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February 16 2012

The Falling Man and a center that cannot hold

This post originally appeared on The Question Concerning Technology ("Falling Man"). It's republished with permission.

AMC's "Mad Men" returns in March, but already the advertising for this show about advertising has successfully stirred a bit of controversy.

I refer to the video teasers and posters that exploit the Falling Man motif of the show's opening title sequence. The vertiginous imagery is controversial because it evokes, intentionally or not, one of the most harrowing news photographs ever taken: that of the "falling man" plunging to his death from the World Trade Center on 9/11.

I'm a fan of "Mad Men," but I'm also among those who finds the title sequence disturbing. That's not because of any personal connection to 9/11, I don't think, although as a longtime resident of New York, it hits close enough. The source of my reaction is the power of the Falling Man photograph itself.

I'm not the first to observe that the Falling Man image is evocative on at least two visceral levels. It captures, in an excruciatingly personal way, the literal terror of 9/11. It also captures what it feels like, existentially, to be living in a world of radical uncertainty. The source of our anxiety isn't only terrorism, although that's part of it now. It's about a loss of psychic footing in a world of overwhelming change.

Critics have noted an infatuation in contemporary culture with nostalgia. This isn't surprising, given the degree of change that's subsumed us lately, and that's subsumed us ever since Watt introduced his steam engine. The past, unlike the present, offers something to hold onto. No accident that even as the Industrial Revolution raged around them, Victorians celebrated medieval chivalry and piety, lounging in drawing rooms that excluded, as Lewis Mumford put it, "every hint of the machine." World War I brutally ended any illusion that the machine could be kept at bay, an awakening depicted on the current season of PBS' "Downton Abbey."

"Mad Men" gets terrific mileage out of nostalgia, but we also enjoy knowing a secret the show's characters mostly don't: that their world is about to be turned upside down. Executive producer Matthew Weiner suggested in a recent interview that the dislocating effects of change may be "Mad Men's" most important underlying theme. Specifically he noted the plaintive question asked by a character in the third season: "When is everything going to get back to normal?"

We know that change has been a constant of human affairs, of course, but we also know that technology has amplified the pace and scale of change exponentially. It's interesting that Alvin Toffler's concept of "future shock" doesn't get talked about much any more, despite the fact that the acceleration of technological change responsible for that state of psychological dislocation has, as he predicted, only increased in the decades since he coined the phrase. Would-be tech billionaires are fond of bragging that the application or device they're selling promises to be the most truly "disruptive" technology to come along since Google and Facebook, but even if they succeed they'll soon be looking over their shoulders for the next disruptive technology coming round the bend, as Google and Facebook already are.

In one form or another, the Falling Man has become the archetypical figure of the technological era, spinning his way into space from a center that cannot hold. A standard-bearer of Gilded Age displacement was Henry Adams, who in the opening pages of his autobiography described himself wondering:

"What could become of such a child of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when he should wake up to find himself required to play the game of the twentieth? ... No such accident had ever happened before in human experience. For him, alone, the old universe was thrown into the ash-heap and a new one created."

Adams was far from alone, but it was no surprise he felt that way. Isolation is another symptom of the psychology of modernism — and another primary theme of "Mad Men," according to Matthew Weiner. The 19th century versions of "future shock" were Marx's "alienation" and Durkheim's "anomie." In 1897 Durkheim published a study on the alarming rise in the number of suicides across Europe, a rise he attributed to the "morbid disturbance" caused by "the brilliant development of sciences, the arts and industry of which we are the witnesses." The work of centuries, he said, "cannot be remade in a few years."

We're often told that in order to maintain some semblance of balance in the world technology has made, we have to get used to the fact that everything is never going to get back to normal. So it is that the nostalgic appeal of "Mad Men" is precisely equivalent to that of "Downton Abbey": We get to watch complacently as complacency is overturned.


March 22 2011

Four short links: 22 March 2011

  1. EveryBlock Redesigned -- EB has been defined for a while now as "that site that makes my city's statistics useful and relevant". Now they're getting more into the user-reporting: As valuable as automated updates of crime, media mentions, and other EveryBlock news are, contributions from your fellow neighbors are significantly more meaningful and useful. While we're not removing our existing aggregation of public records and other neighborhood information (more on this in a bit), we've come to realize that human participation is essential, not only as a layer on top but as the bedrock of the site. They have a new mission: our goal is to help you make your block a better place. That's a bold goal, and quite a big change from where they were at. Will they manage any aspect of journalism, or will this become a GroupOn-ad-filled geo-portal for MSNBC? Looking forward to finding out.
  2. Typography in 8 Bits: System Fonts -- nifty rundown of fonts from the microcomputer days. I still go a bit weak-kneed at the sight of the C64 fonts. Which aspect of the system you're building will be remembered with weak knees in (gulp) thirty years' time? (via Joshua Schachter)
  3. Twitter in the Christchurch Earthquake -- analysis of the tweets around the quake, including words and retweets. (via Richard Wood)
  4. ChumbyCV -- computer vision framework for Chumby. CV on low-power ubiquitous hardware makes devices smarter and be higher-level sensors of activity and objects. (via BERG London)

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