Monday, February 23, 2009

The Stuff of Life

Regular readers would have noticed last week that this blog’s masthead was blacked out in protest of section 92A of the New Zealand copyright amendment bill, a piece of legislation ostensibly designed to curb illegal downloads but fraught with a number of troubling shortcomings. It was a worthy enough cause to lend one’s largely symbolic support to, and I was happy to be a part of that. But I also came to wonder, as others did, why so many people in so many places - the protest reached as far as the shores of Stephen Fry - felt so strongly about an obscure and quite possibly unenforceable piece of legislation whose actual consequences are difficult to quantify or foresee. (Although those very difficulties are of course part of the problem.)

If I may dare to summarise: we* don’t like the principle, that one can be found guilty of a copyright infringement without a right to defence and due process, and we* don’t like the implications, in terms of who is empowered to regulate the circulation of information on the Net. I stand behind all that. But there is much symbolism besides, starting from the names of two foundations - one local, the other based in the US and very influential worldwide - strenuously opposed to this type of legislation: Creative Freedom and Electronic Frontier. There is a world of assumptions in those two names alone, to wit: that cyberspace is a new frontier, a space that can be and should be constructed and furnished according to new principles, a new idealism regarding how knowledge can be exchanged and for the benefit of whom. In Collective Intelligence, Pierre Lévy argues that this will be nothing less than ‘the major architectural project of the twenty-first century’ (p. 10). And again I am not opposed to any of that. But I did set out last week to ridicule the proponents of cyberization of the self and of digital immortality, and I think I need to account for the intersections of some of these assumptions, ours* and theirs. It is only fair.

We*, ours*, those are some densely packed pronouns, and therein the problem lies - hence the asterisks (hereinafter to be mentally supplied by the reader). We can talk of greater access to knowledge, democracy of ideas, the commons. But for whom? Not for my mother, I can tell you that. Her use of the computer is limited to the acts of switching on and then off - Windows and Skype load all by themselves. In the meantime her favourite newspaper might be in some strife due to the pressures put on that business model by the fact that I can read it for free from the opposite side of the world, so she might lose one of her principal ways of tapping into cultural debates - many of which have shifted decisively onto the Net anyway. It could be countered that she was simply unlucky to be caught at the wrong end of a generational shift, and that had she been born twenty or thirty years later a person of her background and experiences - a graduate, a teacher - would surely have caught the wave. But besides the fact that I think we should spare a thought or two for the people stuck in that particular generational crevice, such exclusions cannot be dismissed as an accident of transition, as if in the future everyone will be equally well-placed to make use of the digital and claim its privileges: education, aptitude, socio-economic conditions, professional vocation and geography will all play a part.

In characterising the debate about s92A and how heated it had become, Russell Brown pointed out last week that the ‘people on the web side of the argument… tend to regard connectivity as the stuff of life.’ And I can see myself in that statement, worryingly so in fact. I know all too well how little I can function, professionally but to an extent also socially, during an Internet outage. I can tell you exactly what proportion of my income - all of it - depends on the existence of a global interconnected network. I know how crucial for my life in New Zealand is the ability to keep a figurative foot in Italy and to take my work with me when need or whim demands that I visit there. Connectivity is the stuff of my life, there is no denying it. But doesn’t that put me in the camp of the Nicholas Negropontes and the Gordon Bells of last week’s invective? Aren’t I too a member of the digerati elite, the privileged vanguard who gets to have debates on the future of the networked society, whilst confidently waiting for it to become society, period? Who record ourselves in Twitter form and through blogs and on Facebook, a little more creatively than Mr Bell, sure, but perhaps with the same sense of unexamined self-importance and worth, and occasionally teetering towards the same misguided notion that the only experiences that count are those that can be digitised, and the only people who count are those whose name one can successfully Google?

It is easy to dismiss the silliness of Negroponte and Bell - nobody is digital, and nobody is data - but far easier to overlook, I would suggest, that this is truer for some of us than for others.

Harvest Bird reminded us of this with her poem in response to last week’s post, which impassionately suggested what’s wrong with the thinking of the digital immortalists: it’s not only that you can’t take it with you, but also whom you can’t take with you. I suggested as much in my dissertation, which like HB’s poem was also informed by a grandmother figure (you met her here) standing for all the people who don’t register and fail to be described in the new regime of information. This failure to describe reminds one of those whom the French call sans-papiers, the persons without papers who inhabit society illegally and who are a recurring presence in the late work of Derrida, as well as useful fodder for right wing parties a-scapegoating for the ills of society and anybody who might be looking for an ultra-flexible workforce.

Is that kind of life at the margins what the future holds in store for sans-bits? Not so, responds the digevangelists, salvation will come for them too; they might just have to wait a little longer, is all. Back in 2005 Dr. Ian Pearson of British Telecom reckoned for instance that rich people could expect to be able to have their minds downloaded onto machines by 2050, while the poor will ‘probably have to wait until 2075 or 2080 when it’s routine’.

Everybody will willingly take their place on the ark: of such convictions the cult of information is made. And doesn’t Negroponte advocate one laptop for every child on the planet just so that collective pronoun, that we, can lose any remaining asterisks or qualifiers, become a true WE, us, humankind? Perhaps. But it is myself and a rather differently situated and politicised we that I am addressing today, to warn of the danger of falling into that way of thinking, or one not too far removed, even for progressives who regard cyberspace as an instrument of social reconfiguration and change. Because as the debate itself moves online, from the raft of books published in the last fifteen or so years, its audience too changes, and its modes of production and articulation shift, making it harder to account for non-digital subjects and the non-digital real. But account for them and include them we must, striving to remember those parts of ourselves that reject the transition, as well as the persons - including scores of grandmothers - who are excluded altogether. Nobody I know has said it better than Pierre Lévy in the epilogue of Becoming Virtual, and most extraordinarily just as he is about to claim that the virtual is nothing less than ‘humanity’s new home’:
I love that which is fragile, evanescent, unique, carnal. I appreciate singular and irreplaceable beings and locations, an atmosphere that is forever associated with a situation or a moment. I am convinced that a major element of our morality consists simply in acceptance of being in the world, in not fleeing it, in being there for others and for oneself. But since the subject of this book is virtualization, I have written about virtualization. This does not imply that I have forgotten the other aspects of being, and I would ask the reader not to neglect them either. For the actual is so precious that we must, and at once, attempt to recognize and acclimate the virtualization that destabilizes it. I am convinced that the suffering that arises from submitting to virtualization without understanding it is one of the major causes of the madness and the violence of our time.

Pierre Lévy. Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace. Translated by Robert Bononno. Cambridge, Massachussetts: Perseus Books, 1997.
Pierre Lévy.
Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age. Translated by Robert Bononno. New York and London: Plenum Trade, 1998.

Update: The Museum of You (2): Somebody's Home in Leipzig

A correspondent in Germany got in touch to reveal the rest of the story of the man from the apartment as it has since emerged in the local press. She writes:
A Spiegel journalist found out what had happened to the guy who had lived in the flat. In the English article it just says that he was "a 24 year-old man who had been in trouble with the authorities" (not unusual for the GDR) but it turns out that he had as a 22 year-old apparently said to a border guard that he wanted to go West (as a kind of joke - see also Milan Kundera!) so the authorities (not surprisingly) locked him up for a year or so. His parents set up the flat for him and he lived there for a few months after his release but then he was thrown out of the GDR (put on a train with a one-way ticket to the West) in September 1989. In November the Wall fell and he visited his parents in Leipzig that Christmas. He had found a job as a carpenter in Lower Saxony. On the 19th of September 1990 he was on his way back to Lower Saxony from a building site in Hamburg in a minibus with colleagues when the bus crashed and he was one of those killed, dying of head injuries in a Hamburg hospital on September 21st 1990 aged 25. His parents still live in Leipzig.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Dullest Person I've Ever Come Across

I’m not particularly interesting.
Gordon Bell

I was at the National Library in Wellington this time two weeks ago for a forum on the National Digital Heritage Archive, a project that I’m going to write about in some detail in the coming weeks and months. It was a very enjoyable occasion, and the library needs to be commended for opening it to the public free of charge, as well as for putting the presentation materials online. I’m not going to discuss any of that today, though, I just want to share with you a phrase that Penny Carnaby used in her introduction to the day's proceedings:
We live in a ‘press delete’ generation.
It’s a point I heard her make before, and it’s always struck me because it’s the exact opposite of how I’d characterise our default setting in relation to the digital products of our culture.

How to preserve born-digital objects is of course an important issue in these relatively early stage of the age of bits, and in her capacity of chief librarian of our National Library Ms Carnaby has a right as well as the duty to be concerned. But it seems to me that what is being lost for the most part is not being actively deleted, but vanishes rather due to lack of care, both cultural (digital objects need to circulate in order to remain viable) and technical (to combat the obsolescence of hardware and software, as well as the physical decay of the storage media). I also happen to think, not unrelatedly, that the act of pressing delete has in fact a lot going for it.

For there is another threat our efforts of preservation, and it’s the rate of content generation. I’m waiting for the next HMI report from the Global Information Industry Center to tell us how much information there might be in the world, and just exactly how staggeringly fast it might be growing. As of 2003, the year of the last report, the estimate included the following take-home points:
Print, film, magnetic, and optical storage media produced about 5 exabytes of new information in 2002. Ninety-two percent of the new information was stored on magnetic media, mostly in hard disks.
We estimate that the amount of new information stored on paper, film, magnetic, and optical media has about doubled in the last three years.
An exabyte equals one quintillion bytes, which is to say ten to the eighteenth power. It really is impossible to contemplate a figure like that other than by going ‘wow, that’s loads’. And besides I have all sorts of problems with measuring the information in the world in bytes, as if it were all digital - but I’ll leave that for another rant. The more meaningful and human-readable conclusion is in fact the second one: the amount of new information annually produced doubled between 1999 and 2002. Now ask yourself: has this situation changed in the last six or seven years? Are the cultural and technological conditions in which new information gets produced and stored substantially different, in a way that is likely to have slowed down this rate of increase? If anything, I would say it’s probably the opposite. Blogging, Twitter and Flickr alone would have made sure of that.

So we could equally be saying: we live in a ‘press save' generation, for Save is in fact the default behaviour, when in any sort of doubt, of a computer system in relation to a digital object. Want evidence? When you instruct a computer to delete a file, you are generally asked if you’re sure you want to do it, but when you go to save it, whirr, it just happens.

If you equate information with knowledge, as so many people do nowadays, you may of course opine that none of this constitutes a problem. I will come back to this in a future instalment, and take issue with astute commentator Manuel Castells on whether the talk of an information glut is legitimate and what some of the cultural ramifications of that kind of thinking might be. But today I want to be less subtle and deal with a limit case that perhaps we can all agree upon.

Meet Gordon Bell, IT luminary, former Microsoft executive and dedicated lifelogger. I didn’t seek permission to use the friendly-looking picture on his home page, so kindly navigate to the link above for a glimpse of how he rolls. You’ll see he’s carrying two devices around his neck: one appears to be a voice recorder, while the other is a SenseCam, an experimental Microsoft camera that operates in permanent stand-by mode and wakes up to take pictures every time it sense the heat likely to be emanated by a human body transiting in front of Mr Bell or a change in the lighting conditions suggesting that its carrier might have moved to a new location. This is all part of MyLifeBits, a project initiated by Bell in 1998 but whose origins could be traced back not so much to the visionary genius of Vannevar Bush - as he maintains - but rather to something that Bell’s employer wrote in 1996 in The Road Ahead:
[T]he highway will also make it possible for an individual to keep track of his or her own whereabouts--to lead what we might call "a documented life." Your wallet PC will be able to keep audio, time, location, and eventually even video records of everything that happens to you. It will be able to record every word you say and every word said to you, as well as body temperature, blood pressure, barometric pressure, and a variety of other data about you and your surroundings. It will be able to track your interactions with the highway--all of the commands you issue, the messages you send, and the people you call or who call you. The resulting record will be the ultimate diary and autobiography, if you want one.[1]
Bell wants one, and he’s doing just that. It started with a lot of old-fashioned digitisin’ - of books, scrapbooks, collectibles, papers - and is continuing nowadays with the recording of every waking moment of Bell’s life. As of May 2007, when The New Yorker wrote a piece on MyLifeBits, the archive included, besides the non-born digital objects
a hundred and twenty-two thousand e-mails; fifty-eight thousand photographs; thousands of recordings of phone calls he has made; every Web page he has visited and instant-messaging exchange he has conducted since 2003; all the activity of his desktop (which windows, for example, he has opened); eight hundred pages of health records, including information on the life of the battery in his pacemaker; and a sprawling category he describes as “ephemera,” which contains such things as books he has written and books from his library; the labels of bottles of wine he has enjoyed; and the record of a bicycle trip through Burgundy, where he tried to eat in as many starred restaurants as he could (he averaged 2.2 stars per meal—“I do a lot of measuring,” he says).

There is a flash in the last sentence of my beloved Georges Perec, who amongst other self-archival activities at the very border of what others would call sanity attempted an ‘Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by [Him] in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four’[2], but without any of the poetic self-examinations and reflections that accompanied those endeavours. I saw Bell speak at Victoria University in May of 2006, in front of an audience of information technology students, and not once did he pause to consider the staggering ethical and philosophical implications of the project. Come question time, it was all that he was asked about, and he proceeded to politely deflect the questions, in the apparent hope that the next one would be about some aspect or other of the software architecture.

Let’s examine some of these questions. Is Mr Bell in fact authorised to record other people? What is the usefulness of all this data? How could it be accessed, except ultimately by replaying the subject’s life? (And whilst recording the act of replaying, presumably.) How might carrying recording devices around one’s neck influence one’s behaviour, outlook, attitudes towards others - not to mention theirs towards us? Wouldn’t you be very careful of what you said and how you looked in the company of Mr Bell?

I’m sure you can think of several more questions besides. But here’s one I find particularly intriguing: for this project Bell employs an assistant, Vicki Rozycki. Now if Ms Rozycki wanted to document her own life, would she need her own assistant? And what does this say about class, status and memorability?

Not only the Bill Gates of the roughly hewn The Road Ahead, but also the far more sophisticated and compelling thinking of Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital needs to be borne in mind here if we seek to shine a light on the ethos behind Bell’s project. Negroponte’s understanding of technology is unwaveringly utilitarian, and strictly at the service of business and progress, but with a curious whiff of old aristocracy about it. He talks of the digital butler and of electronic cufflinks communicating with each other via low-orbiting satellites, and you can imagine him typing those words in the executive suite of an hotel somewhere in Asia while the permanently over-excited Brit who covers the business world for CNN brays about something or other on the telly. Indeed, while Negroponte proclaims that we are all digital, Bell chimes “I am data”[3]. But no matter how frustrated one might feel at the shallowness of their thinking, there is a significant extent in which it is also true. The executive of a transnational corporation or the high-powered consultant who advises the rich and powerful and sits through corporate meetings in which minutes never fail to be taken; who regularly consumes in-flight entertainment and receives daily emails in the hundreds – this is the kind of person who has an ‘output,’ whose words are always recorded, who is data.

At the same time, Bell undercuts this narrative by eschewing Negroponte’s constant reminders of his own status and (self) importance, claiming instead:
I’m not particularly interesting. I’m just typical of what you should be able to do.
Isn’t this then also a case of the ‘lowering of the threshold of description’[4] that Foucault so ably describes? It used to be that only the rich and powerful could aspire to have their lives documented. When Winston Churchill was born, for instance, his (aristocratic, powerful, connected) family duly began to collect and record all manners of information about him in the very reasonable expectation that he would one day be biographised, and the Churchill biography by his son Randolph and Martin Gilbert contains indeed a truly phenomenal amount of documents about the man. But Bell proposes to bring a Churchill biography in every home, one for every member of your household in fact. And you should be excited about this, because... because...

Because why? I honestly couldn’t tell you. Bell and his collaborator Jim Gemmell open a paper on MyLifeBits by claiming that ‘[h]uman memory can be maddeningly elusive. We stumble upon its limitations every day, when we forget a friend's telephone number, the name of a business contact or the title of a favorite book.’ And yes, I too get frustrated when I forget a phone number. But surely the answer is not to record everything - that way lies the paranoiac hypermnesia of Funes - but rather to make a note of the things that seem important, including phone numbers.

I am convinced that Bell’s solution is in fact the answer to a whole different question. And perhaps a clue can be found here, in a document that reveals his involvement in another project at Microsoft Research: Digital Immortality. The abstract, from October 2000, reads in part
Both one-way and two-way immortality require part of a person to be converted to information (Cyberized), and stored in a more durable media. We believe that two-way immortality where one’s experiences are digitally preserved, and which then take on a life of their own will be possible within the this century.

Please wait: the saving of Gordon Bell is in progress.

(To be continued.)

[1]Bill Gates, The Road Ahead (New York: Viking, 1996), p. 303.
[2]In Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, translated by John Sturrock. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997, pp. 244-250.
[3]Slide of Gordon Bell's presentation at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, on May 29th, 2006.
[4]Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish – The Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Books, 1997), pp. 77-78.

Gordon Bell, Jim Gray. 'Digital Immortality'. Association for Computing Machinery, 2000.
Gordon Bell, Jim Gemmell. 'A Digital Life.' Scientific American, February 2007.
Vannevar Bush. ‘As We May Think.’ Atlantic Monthly. July 1945, pp. 101-108.
Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish – The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin Books, 1997.
Bill Gates. The Road Ahead. New York: Viking, 1996.
Nicholas Negroponte. Being Digital. New York: Knopf, 1995.
Georges Perec. ‘Attempt at an inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy Four.’ In Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997, pp. 244-250.
Alec Wilkinson. 'Remember This? A project to record everything we do in life.' The New Yorker, May 27th, 2007.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Mad Men Live on Mars (Oppressed Women Live on Venus)

You're not dealing with an ordinary schmuck or average Joe, you know. I am a man of some sophistication. A bon vivant. I buy my shoes in Italy. I go to art galleries. And I have an impressive collection of issues of the London Review of Books, all in their original plastic.

Behind this last piece of personal trivia is a pretty neat marketing device: if you subscribe to the LRB, you can give two six-monthly subscription to friends, absolutely free, anywhere they might live, so long as they have never subscribed themselves. I was the recipient of this largesse thanks to one of my lecturers, and come renewal time I found myself surprisingly eager to open the wallet, in no small part because I could then reciprocate to two others, and, I'll admit it, feel generous doing it. Take note, marketers and advertisers: it pays to make people feel good about themselves.

The only glitch in this otherwise most satisfactory plan: once a paying subscriber, I found I didn't have time to read the damn thing. I blame child number three for the scrambling of timetables and habits at the end of which I discovered that my 'LRB time' had simply vanished. So the issues pile up and some time back in September I stopped ripping the plastic off. It became too painful. But, as the saying goes, generosity is its own reward, except for its other rewards, and it so happens that in the bargain I got a personal reader: for the recipient of one of 'my' free subscriptions bothers to write from Japan, where he is currently stationed, pointing out articles that I might find of interest and showing considerably more discernment than I would in the process.

Which is a very roundabout way of introducing you to the work of Mark Greif, author of 'You'll Love How It Makes You Feel', a thorough hatchet job on season one of the television series Mad Men. The main contention of Greif's article is that Mad Men is 'an unpleasant little entry in the genre Now We Know Better', in that it portrays social ills of the past in a way that leaves them unconnected to the present, allowing the audience to bask in the illusion of living in far more enlightened times. It is, in Greif's view, a case not of the portrayal of the past being used to criticise the present, but rather of the criticism of the past being used to 'congratulate the present', fostering
an unearned pride in our supposed superiority when it comes to health and restraint, the condition of women, and the toleration of (some) difference in ethnicity and sexuality.

I find myself in vigorous agreement with this thesis, except I think the author applied it to the wrong show altogether. Surely Mr Greif was thinking of Life on Mars? I say this because Justine and I have enjoyed the first series of Mad Men, in the protracted, painfully slow way we have of following television shows, and have had an ongoing discussion regarding its merits and demerits in this very regard. Whereas with Life on Mars, it was a case of Justine heaping scorn and taking various degrees of offence right from episode one, whilst I gave the show and its glowing reviews a second and then a third and then a fourth chance, at which point the scorn in the household became stereophonic and we gave up on it altogether. Until last week, that is, when the pilot of the American version of the show reached New Zealand and was duly subjected to critical inspection. With, I'm sad to report, similarly discomfiting results, compounded by the ham fisted use of the Twin Towers to signal to the protagonist that he's no longer in Kansas, as it were, and the woe of seeing Clarke Peters - The Wire's incomparable Lester Freamon - stooping to utter the following line:
Lawrence Raimes is Colin's twin brother. They're not on speaking terms, but Lawrence is a degenerate gambler with a real taste for the dice.

So far, so awful. Having no intention to venture beyond the pilot (unless somebody's willing to send me money), I'm never going to find out if the pedestrian replica of the British show - same lapels, same hairstyles, same décor, same titular soundtrack - is going to move into interesting new directions. But of course the nigh-obsessive fidelity to the original is significant in itself as a symptom of a morbid attachment to the past, this time on the part of film and super expensive high-end television productions that view innovation largely as a last resort, and would always rather stick with the tried and true and replicating success.

The tried and true, in this case, revolved around a cop travelling back in time some thirty years in the aftermath of a car accident and was truly a masterpiece of the Now We Know Better genre, screaming at every turn 'Look, they had sexism! Police brutality! Big lapels!' and boasting one of the highest aspersions-per-minute ratios outside of religious programming. Except said aspersions were cast on our behalf by such a sanctimonious twerp - played with a lot of squinting by John Simms - that you quickly found yourself rooting for the sexism and the brutality, upheld respectively by The Whole of Society and Simm's new (old) colleagues. And here the authors could have chosen to inject some irony into the proceedings, exposing the twerp's supremely unearned pride through the conflicts with his new (old) boss, brilliantly played by Philip Glenister, but chose instead to spoil the set up by inflicting on the viewer plotlines that were either desperately trite or terminally stupid (an example of the latter: the episode where Simms nicks the guy who came up with the idea of football violence). I cannot help but feel that some sort of opportunity was lost there.

And perhaps you could say the same of Mad Men, which is hardly perfect but tries, in my view, a whole lot harder. The year is 1960 and the place fictitious Madison Avenue advertising agency Sterling Cooper. But Mad Men isn't about advertising and its history any more than The Sopranos was about organised crime: it's an old fashioned character drama, steeped in a social context whose ills are brought for us into sharper relief by the outdated language, conventions and protocols.

Thus, unsanitised by political correctness and unfettered by workplace discrimination and harassment laws, sexism is worn with pride by the alpha males employed by the agency, and becomes the chief leit motif of the series, occasionally in the company of its good pals homophobia and racism. Whether you choose to find this comforting, as opposed to an occasion for measuring the progress - ranging from too little to none at all - that our societies have made in these particular arenas, will depend largely on whether and to what extent you identify with the characters. And here I agree with Greif that Don Draper, the falling man of the gorgeous opening credits, played by the actor whose name comes up first - so then the protagonist, surely? - is singularly weak: a man of great poise but little substance, alluring and inscrutable except there might in fact be nothing much to see behind the pose and the hair and the impeccable grooming. A perfect ambassador for his profession, in other words. And, speaking of professions, maybe 'Draper', a salesman of cloth that could be used for drapes, in order to conceal, is in fact a piece of clever misdirection, the requisite male lead that you suppose you ought to follow and identify with and care about but then actually this time you don't, because the scenes and the storylines all get stolen by the women. Who, save for one, the exceptional Joan Halloway, are all initially defined by their relationship to Draper - secretary, wife, lover, client-cum-lover - but by the end of series one have either pulled away or are about to pull away from his orbit.

I would argue in fact, bringing as evidence the two episodes that bookend the series, that in this show of handsome men, classy women and elegant furnishings the conspicuously unrefined, unsexy and at times slightly petulant working girl Peggy is the show's moral anchor, the one worth rooting for. But it is by no means solely through her lens that countless episodes of intolerable cruelty and ordinary discrimination are served to us week in, week out in Mad Men. Perhaps Mr. Greif is right in regarding them as irritating little vignettes disconnected from history that entertain instead of challenging - the lines between these assessments can be so thin - but I don't think so. This household sure didn't find them comfortable to watch, and it's not a bad test to apply in such situations, or in the matter of the truth value of memory overall.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Museum of You (2): Somebody's Home in Leipzig

Socialism has to start somewhere
(The Lives of Others)

Wild new Ubik salad dressing, not Italian, not French, but an entirely new and different taste treat that's waking up the world.
(Philip K. Dick, Ubik)

Justine and I left Italy in October of 1997, and spent much of the last six or so weeks in the country getting rid of stuff. Actually, we had planned to go for at least a couple of years - the hold up was that I had to earn the exemption from the military service - and I had had some time to change the mindset I grew up with vis-à-vis my things: namely that they'd stay mine forever, barring the odd change of heart or swap for item of similar value. LPs, favourite furnishing, books, memorabilia of various kinds: I never really envisaged having to give them away, certainly not all at once. Therefore I grew up a hoarder. Of books and music, especially, like most people of my age and circumstances.

The prospect of moving to New Zealand, even though it may not be forever, changed all that. Justine's mindset was already that of a light traveller, but for me it took some adjusting. Long story short: I learned to stop hoarding. And we got rid of whatever we couldn't fit in the luggage for the plane and the two big boxes to be sent by ship. Justine's beloved jeweller's desk and some books were sold, while the rest we gave to friends: stereo, television, more books, some furniture, a conga drum I don't despair to play (badly) again some day. And an answer phone, with its little micro-cassette still in place. The answer phone went to our good friend Caterina, who some years later got together with a chap called Max. And it was Max who, during an IM chat a couple of years ago, told me they were going to return the cassette, and that I should listen to it.

They did, and I did. Turns out my father had left one of the messages still recorded on the B-side.

We lost dad in July of 1999. The message was left in late September of 1997, shortly before our departure. It was brief and mundane: he and mum wanted to know when I was going to swing by and teach them to use the PC I was leaving behind so they could communicate with us. Brief, mundane, and possibly a little impatient. But we had no other recording of his voice, and to hear it like that, without warning (although I did have an inkling) had an undeniable effect. The sense of presence that recording technologies are able to provoke is very familiar to us all, and yet in the precise moment it occurs so often a source of astonished surprise. But it was in this case a somewhat uncomfortable presence. Because of that hint of impatience, perhaps? It was so rare in him. For whatever reason, I still don't know how I feel about the tape. The best analogy I can come up with is that it's as if this was the only photo we had of him, and it wasn't a terribly flattering one. But it remains a unique record of somebody so dear and so missed, and naturally I'm very grateful to our friends for giving it to us, and am treating it with utmost care - I made in fact an mp3 of it right away for extra safety.

How to curate the museum of you is one of this blog's recurring topics. What we do (and what to do) with our stuff, with the benefit of hindsight or, sometimes, foresight. In this sense the returned tape has to be seen as a most fortuitous addition to the collection, something that we didn't anticipate would one day become precious. Had we remained in Italy and kept the answer phone, in all likelihood we would never have bothered to inspect the tape. So departures, too, can aid. Giving things away.

A most irreverent segue. Some time in 1989, a 24-year-old man leaves his apartment in Crottendorfer Straße, Leipzig for the last time. But it isn't a long-planned departure: he leaves food in the fridge, a cup of coffee on the table, dirty dishes in the sink from the night before. The most salient things we know about this man is that he spent a year in jail and that the police wants to speak to him in relation to a mysterious audiocassette. His name hasn't been made public. But the accounts of the discovery focus not on the person, but rather on what he left behind, and more specifically on a number of consumer products made in Eastern Germany at the time and since discontinued: Marella margarine, Vita Cola, Karo and Jewel cigarettes, Elkadent toothpaste, some liquor or other. Says Mark Aretz, the architect that entered the apartment for the first time in almost twenty years last November, while inspecting the soon-to-be-renovated building:
When we opened the door we felt like Howard Carter when he found the grave of Tutankhamen. Everything was a mess but it was like a historic treasure trove, a portal into an age long gone.[1]
I know what some of you are thinking: he's going to read way too much into this. And I'm not going to disappoint you. Because, seriously: it was barely twenty years ago. I know a certain wall fell in the interim, and the world won't be the same again, but Howard Carter was looking back some four thousand years; and what rocked his socks wasn't the pharaoh's toothpaste either.

Post-Fredric Jameson, we've learned to recognise this fetishistic attachment to the most insignificant details of our immediate past as 'a tangible symptom of an omnipresent, omnivorous and well-nigh libidinal historicism'[2]. And of course the demands of surface realism - of getting the tiny details just right, of evoking the past with the sharp exactness of a product label of yore - are highly instrumental to this particular project. Hence the well-nigh libidinal excitement of the media reports: we travelled back in time, and what we found were margarine and cigarettes and socialist cola.

It adds a delicious layer of irony that this scenario could so easily have been written by the authors of a recent film that grappled with - or, according to some, is at the forefront of - the phenomenon of Ostalgia, or nostalgia for the East: Goodbye Lenin!, in which an ardent supporter of the Socialist Unity Party who wakes up from a coma after the fall of the Berlin Wall is spared by her children the possibly fatal shock that this piece of news would bring, and nursed in her apartment as if the DDR still existed. An illusion that involves - among other things - transferring new products into the old, familiar containers, for without the meticulous preservation of the surface reality of everyday gestures and objects, time itself could not be stopped and rewound.

Jameson coolly describes what Philip K. Dick had feverishly inhabited, but with no less precision, for his stories of false and implanted memories are also about the past as commodity, and about carefully crafted illusions of authenticity, while another real, which may or may not be the real real, threatens to burst through the cracks and assert itself at any moment - as it does in the form of a statue Lenin hoisted through the streets of Berlin at the end of Goodbye. But it's a discussion for another day. Today's story was that of a modern archaeological dig in the middle of Leipzig, looted for objects of absolutely no value, while the sole ancient inhabitant left, taking perhaps the contents of the museum of him. I hope he did.

Update 21 February 2008

Alas, he didn't. A correspondent in Germany got in touch to reveal the rest of the story as it has since emerged in the local press. She writes:
A Spiegel journalist found out what had happened to the guy who had lived in the flat. In the English article it just says that he was "a 24 year-old man who had been in trouble with the authorities" (not unusual for the GDR) but it turns out that he had as a 22 year-old apparently said to a border guard that he wanted to go West (as a kind of joke - see also Milan Kundera!) so the authorities (not surprisingly) locked him up for a year or so. His parents set up the flat for him and he lived there for a few months after his release but then he was thrown out of the GDR (put on a train with a one-way ticket to the West) in September 1989. In November the Wall fell and he visited his parents in Leipzig that Christmas. He had found a job as a carpenter in Lower Saxony. On the 19th of September 1990 he was on his way back to Lower Saxony from a building site in Hamburg in a minibus with colleagues when the bus crashed and he was one of those killed, dying of head injuries in a Hamburg hospital on September 21st 1990 aged 25. His parents still live in Leipzig.

[1] Statement originally made to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. For the translation I referred to the CNN article.
[2] Fredric Jameson, ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, New Left Review (No. 146, 1984), p. 66.

Author unknown. East German Apartment Caught in Time Warp. January 29, 2009.
Fredric Jameson. ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’. New Left Review. No. 146, 1984, pp. 53-92.
Benedetta Perilli. Qui Crottendorfer Strasse, Lipsia, la casa dove il tempo si è fermato. La 27 January 2009.
Matthias Lüdecke's photos of the apartment can be viewed here

Goodbye Lenin! (Germany 2003, dir. Wolfgang Becker)

Bonus Track
Self-Referentiality - Where Would Blogs Be Without It?

A couple of maintenance notes: I never explicitly acknowledged the kindness of my friend PFB, who set up some time ago on a page hosted by the Politecnico in Turin the 'printer-friendly' version of this blog you can find in the sidebar. You have to right click on a post's title first (the blog's homepage address won't work) and the little app will format it nice and ready for printing, if that's how you roll. I personally don't, but I used it today to (finally) do a proper backup of the posts thus far. I'm sure there are better ways, but I found saving in html the pages thus rendered a very quick way to stash away the posts, whereas I'm not interested in keeping a record of the changing content of the sidebar itself. I'm sure that by tweaking the script on PFB's page you could backup the whole of the Internet that way, given but world enough and time.

Also: as of last week (and also on the sidebar) it is possible to subscribe to this blog via email, an idea I shamelessly purloined from Harvest Bird's recent beautiful site redesign. Thought you might like to know.