Or, “I Hope This Works.”
I have come to my choice for an E-Lit review mostly out of frustration. As many of my classmates were remarkably quick to identify and select for themselves pieces worthy of deep exploration and consideration, I found myself somewhat adrift amongst a body of foreign and challenging pieces. My experiences with most of these pieces, the ones that didn’t require some software download, were the same. So much of E-Lit is just so, alienating. Like, its working so hard to distinguish itself, both as E-Lit and within that community, that it neglects the basic tenants of storytelling, of communication. The “reader” is being hooked into participation. We’re not even being dared to try and unravel a mystery by an alluring narrator. What its most like is being scoffed at by new wave art kids who laugh at your struggles to “get it.” They could care if we get it or not. Our comprehension is not their problem. They have been faithful to their artistic vision.
I am not advertising for compromise in art, in any of its forms. I do however feel that art, if it is meant to say something, should make an effort to communicate clearly with its audience. In the case of E-Lit this is very literally a user interface. It has been my feeling in general, with some notable exceptions, that E-Lit shrugs off this requirement of art, or at least does not consider it. The fact has to be considered that E-Lit was born in a time in which many things we find clunky and difficult now were actually nuanced and exciting, as the internet and various programming languages grew popular and accessible. Still, my search through them led me through what felt like circus funhouse of frustrating and unnavigable mirrors.
As in all times of trouble, I returned time and again to Star Wars. This time, its was maybe more part of the problem than the solution. In Star Wars, one letter at a time, the artists has literally set, presumably every character and space of the screenplay for A New Hope in a flash animation, complete with corresponding typewriter sounds. I kept coming back to this because I felt like I must have something in common with this creator, who has tried to make new art out of something I have loved for so long. But what I found again and again was that this was nothing. While yes it is technically Star Wars, reduced to like a molecular level, there’s nothing to it to be explored; its just noise and letters and punctuation. So I kept leaving it behind to find something better. But what I found was, to a degree, most of this stuff is just noise and letters. The exceptions here stand out because there is more to them than noise and flashing images. The awkward threesome flash game and spooky angel website, these things asked more of the reader than to sit uncomfortably and be assaulted by stimuli of the creator’s choosing. They stood out to us because they offered complexity that was deep without being impossible to unfold. There were finite moves to be made, rather than just taking stabs in the dark.
So I came back to Star Wars, and I realized that this offered an opportunity to discuss not just this piece, but all pieces. I let the flash run for a long time, more than once, and I realized that if I didn’t know what to expect, if my heartbeat didn’t quicken a little as I waited to see the letters flash, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” that this would be that much more challenging for me to absorb in any meaningful way. I went to the rest of the internet to see if I had missed something, but what I found was disheartening. A bunch of other reviewers were content to congratulate the artist, Brian Kim Stefans, on how well he really brought the reader into the experience of George Lucas typing out character by character the screenplay for his iconic film, to which I called shenanigans. One person had the sense to comment on the fact that George would have had to have sat there and typed continuously without changing the paper or pausing to think about his next word for this to actually mimic his experience.
The thing is, this doesn’t have anything to do with the writer’s experience of creating Star Wars. It doesn’t mimic the processes of creation and invention in the slightest. It could well be a transcription of the day’s stock ticker for as well as it duplicates the process of creative writing. If it has any kind of meaning at all, it might, at a stretch, be to examine the subatomic structure of a work as massive an epic as Star Wars, which takes place across a galaxy and is characterized by lasers and an exploding planet. That juxtaposition is worth examining if anything is. Like getting really, really close to a work of pointillism or mosaic and looking at the individual components to give scale to the larger complete work.
In One Week No Tech, I object to what I perceive to be an oversimplification. In short, what is tech? If we leave work at work because we don’t have a tablet and cloud storage, have we left tech behind? Can we still drive home, or do we have to walk? The subway is out of the question- too many complicated, coordinated systems- but is a bike ok? If so, why? Can we still use a landline to call home to see if there’s anything we need from the store? And can we still use the store? Can we refrigerate the milk? Can we even pasteurize it? Do we have to throw out all of our processed cheese and mechanically separated chicken pieces, our GMO corn everything? Can we even use the stove to heat that one can of organic beans from Whole Foods, or do we have to go out back and light a fire? And if we do, can we use a lighter? Can we even use matches? Or do we have to rub sticks together?
“Tech” only means whatever newfangled yet life-changing invention has captured the imagination of the people who live with it. Sure the internet and smart phones have gone from imagined to ubiquitous at a remarkable rate, but so did the Polio vaccine. The automobile. The revolver. This new wave of tech taking over the world, this isn’t a new thing. And of course globalization has contributed to the dissemination of this technology in an unprecedented way, but the same thing has been happening to our various societies for as long as humans have been saying, “I have an idea.”
We use our phones, out tablets and TVs, too much. They’re contributing to our stupefaction and our fatness. Anybody who denies that must be kidding themselves, or us. This we know. But they aren’t these incarnations of evil that are taking us over. If you want your kids to get off their phones, take them away. If you want to use your computer less, watch less tv, then read a book, or go outside. The world isn’t going to revert, you better pray to your God it doesn’t, to some pastural Eden with all the things you like but none of the things you find frustrating. Super Nintendo is ok, but none of that damn Angry Birds and Xbox Live. It doesn’t work like that. We make our own damnation. If you want out of this cycle of tech torment, all you have to do is unplug. It won’t be easy, but it won’t kill you. It probably won’t kill you, but I’m not a doctor, or a lawyer, so just use your judgement.
When Hurricane (Superstorm? Eat shit, weather man) Sandy tore through New Jersey, a lot of things happened. Bruce Springsteen got along with a man who was like, literally, a fat cat Republican. It was a confusing time for all of us. And while we were rescuing each other from wrecks and flooded houses, and donating supplies and time, and demolishing and rebuilding, there was something else going on. Those of us without power, which was many of us, we had some things to think about. We used generators, those of us that could, to power some essentials, and some nonessentials. But for a lot of that time, the lights were off. The TVs were dark, the trains stopped running, no commercial air traffic flew overhead. There was no wifi. For a little while, the days were crisp and busy and the nights were dark and quiet. I’ve never experienced a real life harvest season, but I get the feeling they’re a little bit like that. One of those nights I was walking home from a friend’s house on one of the few blocks in town with power. She lent me a tiny reading light; I had some comic books to catch up on and was used to staying up much later than the simple farm boy I was pretending to be. About half way home, I decided I wasn’t done walking. I went right past my street and down another, into the next town where mist lay over the low ground of the high school soccer field. I went over by my late grandmother’s old neighborhood and came back up streets that were familiar to me before I was old enough to ride a bike. But now they were silent, not even lit. At one point I just sat down in the middle of the road, right on the double yellow line, and looked around. The stars were many more than usual, but the moon was so bright. It was so bright. I saw the town that I had lived in for almost my entire life, literally in an entirely new light. The orange and purple glow of streetlights was replaced by the silver-white resplendence of the nearly-full moon. It didn’t change it all that much, honestly, but it was incredibly serene. I slept well that night.
In a few days the lights came back on, and the heat, and the wifi. It wasn’t bad for us, but it had been for others. Things were lost. People were lost. But we started to do our normal things again. The restaurant I worked in opened again with nothing but a little leak in the roof. Text messages started to come in greater number. The soundtrack of commerce stirred back to life, intensified, and stabilized. It had been kind of a vacation, but I hadn’t really left my house for more than a few hours at a time. The thing is, aside from the air traffic, we don’t need a natural disaster to go back to that week. Its really easy to just shut off your stuff for a little while, to go back to basics. To only use gas to cook and hot water to shower, and to spend your day working and your nights in whatever fire-lit diversions you choose, isn’t that far away from many of us. This technology, this long awaited future, isn’t bringing us down. We have tools, we all of us have these tools, the likes of which had only been dreamed of in science fiction, and they can do incredible things. Good and decent and helpful things. And if we spend our days wasting our time on them, we are wasting two gifts, and that isn’t anyone’s fault but our own.
The site is live, y’all. I’m pretty sure it works. Think you can find how it links to Rachel Behar? We’ll see.
Posted above is the Twitter page for Mike Sterling’s Theopolis, MD bookstore, Thoth Spot. I haven’t decided if it will stay Thoth Spot or if I’ll make it Thoth’s Spot. Either way its going to be a tongue twister. Thoth is the Egyptian god of writing, amongst other things, and is often depicted as having the head of an Ibis, as shown in Mike’s profile pic. It kind of sounds like “soft spot.” I don’t have anything clever planned for that but who knows? Maybe something will come together. Like a baby’s skull. Fontanelle?
For my artifact, I want to build a website for Thoth(‘s) Spot, complete with online shopping and customer invoices. It will look like a page for an independent bookstore, but the real artifact will (hopefully) be under the surface, for the sufficiently clever and curious to discover. The website will say a little bit about the kind of guy Mike is, indirectly of course. It will feature a description of the bestsellers and what have you that are on offer at Thoth’s, but those won’t be for sale online because Mike realizes that he can’t compete with Amazon and other services for online shopping. The site will feature pictures of the place and the neighborhood, and advertisements for coffeehouse readings either sponsored by Thoth’s or held on-premises, and other such events. What will be for sale online will be Thoth’s rare book collection, with maybe one or two exceptions, items that are too valuable to even an unsentimental guy like Mike to sell. Maybe he has something that looks like the first appearance of Spiderman, Amazing Fantasy #15, that he suspects might be a second printing, but he’s keeping it anyway because it makes him happy. Anyway these rare books he’ll sell to collectors or whomever at a variable price, depending on the item and situation. There aren’t really MSRPs for these things anymore, and Mike finds an element of fairness in the negotiations sometimes, and it gives him something different to do. Anyway most of that is done via email, unless somebody is actually in the store, which will be reflected on the site, but is a little harder to quantify.
I’m starting to get a little sad this isn’t real life.
So I don’t forget them, while I’m working:
Mr. Prendergast, you’re often photographed about spoken about in close relation to high-profile celebrities. This “star power” no doubt has a positive impact on your ability to reach a broader audience and to more immediately grab that audience’s attention. Do you feel that you need celebrities to do your work most effectively? And if so, should that not be a little discouraging to those of us without that connection?
Have you had any successes, directly or indirectly? What are your methods, and recommended methods for policy-makers?
What is the general turn-around time from the time you’ve identified a problem to research to the time you’ve influenced a party or government to do something about it? What is ideal? What is acceptable? When is it too late?
How do you grapple with your role as a hands-off researcher, knowing that the people you’re studying today might well be beyond the reach of aid by the time the red tape is cleared?
Do you feel that the advent of the internet has facilitated positive change on the world stage, or engendered an environment of desensitized apathy or jadedness that popularizes trends but undercuts actual real-life momentum, by allowing us to just keep “scrolling by” suffering we see every day?
The fact that the school’s name is Theopolis is a real draw for me. “City of God.” I feel like there’s so much to work with there, so many angles. Angels. Etc. So our person is an Arab Jew, meaning that she comes from a tradition of religion-fueled adversity. She has come to the United States from Israel, or was born in the United States and elected to seek dual citizenship with Israel. Either way this indicates a strong tie to her hereditary homeland. One of her fellow alumna, Fiona Murphy, an octogenarian protestant from Ireland, not Northern Ireland, was born and emigrated long before religious conflict ceased in that region. Thus it is possible that Theopolis is a gathering place for intellectuals with strong religious and political convictions. It is equally plausible that in 2014 Theopolis, despite its having grown up in the shadow of our nation’s capitol which was founded in and influenced by Christianity, is a place where people from such backgrounds in diversity gather to counter the dogmatic vitriol of their homelands and work together across cultures to remove boundaries and prejudices against people. So, it is possible that our Dr. Behar is a bigot, or a humanitarian. To that end, enter Mike Sterling. Mike owns a bookstore in Theopolis. It’s close enough to the college for interested students to walk to, but far enough away not to be completely run over by the university bookstore. The quaint if a little dingy neighborhood the bookstore occupies was home to Dr. Behar back when she was a young Miss Behar, that’s Ms. Behar to you. Because Ms. Behar has discerning tastes, she eschews the then-developing university bookstore, now an imposing behemoth, in favor of a retailer with a little more personality. This is where she meets Mike Sterling, who is either the proprietor of the establishment, or inherited it from his parents, or just works there for now and will grow up to buy it from the previous owners and really make it into something in his adulthood. Mike is a really bright guy, who must have moved to Theopolis, M.D. from somewhere like Newcastle, ME or San Diego, CA or Burlington, VT or Salem, OR or New York, NY. Mike has seen a thing or two and taken it mostly in stride, so he isn’t all that wowed by the luminaries produced by and attracted to the esteemed college around the corner. Maybe Mike and Rachel meet when Mike makes a flip remark or has an unenthused reaction to something “amazing” happening at Theopolis. As such Mike is a pretty mild person, likes what he likes, which is a smattering of things that always surprises people, and doesn’t get too worked up over any but a few things that are very close to his heart and that don’t always come up day to day. I want mike to have a dog, maybe have a little land outside of the city, but he could have a cool apartment in Theopolis too, maybe right above the shop, maybe not. He could maybe have a cat instead, or both I’m not sure. He doesn’t dress too flashy but is never truly messy or dirty, and he’s alone a lot. Mike also happens to be gay. Its not something a lot of people know about Mike, but not because he is closeted or shy about it. Mike is a pretty public guy in general. He just doesn’t get into things about his personal life unless they come up. But Rachel has known him a long time, since undergrad, not to mention how very astute she is, so she knows. Now, the question is, are they friends who share intimate details with each other and support one another in their struggles, or has Rachel avoided Mike’s store wherever possible since she found out about his “condition,” and is outspoken against Mike and the shop and Theopolis’ gay community and Theopolis’ increasingly tolerant if not progressively inclusive policies concerning homosexual members of the university community? I think its worth talking about.