New York Times editorial about the decline in civility that follows the decay in our value of particular times and places. Cooper writes, "Cellphones in hand, we microadjust our schedules as they unfold around us. We’re like the air traffic controllers of our own lives." Such power we have -- we're controllers after all. And yet how easily overwhelmed we feel sometimes by all the choices that fly through the air, especially when the center of this world is always us.

Difficulty seeing the video?: Point your browser here:

Friday, April 9, 2010

Friday Fun Post: South Park Takes On Facebook

South Park sometimes hits. Sometimes it misses. And then sometimes it perfectly captures the zeitgeist. And this time, the show manages to skewer the Facebook craze in a way that reveals real insight and thoughtful critique about how social networking sites can transform friendship into commodity.

If you're interested in Facebook, and you don't mind taking some pop culture side-trips through Chatroulette, Farmville, Mad Money, and the cheesy Disney flick Tron, you will love this episode.

Check out the episode: You Have 0 Friends (Warning: Unedited Adult Language)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Endless Cities

John Vidal writes in the Guardian about the convergence of meta-cities into "mega-regions," the first being a conflation of Hong Hong, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou, comprising 120 million people. Other mega-regions, he says, are in Japan and Brazil, with others forming in India and west Africa.

Vidal cites Eduardo Lopez Moreno, co-author of a UN Report entitled, State of the World's Cities 2008/2009, as saying:
"Research shows that the world's largest 40 mega-regions cover only a tiny fraction of the habitable surface of our planet and are home to fewer than 18% of the world's population [but] account for 66% of all economic activity and about 85% of technological and scientific innovation."
The article adds, however, that mega-regions may intensify urban sprawl and social inequity.

Read the entire article: UN report: World's biggest cities merging into 'mega-regions'

Also, check out PrimeNC and America 2050 for swell maps of the U.S. as a cluster of mega-regions.

(Image borrowed from America 2050)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

First Experiment in Tilt-shift Modification

Here's my first experiment with tilt-shift photo modification. I borrowed the technique from Don Engel's diorama tutorial. I've got a lot to learn, but the process looks promising thus far.

Here's the original.

Here's the tilt-shift (click on image to see fuller effect).

(Original image borrowed from Wikimedia Commons)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Guest Post: Freedom and Nostalgia on Route 66

I'm delighted to report that my newest publication, an essay called "Two roads diverge: Route 66, 'Route 66,' and the mediation of American ruin" (recently "translated" for a wider audience in Communication Currents) has garnered some positive feedback. A couple days ago I received a kind and thoughtful note from a Route 66 preservationist whom I quoted in the piece, and then I received a lovely email from my former office mate, Phil Wander.

If you're a student of rhetoric or media studies, you've likely heard his name. I read Phil's work in grad school and was subsequently amazed (and a little intimidated) to find myself sharing an office with this fellow upon taking a job at San José State University. Phil has since departed NorCal, earning a prominent position at Loyola Marymount University. Still, we keep in touch. Thus I am particularly grateful for him to have shared his thoughts about my Route 66 piece.

What he offers is a reflection, a critique, a nudge, and a call for next steps, all bound up in the kind of lived-experience memory that demands a broader audience than is allowed by a simple email. I'm honored to share it with you (with his permission, of course).


I grew up along side Rt. 66. It ran by the Outdoor Theatre where I took Nancy Wilson to kiss the night away. And the then-modern truck stop was where the dance band I was in went to get something to eat, around mid-night, after the dance. It held no nostalgia for us, back in the 1950s, it was simply there and useful, as we moved on and off it in our newly discovered teenage car-freedom. The freedom to fly, as I drove my dad's red and white Mercury on an empty Rt. 66 a hundred and four miles an hour, to see how fast she goes, before thinking, the road is wet, the car feels it might be rising, and brakes don't work so good on wet. The freedom to cuddle up in corn fields off country roads that led back to the freeway.

But it was a freedom more real for my father, during the great migration from farms to cities. He loved driving the whole of Iowa, working as an adjuster, negotiating settlements with folks with automobile policies with State Farm. He loved it as much as he loved driving a couple of miles off road to park by a rail road track to watch a train go by. Rail roads took him from the corn fields to Chicago with his dad on a stock car where, with long poles they stayed up all day and all night to make sure the hogs did not fall and die, before they got to the slaughter house.

Two pathways for migration, some forty millions moving South to North from the 1880s to the 1940s, creating what become the other side of the tracks in New York, Atlanta, St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas City, Oakland, and LA, and all metro-points in between and above and below. But the trip on Route 66 was different for those who were not "real Americans." The speed, the movement, was shared, but not the road side attractions. If you were black you expected to piss in culverts, corn fields, and hedge rows. And buy the fixings and wrap your sandwiches up in wax paper. And not move off into the off road farm towns and expect to remain after sundown, before threading your way back to the highway. It was "freedom," of a sort not fit for nostalgia, at least not the kind that white folks enjoy.

I learned this from a conversation I had with the jazz composer, Bill Cole, an old friend from my time at Pitt. His grandfather, a successful dentist in Pittsburgh, did not drive. He took his grandson to a Buick dealership, bought a brand new car, and had him drive the two of them cross country. A dignified old man, successful, even wealthy, but black, and it was hard to find food, a toilet, and a place to sleep anywhere on any highway. And even more dangerous on country roads.

I remember reading Walter Benjamin's essay on the work of "art" in an age of mechanical reproduction. The reproduction for "real Americans," as you point out, has become the sacred, the original, the cliche that was everywhere, for not quite everyone and was anything but sacred.

I loved your essay and understood it, in the way that the peasant woman summoned up by Martin Heidegger from Van Gogh's painting of Shoes left off the real in favor of blood and soil in a claim on national identity inspired by a political movement which promised to preserve peasant life and the virtues it recalled for "real Germans." This is not what you do, of course, but I would like to hear your reflections on Sarah Palin and the tea party on Route 66. The rapid retreat by a political faction into a dream and a need to reload to and get back into the fight once again to make real what never was, even for white people, begins an inquiry into the rhetoric of nostalgia that promises the kind of inclusiveness that the real roads and highways made, up to a point, possible.

Again, I loved the essay. That it is a point of departure rather than a terminal for the wistful, which is not bad either, if well written, and yours is wonderfully evocative writing at many levels, a delight for those of us whose wistfulness for the 50's is bounded by lynchings on one side and above ground nuclear testing on the other, and in between what Herbert Marcuse referred to as the sure-fire way to get beyond one dimensional thought, living, and imagination for kids, the unadulterated pleasures of sex and the revolutionary experience of love.

Philip C. Wander
Loyola Marymount University

Monday, April 5, 2010

800th Post: Desert Learning

We can learn a lot from deserts.

In those hot and inhospitable climates, plants demonstrate the kind of adaptability necessary to catch and store water, making them remarkable survivors in terrains seemingly unsuited for life.

The Saguaro Cactus, for example, uses its shallow but lengthy root system to gather water in a barren climate, encircling underground rocks to help keep itself upright.

Moreover, its trunk expands and contracts like an accordion to store water in preparation for the frequent droughts that punish the land.

Finally, its buds appear slowly -- the first arm forming after more than five decades. In this way, the Saguaro demonstrates patience, waiting until its root system is extended broadly enough to keep potentially 5,000 pounds of cactus upright in the wind.

Flexibility, outreach, and patience allow the Saguaro to stand between 35 and 50 feet tall and live 200 years, sometimes longer.

We can learn much from these desert survivors in today's arid climate of constraint. But first we must unlearn some long-taught lessons about scarcity.

Thriving amid Scarcity

Hamlet exclaimed, "I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space" -- if only, he added, one could be freed from one's many lamentations.

A modern lament that might surprise Hamlet is not our paucity of options but rather our excess of choice.

And, troublesomely, many of us presume that more choices are always better, that any constraint somehow harms us.

Research, however, suggests otherwise. Indeed, a number of fascinating psychological and economic studies suggest that too many options lead to paralysis.

As one researcher put it, “It is not clear that more choice gives you more freedom. It could decrease our freedom if we spend so much time trying to make choices” (See NYT article, Too Many Choices).

Shakespeare suggested in Hamlet that our lamentations mingle with our limitations to place us in a nut shell, to "drive us nuts," one might say.

Yet those very limitations -- restrictions in budget, limits of power consumption, moral boundaries to our actions -- actually compel us to thrive.

A blank canvas, after all, forces us to deploy the infinite space of our imaginations, to think our ways out of the problems that bind us.

Look again at the picture of the person staring at a blank canvas. Perhaps this kind of thinking makes artists of us all.

Even so, as artists, what do we train ourselves to see?

What counts as real?

Think for a moment about the modern world -- what it means, what it does, what it costs...

When you close your eyes and fill an empty frame with the modern world, what do you see?

An Age of Artificiality

For me, an explosion of iconic images appear, each pulsing with the rhythm of Paul Simon's song, "Boy in the Bubble."

It was a dry wind,
And it swept across the desert
And it curled into the circle of birth...

These are the days of lasers in the jungle
Lasers in the jungle somewhere
Staccato signals of constant information
A loose affiliation of millionaires
And billionaires...
When I see the modern world, I see handheld computers that possess a power once contained in rooms, but I also see teeming masses of people crushed into urban slums. I see the simultaneous expansion and contraction of potential, and find it floating on the surface of killing paradox.

Perhaps that is the unsustainable reality of the modern world, how the real is lost amid the winds of unreality.

Today a tiny sliver of humanity imagines themselves living in a sailboat, one like Dubai's Burj Al Arab hotel, a fantasy in which you can play tennis while teetering in the air.

This blessed portion of people -- and you might consider yourself one of them -- floats upon the roiling waters, seeing only blue sky and endless promise.

The Desert of the Real

Occasionally though, fortuitously, we see things as they are. And we shiver, even in the growing heat, as the sky turns orange.

We know something meaningful is happening, oddly, frighteningly, because we cannot tell whether the light portends a dawn to the new world, or the gloaming of its imminent nightfall.

Beyond our brilliant and optimistic cities, the desert expands, kicking up hot breezes and hurling the dust at the gates: a barbarous future with which we cannot reckon via the anesthetizing balm of abstraction.

Modernity meets its end, William Butler Yeats wrote this in The Second Coming, when "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world..."

In Beijing, another sandstorm, one of an increasing number produced by decades of environmental degradation, recently dumped tons of dirt and grit into the capital city of a nation foretold by some futurists as the capital of the 21st century.

It's a cruel irony that a nation with so many resources and resilient people, looking ahead to tomorrow from the gleaming towers of Beijing and Shanghai, must also look backward to the words of an author we in Silicon Valley know well, John Steinbeck.

Dustbowls, we find, aren't merely a thing of 1930s Americana.

An article from The Huffington Post states, "China's expanding deserts now cover one-third of the country because of overgrazing, deforestation, urban sprawl and drought." And that dust is not limited to a distant land. It flies all over the world on the winds of commerce and war and microsecond thinking.

China turns away from the desert, but the desert advances on us all.

In his book, Simulacra and Simulations, Jean Baudrillard imagined the desert in a way we recognize, not only as engineers or artists, but as citizens of a world that seems increasingly covered with the dust and grit of modernity, the detritus of mental maps that no longer represent the world in any meaningful way.

We survey our horizons along electronic grids and layout endless cities of fantasy. These are sustainable to the extent that the current of power flows up and down the spines of people and cities.

But upon what, really, do we stand? How long can our cities endure on foundations of sand?

Of this world, Baudrillard writes:
Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory -- precession of simulacra -- it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.

The desert can teach us something about the fate of the modern world. Walking upon its hot, dry surface, we learn that sustainability is not simply about technology; it is both an expanse and an expense of the imagination.

Yet as we constrain our gaze to the cities we build, we kill the lifegiving reality upon which all human inventions are founded. Our cities grow and our minds shrink.

Our mental canvases must stretch beyond the limits of the world that we know. We must visualize an age no longer defined solely by our cities, which are parched and dying at the desert's edge. We must re-imagine ourselves with more permanent things.

After nightfall, Polaris appears to us, fixed in the northern sky. Stars pinwheel, the universe turns, and things change. But survivors stand tall in the dark, amid all transformations.

The North Star in the firmament and the cactus in the desert speak to us in different ways, even though they share the same message. They have something to teach us here.

The kind of sustainable thinking calls upon us to rethink our values...

... starting first with what lasts.

Photo Credits: Sunset flora in Saguaro National Park, Tucson, Arizona: Photograph by Andrew Wood. Person staring at a blank canvas: Photograph by Johnny Mobasher Street Photography. Burj Al Arab Hotel next to sailboat on the water: Photograph borrowed from ETF Trends. Burj Tennis Court: Photograph borrowed from Travel Around the World. Orange dust covers Beijing: Photograph by Markus Källander. Megadunes of sand that resemble waves: Photograph by NASA. Children play on computers next to a huge window upon a city: Photograph borrowed from The Librarian's Guide to Gaming. Stars pinwheel over Saguaro cacti: Photograph by Jenny and Andrew Wood.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Not Permitted

Trying to comment on Facebook about my reaction to today's explosion of iPad stories. Ran into a little trouble...

Friday, April 2, 2010

Converging Ourselves To Death

Since being asked to deliver the keynote address at the Rocky Mountain Communication Association's annual conference, I've been gathering material and organizing my thoughts on their theme, "convergence." Here's a summary of the approach I envision for my 30 minute speech...

Having witnessed the varied articulations of postmodernity, the postwar rise of globalization, and the transformative integration of the internet into our daily lives, we share a unique opportunity to both define and critique what many call an Age of Convergence. After all, each of these forces -- uniting intellectual, economic, and technological trajectories -- contribute to the vanishing of formally sacrosanct divides between "high and low," "here and there," and "us and them." Still, all that is solid does not melt into air. Instead, as communication scholars and as human beings, we are compelled to consider the implications of convergence upon our roles and duties within an increasingly corporatized public sphere in which discourse that could possibly disrupt traditional modes of power becomes replaced by the babble of singularities.

Indeed, with apologies and appreciation to the late Neil Postman (whose germinal book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, inspires the title of my talk) my enthusiasm for this Age of Convergence must be defined as "guarded." As a shameless tourist of places and ideas, as a professor initially hired to teach courses on internet communication in Silicon Valley, and, of course, as a hopeless iPhone junkie, I recognize the opportunities that flow from our power to dive into oceans of data, where once we seemed trapped within lonely rivulets. And I accept both the efficiency and the serendipity of technologies that enable us to leap from node to node in a ubiquitous network that gathers all of human society into a shared structure and perception of mutual presence and potential interaction.

Yet I encourage caution and some degree of existential forbearance before we plunge so deeply into that matrix that we lose sight of ourselves. Put another way, I suggest a middle-ground between globe-girdling convergence and the rearguard erection of solitary cathedrals set against the desert of the threatening Other. I offer this proposal in recognition of the need for physical and intellectual "locales" wherein we affirm the virtue of places marked by time and character. I emphasize here that places and people set apart, a necessarily revitalized notion of the sacred, need not cast us into towers of elitism, so long as we refine the purpose of our endeavors as humanistic first and opportunistic later. Toward that end, my talk considers one basic question designed to complicate the presumed pleasures of our ever-present, ever-conflated society: How may the communication studies professor working both in the classroom and within the broader marketplace of ideas make a unique and useful contribution to the world in this Age of Convergence?

Follow-up: Here's the entire speech.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Shameless Media Plug: Communication Currents

Following the publication of my essay, "Two roads diverge: Route 66, 'Route 66,' and the mediation of American ruin," in Critical Studies in Media Communication, I was invited to repackage the piece into a form that's more accessible to a wider audience.

The venue? Communication Currents: an effort by the National Communication Association to disseminate academic scholarship beyond the narrow confines of the audience for peer reviewed journals.

The process of transforming an 8,500-word essay into a 1,000 word magazine-style article contained no small amount of frustration, let me tell you. But I appreciated the opportunity to share my work in a new way.

Read the piece, Route 66 and the Road to Ruin