Thursday, May 07, 2009

I didn't know we had birds

The LA Times has an article called The Rigors of Life Unplugged.

It discusses an experiment to have high school kids turn off their television, iPods, cellphones, Blackberry's and computers for a week, and includes soundbite interviews of the unlucky class mates. Being the Luddite LA Times of course, it takes the tack that internet access is an addiction, the kids "had no idea just how sick [they were]" and presents the whole deal as though it was a much needed bout of Cold Turkey. The kids are on the strong stuff, and only tough love from a real down-to-earth newspaper can save them from themselves. They even slip up at one point and call it a 'media fast". A media fast? Did they also ask the class to give up their paper LA Times? Why do I suspect they didn't, hmm?

Without Evil Tech to find work for their idle hands to do, the kids, as we used to do, Made Their Own Fun. One cleaned his room. One read an entire Harry Potter book.
Without her headphones blocking out the real world, Flor Salvador heard strange chirping sounds."I didn't know we had birds!" she wrote in her journal.
I didn't know she had birds either. I bought the re-release of The Kills' first album, and I've been listening to that. I guess I missed them.

I found the LA Times article, not through reading the LA Times though actually, LA Times, if you're reading this, I did try to read my paper copy of the LA Times at lunch today but was interrupted by someone who wanted to talk about zombies and the Archie McPhee catalogue – obviously he Makes His Own Fun – and didn't get to this article.

John Scalzi picked up the article. Here's Scalzi's commenters' takes on it.

When thinking about the girl who didn't know she had birds, the comments briefly morphed into "what the real world looks like", and brought up one woman who had never seen leaves – until she got glasses and realized the big fuzzy blob was actually a tree covered in separate green leaves. That struck a chord with me. (Interesting that there isn't a visual metaphor equivalent to "strike a chord" – I wonder why music gets the honors there?)

I was very short-sighted as a kid. Nobody noticed, of course, and I certainly didn't, particularly as things are weird when you're growing up. For instance, all your teeth fall out, and you don't even panic, and then some more grow behind them and you think this is all perfectly natural. So everything going fuzzy was just something that happens. Anyway, when I couldn't see the blackboard any more, the teachers sent me for glasses.

When I first saw the stars, I cried.

I ended up getting more and more short-sighted of course, and eventually, after many years of increasingly thick glasses and more years of contacts, I had RK (radial keratotomy), and suddenly I could see my feet when I got out of bed in the morning. (Among other things.) Of course, when I saw the stars with my naked eyes for the first time, I cried, again. This time the crying hurt more because I'd just had RK, which involves slicing your eyeball open with a razor.

Seeing the real world - if there is such a thing, ultimately – is rare even in places without technology. It's perfectly possible to never look outside because the model of the universe in your own head is more satisfying than the one that is actually draped all over the dirt outdoors. I believe many people prefer the company of their thoughts to the "Look! A patch of grass!" school of going for bracing walks in the country air.

Never seeing the world, of course, will eventually lead to a bad case of Third Artist Syndrome. TAS was, I believe, coined by Jo Walton and refers to the progression of artistic expression. The first artist goes paints from life. The second artist copies the first artist, and is often more technically adept, having grown up with the techniques. The third artist only copies the second artist. Nowadays, I suppose, the third artist simply samples/ctrl-c_ctrl-v's the second artist.

The first artist paints what's there. The second artist paints the same things because that's what the first artist did. The third artist is "playing with the furniture in the doll's house". His art is not related to life, but involves moving around elements that are traditionally present.

I remember reading an interview with, I think, the head of Studio Ghibli. He was finding it hard to get animators, or at least animators he liked. All the applicants were great animators. They'd watched lots and lots and lots of anime and were very good at it. But he didn't want someone who knew all the anime techniques. He wanted someone who had observed real life and could draw it. Had any of the applicants ever actually seen a fire burning? No.

The way to get over Third Artist Syndrome is to go back to basics, paint or draw from life, become a first artist.

Beyond the Beyond discusses an article in the New Statesman that claims technophilia has led to a kind of third artist depletion of morale. In Parasitically Paralyzed by Digital Technology. Cultural Exhaustion Sets In Bruce Sterling quotes from the New Statesman article:
"Those of us who grew up in the decades between the 1960s and the 1990s became accustomed to rapid changes in popular culture. Theorists of future shock such as Alvin Toffler and Marshall McLuhan plausibly claimed that our nervous systems were themselves sped up by these developments, which were driven by the development and proliferation of technologies. Popular artefacts were marked with a technological signature that dated them quite precisely: new technology was clearly audible and visible, so that it would be practically impossible, say, to confuse a film or a record from the early 1960s with one from even half a decade later. The current decade, however, has been characterised by an abrupt sense of deceleration. A thought experiment makes the point. Imagine going back 15 years in time to play records from the latest dance genres – dubstep, or funky, for example – to a fan of jungle. One can only conclude that they would have been stunned – not by how much things had changed, but by how little things have moved on. Something like jungle was scarcely imaginable in 1989, but dubstep or funky, while by no means pastiches, sound like extrapolations from the matrix of sounds established a decade and a half ago. Needless to say, it is not that technology has ceased developing. What has happened, however, is that technology has been decalibrated from cultural form."
That decalibration is not just from cultural form, however, but from the roots of the culture itself. Music is further down the road than most things – way back in the eighties my favorite band was called Pop Will Eat Itself – but it's affecting the cartoonists too, and I suppose the LA Times is expecting (or 'calling for', as the newspapers say) an imminent Grey Goo of the Mind, when there's nothing to do but rearrange the furniture in the doll's house, endlessly, like a Philip K Dick character off his rails. I doubt that'll happen. It's easy to get to be a first artist again. You can go outside right now and hear the birds.

"Look! A patch of grass!" © Ivor Cutler. Do yourself a favor, stay in and put Ivor on the mp3 player. You owe it to yourself.

No comments:


Blog Widget by LinkWithin
I sometimes mention a product on this blog, and I give a URL to Amazon or similar sites. Just to reassure you, I don't get paid to advertise anything here and I don't get any money from your clicks. Everything I say here is because I feel like saying it.