In/Dependence: Surviving Sandy

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In October 2012 I slept through the Superstorm Sandy while neighbourhoods a mile or two away were flooding.

Awaiting the storm the night before, I thought I was clever in evoking “Media Storm” on my Facebook status update. Merely a mediamyrsky, I wrote in Finnish. I remembered how a year prior, with the Hurricane Irene coming to NYC, among the virtually concerned was my former hairdresser from Helsinki who had styled me five years prior.

Walking the dog around the blog, I also shot this small video for my online students:

Waiting for Hurricane Sandy and Talking Public Sphere.

Such a crazy media storm it was. I followed the flooding of the subway, devastation of other Brooklynites, mean or fantastic misinformation by trolls, silly jokes and crazy rants, random acts of online kindness, and amazing mobilizations. I created this simple Storify for my students to remind us of the contradictory, messy, muddy information flood of online social media platforms.

But it was only when  taking a walk in the hood, after four days, in sunshine, that Sandy finally got to me.

Media storm isn’t the real deal.

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In/Dependence: Swirling Communities

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The trending word for gatherings, groupings, meetings of the minds online seems to be — community. Job ads look for community managers. Blogs get written about how to build a community around your brand.

In the recent past, 20th century, thinkers have positioned societies as opposite to communities. The former are structural manifestations; about faceless organizations of humans into functioning arrangements. The latter have carried a nostalgic sense of emotional belonging that relates to one’s roots; whether geographically, culturally, or ideologically. Communities are cozy, nurturing, supportive — communal.

The past decades, observers have noted that the world has entered a postmodern state where nothing is permanent — ideologies, all kinds of power relations,  let alone structures of societies. They have argued that as we see this insecurity and impermanence in our highly formalized institutionalized and impersonal societies, we desperately seek refuge. We long for warmth and support. We want to connect as communities, but can we?

Enter the Internet. Fears of impermanence lift. Changes are embraced, seen as a way to bring down old borders — whether geographic, economic, social. Many celebrate the democratizing power shift of the online era and argue for a formation of a global public arena. The most optimistic voices hail the transformation of passive  ‘mass audiences’ and mass consumption, not only into a Global Village (where virtually everyone knows about one another, virtually), but into communities acting out of an inherent desire to participate, unleashed by social media platforms and tools. And online, we all can have a say, create independently, be whom, and with whom, we want to be. Right?

How free are online communities? How spontaneously are they formed, how unrestricted are they can operate? In the documentary We Are Legion, a member of the online group the Anonymous describes their way of organizing:

No one forces you to participate. You can always say you’re out. People act online like a flock of birds, just swirling around, until one flies to a certain direction — and then others follow.

Every idea/l of a  community — and democracy — includes some kind of co-dependency. As in: We are responsible for one another. We want all to have the same opportunities. We care for those in need, as helping one means helping the entire community.

So: the question of online communities is: Do they thrive on independence or dependency?  Is there a coop where all the pigeons meet; where they can come together, decide to act together, with a direction, for a common cause? Or, is the ambiguous swirling, and an instinct to follow at times, the new model for today’s communities?

A New National Pastime

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An article on CNN.com suggests that the new US pastime is not baseball, not TV, but … multitasking:

No one can take the public’s attention for granted today; first the advent of cable television fragmented viewing patterns, and then came the boundless Internet, followed by the creative forces that provide the content for all those little personal screens. Apple offers around 700,000 separate applications, as does Google. A lot of ways to pass the time, in a nation with a twitching concentration span.

Nostalgia

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About a year ago I stopped to admire a table full of finely refurbished old-fashioned typewriters at the outdoor flea market in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I chatted with the young man selling the typewriters. I commented that it was interesting and surprising to see an entire “store” full of analog devices.

“Who are your best clients?” I asked. He replied that he often sold the machines — at about $100 each — to young writers who wanted to leave the computer behind and to try out writing as one would have 40+ years ago.

I was surprised by the high price, and the apparent popularity of used typewriters, because only a few years ago they seemed to be regarded as completely obsolete.

I bought my typewriter, on which I’ve written many typo-filled letters, around 2004 at a Goodwill in Montreal. The machine, a charming mint green model, cost about $5 and was to my eyes a good hybrid been functionality and old-time charm. At the time that I bought it, it was only one of perhaps fifty typewriters lying forlornly on a shelf in the thrift shop’s cluttered backroom, and all were offered for rock-bottom prices.

My only trouble until now has been finding replacement ribbons for my typewriter, leading me to odd corners of cities to find typewriter supply stores which seem to have died out one after another. But, perhaps this trend will shift… (If you are in NYC check out Typewriters & Things at 13th and 8th Avenue.)

Neuromancer, by cyber-punk author William Gibson, was famously written on a typewriter.  This is perhaps not entirely surprising as it was published in 1984. But, still, one might have expected that this ground breaking novel, which evocatively imagined a cyber-future not terribly unlike our reality 30 years later, would have been written with the most futuristic tools of the day.

Gibson has indeed confirmed that “the novel was written on a 1927 model of an olive-green Hermes portable typewriter, which looked to him as “the kind of thing Hemingway would have used in the field”. In 2007, the writer commented:

I have a 2005 PowerBook G4, a gig of memory, wireless router. That’s it. I’m anything but an early adopter, generally. In fact, I’ve never really been very interested in computers themselves. I don’t watch them; I watch how people behave around them.  That’s becoming more difficult to do because everything is “around them”.

For some visuals, check out this post with photos of about 20 authors and their typewriters — Sylvia Plath is pictured below.

The connection between typewriters and authors of the past or of older generations isn’t too odd, but why this apparent nostalgia for typewriters among younger writers (including myself)? As one commentator posits, perhaps the  “typewriter will become the record player of the literary world: a dusty old contraption that becomes fashionable among a generation of people who have always had access to newer, sleeker versions of the same thing.”

Portlandia’s Dream of the 1890s highlights the pop-culture hipness of simpler, analog living in a more general way. The popular TV show’s music video parodies the fact that in Portland — as 120 years ago — people are: “pickling their own vegetables, brewing their own beer … knitting, sewing clothes for their children … are wearing glasses all the time like contact lenses had never been invented … kids grow up to be artisan bakers, everyone has homemade haircuts and men shave with straight razors … people raise their own chickens and cure their own meat…”.

The best commentary I’ve seen on this subject — of why it’s popular to do things in an old-fashioned way that is rather time consuming and inefficient compared to contemporary alternatives — was a long and winding Swedish article which drew connections between hipster culture’s longing for “things that take a long time” (like making sourdough bread) and the speedy digital world that we find ourselves in. The author pointed out that in many ways this hip lifestyle, of growing one’s own vegetables or composting or picking up crochet,  allows one to pursue the pleasures and benefits of delayed gratification — e.g. passing up an immediate reward for a bigger reward gained by waiting.

On a bigger level, we can consider that we live in a society where, for the most part, we aren’t encouraged to develop the art of waiting embedded in practices that connect us to the basics of life such as growing food, sewing clothing, or preserving things for the winter. Things ranging from computers to grocery stores to iPods to global brands like H&M present us with incredibly easy and fast access to information, music, food, pants & shoes for which we, for the most part, haven’t had to wait for or participate in creating.

Yet, one’s experience of eating a cabbage is different if it took you 15 minutes to drive to the grocery store, buy it, and head back to eat it for dinner versus if you grew it yourself. I speak from experience looking at the last cabbage left from our garden which is resting on the kitchen counter — the result of many months of care, slow growing, summer evening walks through the garden, and mini-battles with slugs and caterpillars.

It is absolutely a luxury to be able to zip down to the supermarket and buy tomatoes, oranges, eggs, chocolate, etc. in Sweden in November. But, is there not something lost in the process of creating or tending to something oneself — the waiting, the working, the time and memory infused?

Through this lens one can see the hip activities of concocting one’s own bitters, caring for bees, or chopping wood as intentional reactions to a digital, global culture which gives us everything at — almost literally — the push of a button. And yet, fails to deeply satisfy.

We desire, it seems, things that we can put our hands on; understand on a human scale; or fix or do ourselves. A LONGING for the real, the natural, the slow. A desire for things that, unlike our experience of the digital world, are:

  • physical — the clanking sound of typewriter keys or the clip of a film projector
  • limited — finiteness of a record vs. all the digital albums one could download in 1 hour
  • knowable — the fix-ability of an old appliance vs. the digital complexity of a new one

A real-life example of this exploration of doing things simply / by hand / at home is the charming blog Homemade Crackers which documents the adventures of a young Canadian family of five: “One day we wondered why we had never tried making crackers before. This blog is our journey to make more at home, find local ingredients and become supermarket-free.”  Here are is beautiful grape juice they’ve made:

Or, check out the related Beehive Craft Collective: “Bound together by a common thread of making things by hand, this collective was formed in 2011 by members of the arts community in Hamilton, Ontario. Focusing on handmade, DIY, and sustainability, we hope to engage and promote a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity.” A quilting project:

Of course, there is a difference between being able to make the choice to live more simply and having that be a fact of life. Similarly, as choosing to be offline or analog is different than having no other option. But, it is pretty interesting that quite a few people are making that choice to the extent that one can in a digital society.