Monday, January 26, 2009

7 Grams

It's amazing how much easier it is to be taken seriously if your name happens to be prefaced by the words 'Harvard' or 'physicist', let alone both. Thus earlier this month Harvard physicist Alex Wissner-Gross managed to get the British Sunday Times to repeat his claim that a typical Internet search generates about 7 grams of CO2, a little less than half the amount produced when you boil a kettle of water. In its first incarnation, the article was subtly entitled 'Google and you'll damage the planet', later revised, once it transpired that the claim was - how shall I put it? - a little overstated, into the somewhat softer 'Revealed: the environmental impact of Google searches'. It turns out that the average Google search generates only 0.2 grams of CO2, which is one 35th of the original claim, and one 75th of the emissions released by boiling a kettle of water. Google took polite exception, and offered on its official blog the above more reasoned estimate, later accepted by the Times in an update to the original article.

Case closed, then? Storm in a teapot? I would say not quite, but regardless of that I find the story interesting for a number of different reasons. Firstly, there is the initial headline of the article. Think about it: Google and you'll damage the planet. It says so much about the poverty of the public discourse over technology, doesn't it? Go back to the inaugural post of this blog (go on, you know you want to) and you'll find that it was sparked by an almost identical alarmist phrase: 'The Trouble Started with a Google Search'.

It's not just that it's daft to equate Internet searches with one of the search engine companies (Google probably doesn't mind that, in spite of their claims to the contrary). It's equating the act of searching for information, or parsing the results of such a search, with the medium on which the search is conducted that is misleading. It's not so much 'Google and you'll damage the planet', as 'search for information and you'll damage the planet'. Going to the library or consulting in person a public archive instead of using your home computer is likely to produce quite a bit of CO2. And books, ah, making books releases a lot of CO2 and destroys trees to boot. Best avoided altogether.

Besides: why not 'Make tea and you'll damage the planet?' Is it because we are already wise to the evils of kettle-boiling? And I'd like to know a little more, while we're at it. How big is this kettle? Are the hobs gas or electric? How was the energy produced and transported? So on the one hand it's basically the same ridiculous feeling I associate with using horse power as a unit of measurement: nobody is going to convince me that in a race between a Ferrari 360 Modena and a cart pulled by four hundred and one horses, the cart is favoured to win. But in this case we're not even remotely comparing like for like. Pit a search engine versus looking for the same kind of information offline, and I might be more inclined to listen.

But we knew all this before, didn't we? Put Facebook, Google, Beebo into your average media outlet search facility, and it's like fashioning your own generator of random alarmist headlines, or of sweeping and unwarranted leaps of metaphor. La Repubblica claims the top entry today with the headline 'A rischio sul web la memoria globale' (The World's Memory at Risk on the Web), rehashing the always popular - and dismayingly reductionist - identification of the sum of online content with the collective memory of humankind. We're all familiar with this sort of thing.

But perhaps the work of Professor Wissner-Gross, in spite of the out-of-whackness of the initial claim and the enduring conflict of interest (as Jason Kincaid notes, he co-founded this company, which helps websites reduce their carbon footprint) deserves to be looked at again. For taking a Google search as the unit of activity on the Net is not unreasonable, and measuring its environmental impact is not without its practical and conceptual benefits.

Because let's face it, when it gets to the kinds of technology that manipulate symbols - as opposed to boiling water, or transporting your body somewhere - it's easy to lose sight of the material side. Your computer is a solid chunk of stuff including, but not limited to, acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene, silica, quite a bit of gold and a number of known poisons. It uses energy at work and even at rest - something that the many people who keep their machines on at night seem to be either unaware or dismissive of. But the experience of using it is so out-of-bodily at times that we (I'm making assumptions here) forget about the chunk of stuff altogether, as well as the whizzing electrons and the underground cables and the service personnel and your power bill and the greenhouse emissions and the economy that sustains the whole thing etcetera, etcetera. We get lost in the seduction and the abstraction.

But using a computer makes things happen, not only locally but also remotely. Operating a Google search fires up simultaneously a number of Google servers in different, undisclosed locations. That's what your average 0.2 seconds and 0.2 grams of CO2 buys you, and it's before you've even clicked onto one of the results. Multiply that for your daily activity, then multiply that by the number of computer users on the planet, and it's bound to amount to quite a few KWs (kettle-worths). Just how many? The best current estimate is that the IT industry has the same impact on the environment as the commercial aviation industry. It's not a net impact, of course, we're still faced with the impossible task of subtracting the activities that we'd be carrying out without computers, including no doubt fewer, but individually far costlier, searches for information. But it is something real nonetheless, a thing with weight, as are the cathedrals of discarded computers leeching hazardous substances that dot the planet.

It pays in so many ways to be aware. There are people out there who are seriously entertaining the notion of a digital afterlife, the transfer of mental life onto the machine. Next time one of these witnesses knocks on your door, sit them down at the kitchen table and ask them to account for the cost of maintenance of the electronic heavens. Demand figures and projections. But it's not just about nagging others - as I do weekly in this space - but also gaining a sharper sense of our own entanglements and interdependencies, and of the some time measurable weight, down to the gram, of our habitual actions. Or, as John Ryan and Alan Durning put it in their excellent Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, it's about learning to manage your wake.

But for now I'm going to kindly ask you to hold this thought until the next instalment of this most slow-going series on the ecology of memory. I promise to fail to get to the point then too.

Bonus Track
My Life with Legumes
An occasional series*
1. That One Time When I Was Woken Up by Chickpeas

The following really happened to me two weeks or so ago. I was in bed, around midnight, when I was woken up by a click-clickety noise coming from the kitchen. I got up to investigate, but couldn't locate the source of the noise. Nobody seemed to be trying to force the back door. Could it be a mouse or rat inside the wall? Nah: the noise was much too crisp, like when you pop the bubbles on that irresistible packaging plastic.

It took me half an hour to work it out, by which time I had been driven halfway round the bend: the sound came from a bowl of chickpeas that Justine had left to soak in water. Slowly their skins were starting to crack open.

(*) inspired by the fact that so many people find this blog while searching for information about beans.

Monday, January 19, 2009

How I spent My Summer Holiday

By the time I was born my parents had closed the book on their life of tramping and mountaineering, and most of our holidays became art affairs. I do wonder sometimes if they might have overestimated a tad the level of my enjoyment of the chosen destinations and activities, at least when I was a toddler: my mother for instance always spoke of the fact that when I was two years of age I tumbled into the François tomb, that great masterpiece of Etruscan funerary art, as a sign of a precocious passion for all things ancient, as opposed to poor gross motor skills, as was no doubt the case. Be that as it may, save for a stretch of four or five years when we joined a group of dear friends for camping holidays on the seaside at Santa Maria di Leuca - the very tip of the heel of the boot that is Italy - we caravanned around Italy first, then Yugoslavia and Spain and France and Greece and England, and hardly a church, scarcely a museum was left un-visited. Spain and Greece, in particular, we both "did" in three weeks or so each. That is a lot of art and archaeology to cram into so short a time. To say nothing of the fact that we must be the only people ever to have toured Greece without dipping so much as a toe in the Aegean sea.

Cramming does funny things to memory: I have perhaps five or six snapshots of Spain in my head; Greece is the Acropolis, the Charioteer of Delphi, a sunset in Thessaloniki, a grilled swordfish that nobody thought I was going to be able to finish - but I did. All those memories are quite vivid but beg the question of why we even chose to do more than four or five things per trip. Okay, maybe not literally, but what was there to gain in attempting to see everything? In my father's case, I wonder now whether he felt that every trip to a destination was going to be his last time there. His father had died in his fifties, so it wasn't an unreasonable expectation, and it's only natural that as a child I should look at a very different time horizon. To this day my attitude hasn't changed much, in fact: I seldom treat a trip as anything other than a chance to see a place that I am going to have the option of re-visiting an indefinite number of times. Foolish, I know.

And it's not as if I have any regrets, those holidays are the stuff that the history of my family is largely made of. But from a detached, philosophical standpoint, visiting countries in this way strikes me nowadays as almost predatory. We never had meaningful interactions with the locals, beyond innumerable transactions with members of the hospitality industry. We let our Touring Club guidebooks tell us what was worth seeing and what wasn't (each attraction had one star, two stars or none, based on criteria that were never explicitly questioned in my presence). We motored through museums, 'taking' the artworks we had come to see and ignoring the rest. And culture could be curiously misplaced, of course, so for instance to this day for me some of the best Flemish art comes from Spain, because it's at the Prado that I saw Bruegel's Triumph of Death.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Triumph of Death (detail)

All of these artworks, these fragments of past cultures that oftentimes had been produced elsewhere in the first place, came with very little context other than what was offered by the trusty guidebooks, and by my parents' not insignificant and mostly self-taught knowledge of such things. But the museums themselves I cannot remember at all, other than for their contents, which they displayed on blank walls alongside small plaques bearing name of the artist, title of the piece, year of creation (if known). Perhaps a museum is meant to be just that, a plain, non-memorable backdrop, secure and carefully climate-controlled, where to admire masterpieces. Attempts have been made to call attention to the building itself - notably by the Louvre in recent years - but ultimately it's the Mona Lisa that people come to see.

Maybe so. But since moving to New Zealand, and being introduced by institutions such as Te Papa to the notion of the cultural museum, I've often thought that my own country and others comparably blessed in terms of artistic heritage could benefit greatly from this kind of approach. I love the Uffizi, it's one of my favourite places on earth: but if it could provide me with some history, with an idea of the times that produced the works of Giotto and Duccio, of Michelangelo and Raphael, wouldn't that be something of value? I'm thinking of kids who might not be as lucky as I was, to have passionate and knowledgeable parents (to a fault, one might say). But without context, and an understanding of the sets of connections and relations that inscribe artefacts into the culture that produced them, the past is truly - as in my all time least-favourite quotation - 'a foreign country'.

Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand in Wellington, won't stand for that sort of thing. Nor will the many early settlers, ethnographic and historical museums that dot the country, and that range in my admittedly limited experience from the early colonial village Justine and I visited eight or nine years ago in Greytown - where a ginger cat gave us a guided tour of the otherwise deserted little square where a church, a fire station, a primary school and a shed full of old farming implements stood - to the highly impressive Waipu Museum, self-styled 'best small museum in New Zealand' and northernmost destination of our recent summer holiday.

What follows might be in some way influenced by the outrageously kind and gracious hospitality of Lyn and Tony, who took into their home the equivalent of a little motorised plague of locusts - that's how I'd describe a family travelling by car and comprising three kids aged zero to seven - without ever letting their bonhomie be even remotely affected by all the screaming and the tantrums (and that was just us adults), but I vigorously recommend a visit to this museum if you happen to find yourself in Northland - and there's no earthly reason why you shouldn't.

For one thing, the place used to be called "Memory Hall" - so how could I not like it, right? For another, it tells in a manner that is both meticulous and engaging how the town came to be. For such a small place - Waipu has a population of 1,491 according the most recent census - it is truly an outstanding resource, a museum/library where all but the most recent of residents can trace back family histories and contribute their own artefacts and stories. The production values are easily worthy of a national museum and the endeavour must have represented a significant investment on the part of the local community; it bears noting therefore that it's at least partly a by-product of local affluence, and not something that every small town can aspire to regardless of circumstances. It also helps that the history of the settlement is truly remarkable, the result of the long peregrinations of a staunch group of some 800 Scottish migrants, led by the charismatic figure of their pastor, Rev. Norman McLeod, who together travelled first to Nova Scotia, then to Australia and finally reached New Zealand in the 1850s. South of the township, and also highly worthy of a visit, is the cemetery where the people whose deeds are celebrated at the museum are buried. It is difficult not to be struck there by a rather powerful sense of place, or rather of places, because the distances covered in the most dangerous and desperate of circumstances by the people who came to rest here make themselves keenly felt as well.

The telling of history is a difficult business, and just as one does at Te Papa, so too at the Waipu Museum it is hard not to wonder about other histories that might have been left out. How did the relationship with the local tangata whenua, the people of Patuharakeke, develop after those early and apparently amicable encounters? What was it like not to share the worldview of Rev. McLeod? What were the mechanisms of assimilation and exclusion of this staunch and devoted community? Fantasising about what a museum of this kind would look like in my native Milan I can only begin to imagine how much more contentious and numerous such questions would be - the politics that such a museum would have to navigate, intersecting with secessionist aspirations of the local politicians, our recent fascist history, the mythologies of industry and self-made worth that remain an enduring source of pride in spite of the harsh reality of our decline, truly make my head spin. But I'd really like somebody to try. We should be more like Waipu.

Before I go, I entreat you to read Chris Gosden's recent piece in the Material World blog, entitled The Relational Museum, for a much more in-depth and informed treatment by a scholar and practitioner of some of the issues I've touched upon. A teaser will suffice here:
Older ways of thinking about museums, as sets of static, decontextualised objects, are unhelpful [...] and inaccurate. Museum objects are in a very definite set of contexts, even if they have been through a series of networks and relations to get where they are at present. The Relational Museum project, which ran from 2002 to 2006, was based around the idea that museum objects to some degree conceal the mass of relations that lie behind them, ranging from the people who originally made and used the objects, to all parties to their trade and transfer and ending, for now at least, with the curators, conservators and visitors who make up the museum community in the present.
And lastly, I realise that the post's title could expose me to charges of false advertising. So here's a snapshot from the holiday, nicely capturing - if I say so myself - the adorable little locusts in a rare moment of peace as well as a sense of how hot it was up north.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Waltz with Bashir

Memory takes us where we need to go.
Waltz with Bashir

The plan this week was to stay true to the blogger code and talk about my summer holidays. But the images and the reports from Gaza have painted me into another diarist's corner: whether to add my own trite, futile and ultimately perhaps self-congratulatory ounce of outrage and dismay, or determine that it's outside of my job description, that this is no way to help, and move on. If you happen to be a political activist, you can act, organise and channel the outrage and the dismay somewhere else, perhaps, and hopefully (in the fullest sense of the adverb). But one's regular place of public writing, however small the audience, is a privilege that requires confronting the topics of the day, and measuring what it would mean not to mention them - even when it serves no apparent concrete purpose.

But of course it's not only a dilemma for idle bloggers. When September 11 happened, American show business turned its back on one of its favourite maxims and went into a prolonged collective hiatus. This included shows that were as much about the political and cultural commentary as the entertainment, chief among them The Daily Show, which went off air for ten days and when it came back, after a tearful introduction by Jon Stewart which has been doing the rounds on YouTube ever since, proceeded to show old clips. Some years later, that same programme showed an animation of the numbers 9 and 11 having sex in a Rudolph Giuliani wet dream. But that was then, and the self-censorship of Stewart et al. - some might say their necessary restraint - ensured that only trained, authorised personnel were allowed to talk in the media about the attacks and their aftermath.

The most notable of the alternative voices to break this particular silence was perhaps The Onion, which went to press with its 'Holy Fucking Shit' issue, as lucid and insightful a piece of commentary as I have seen before or since. These days unfortunately the issue can only be pieced together from the magazine archives, and then only if you happen to know which articles it comprised - which I do. So here's the list. You'll get a pretty good idea of the thrust by reading the titles alone, but do click on the links if you haven't come across the material before. It's well worth it.

What The Onion demonstrated on this occasion was a willingness to break the code. Perhaps a mainstream publication simply could not go there, I don't know, but the value of alternative voices is also to break the deadlock of the mainstream pundits, with their endless rationalisations, and to interfere with the decorum and the established way of doing things - including when is the right time to stop caring about a humanitarian emergency. As another Onion headline later proclaimed: 'A Shattered Nation Longs to Care for Stupid Bullshit Again'. But we're not quite there yet.

And while we're not there, the focussed attention of the world's audience represents (yet another) opportunity to comprehend the history of - as per Hanoch Marmari this week- this 'ancient dispute'. After all, as Avi Shlaim writes in The Guardian 'the only way to make sense of Israel's senseless war in Gaza is through understanding the historical context'. Except it isn't a history, and thus a context, of course, but as many histories and contexts as there are commentators vying to tell them. It is developing into quite the art form. And amongst so many competing voices, asserting authority becomes a matter of credentials, not just in terms of what you know and how you came to know it, but also the ideology that filtered this knowledge. Thus The Guardian prefaces Shlaim's contribution by informing us that he is 'Oxford professor of international relations,' 'served in the Israeli army,' and 'never questioned the state's legitimacy'. Here we have the perfectly pitched voice, then: a scholar trained in the technology of establishing fact, and one whose conclusions are unassailable by accusations of anti-Israel(i) or, worse, anti-semitic bias. And these conclusions truly are devastating, pointing the finger against Israel's expansionism past the Green Line as the ruthless root cause, the injustice whence all other injustices, grievances, martyrdoms have come.

I'd encourage you to read Shlaim's piece, and though you might disagree with it, in whole or in part, hope that you'll concur with me that we need more dissenting voices. We need more peace demonstrations in Tel Aviv, more Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews coming together around the world to say that this needs to stop.

(We also need fewer stupid, revolting stunts such as this one in Wellington. How we try to comprehend, our behaviour on the sidelines, the influence and pressure we bring to bear on our governments, in our societies, does matter.)

We need dissenting voices, too, to do the necessary work of memory, to call into question the official lines and reconcile the impossibly antithetical histories that are also at war. It is this kind of work that Ari Folman takes upon himself in the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir.

'Upon himself' indeed, for Waltz with Bashir is the story of Folman's own journey back to memory, the reconstruction of his role as combatant during the war in Lebanon of the 1980s and in particular of his involvement in the massacre of Sabra and Shatila. Here in September 1982 troops of Christian phalangists murdered anything between 400 and 3,500 Palestinian refugees - a number that has always eluded official reckoning - with the acquiescence, and in effect complicity, of the Israeli troops then in charge of Beirut. But at the film's outset Folman has no recollection of those days, and of the role he might have played, if any, save for the knowledge of having been there, in Beirut, at the time. That he was amongst the soldiers stationed outside the camp, and who lit the scene with flares so that the militiamen could continue their work at night, is a truth that gradually reforms in his mind as he talks to former comrades and others (look out in particular for the role played by reporter Ron Ben-Yshai's account), and that preludes to the chilling transition, in the film final's sequence, from animation - which itself served up to that point to cloak memory, distort, displace and to an extent attenuate its horrors - to the archival footage shot by the first reporters entering the camps. Thus too the personal story of Folman and of his publicly worn guilt turns into an interrogation of collective memory, asking us what it is that we know, what it is that we remember.

Each chapter of this, or any other conflict, is a duty to memory that extends beyond the theatre of events. Down the road there may be trials, commissions of inquiry, censures and amnesties - means of establishing officially sanctioned truths - or none of these things, but in the meantime how do we, the world's spectators, stop ourselves from looking away, and remember Gaza in 2008 versus Gaza in 2006, then Ramallah and Beirut and Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and so on rewinding, as discrete events, chapters in a story that needs a resolution, as opposed to the same page written over and over, or the endless rerun of a docudrama? A state of crisis always in the present tense, after all, becomes normalcy and something to be preserved, for fear of what might happen should that equilibrium be broken ('we have always been at war with Oceania'). The timeliness of Waltz with Bashir is that its search for the past, and the obstinate, unrelenting manner in which it is conducted, restore a perception of history, of beginnings and endings, giving a context to the outrage, and to the desperate urgency of today: this needs to stop.

Waltz with Bashir (Wals Im Bashir, Israel 2008, dir. Ari Folman).
Go see this film. I owe my own prodding to the review on Philip Matthews' blog, and I thank him for it.