Alive in McLuhan Land
A single machine rules my waking life. It (G4 Power Book circa 2004) grinds slowly under the load of seven years’ accumulation of useful and useless information stored over several external drives and all of which I now find impossible to search and/or destroy. I do not have time to obliterate the past. This rolling stone does gather moss. I scrape the occasional clump into one or other data dump but the free space soon attracts more. In short, Geefor and I are no longer compatible – we are off key, off line and off limits. Besides, its operating system (did I say operating?) does not allow me to upgrade applications; mail waits in ‘sending’ mode until I reboot; the spinning rainbow ball sends me into my own tailspin and last night I had to abandon an attempt to book a rail journey on Indian Railway’s efficient site because my search engine has now moved into the crawler lane. I am reminded of my first forays onto the newly named ‘information highway’ when I’d sit up all night nosediving into Unix codes, losing my way completely or ending up at sites still under construction. The gritty sound of the dial up connection to the modem was music to my ears – it signaled waves! The web had me in its rip – I night surfed for months. Later I became attached to a small dog called ‘Fetch’ that dutifully trotted across the bottom of my Mac Plus ($AU8, 500 circa1987) screen retrieving bytes of both useful and useless information. Sometime later a faster model superseded this first machine. It possessed moss gathering capabilities and I bought software that opened vistas into possible worlds. Remember MacWrite? Freehand? PageMaker? Painter? And when matrix was a printing mode? Then Fetch became Gopher and I was thrust back into comic book years. More screens and boxes followed – each one larger, less expensive, yet more time consuming than the previous and the garage became a repository of dead systems. Years slipped by. Today, twenty-five years after I took the bite of my first apple, I hit the button and said ‘yes’ to the super system plus entirely new software packages – because I never did incrementally upgrade from earlier versions. I called a halt at the solid-state drive – liquidity being the main block. I do admit to a certain sense of sadness at the exodus of this old ally and I may even lose the friendly little character that pops up from time to time offering help and waving goodbye without malice when I hit its quit. But only after I have attended to my e-waste responsibilities will I wipe out Geefor’s memory, farewell a never quite tamed panther and close the lid forever on a screensaver that came from somewhere out of iphoto and which would not be undone! So it goes. It is late again. I am not night surfing just grappling with changeover and already I feel the shadowed presence of another big cat prowling at the edges of sleep!
I end this lapse into memory with thoughts from a thinker at the height of webmania:
‘Probably the most dramatic thing taking place on the planet right now in terms of future impact on society is the rapid evolution of the internet, the WORLD WIDE WEB (computer information highway that connects 30 million users in 125 countries). Nobody owns, operates or controls it. And it is invisible and does not intrude into ordinary daily life … and so everything appears to be business as usual. But the process of boundary dissolution and information transfer and the spread of egalitarian ideas, and the dissolving of rigid class structures under the influence of technology, this is all proceeding 24 hours a day quite unnoticed by most people. The McLuhanistic revolution has come. You can sit at home and suddenly anywhere in the world is only a local call away and your computer is a librarian robot cutting the way ahead of you through the informational underbrush. It’s empowering people. Whatever your field of interest, you’re no longer without community.’
Terence McKenna, interviewed in Maui Times, 26/9/1994.
I am off to a conducive community in less than two weeks time and while it might be popularly believed that no big cats remain in this part of India a few, who seem to know otherwise, claim that panthers still roam in the wilds beyond Nakhatrana (Kachchh). An elder artisan from a village so remote that the bus travels there only weekly showed me the post to which she tied her kids (goats) at night. She lured me into her tiny mud home and warned me to mind, but not be afraid of, the snake curled on the single rafter as I ducked my head to enter her room. The fat reptile kept intruders at bay and the kids slept safely away from the panther prowling at the edges of their sleep. Amjibaben later showed me its spore when we walked to the edge of the hamlet and I gathered tiny seashells – evidence of Kachchh’s up and down geological past. Her panther features in a quilt she made in memory of the 2001 earthquake where it stalks on the side of death in her tree of life. Panthers aside, there are no other big cats to be found in Kachchh apart from a tiger in a glass case in the Maharoa’s summer palace at the beach. I could not comprehend its size – this huge, majestic beast with glassy gaze staring into its own vanishing point. It was shot in Rajasthan on some pukka trophy hunt and I remember being moved to tears by a creature forever trapped in its own inglorious demise. I now decline to enter the palace and leave others to roam the curious building while I am content to wander the grounds and read the even more curious signs attached here and there.
Soon I go to Kachchh – using up some hard earned air points that would expire if I didn’t and taking care of some unfinished business. At least those are today’s reasons for a top up of the kind of ‘otherness’ I need on a fairly regular basis – when I leave computer issues behind, switch off daily demands, switch on a Hindi movie on a long flight and mentally prepare myself to walk into a hot, humid, Ahmedabad night. Friends inform me that rain is elusive this year– monsoon has barely shown its edge and Kuldip asks me to bring rain please because Kachchh has seen even less. Last year in late July it rained for days on end; silver sheets of solid water hung across the highway; shepherds and flocks and herds crowded usually empty roads heading for the brilliant green tips of new grass that appeared almost instantaneously and a man in a red shirt danced in joy alongside our car, his face upturned, his drenched clothes flapping around his whirling body. We drove out to *Bhirenderia just to have chai in the rain with the locals, the truck drivers and soldiers, and to talk about the weather!
Naran was there with his brother – looking for business just as they were 15 years ago; two youths with anxious eyes standing at the roadside with embroidered finery hanging off a fence behind the chai stop. I succumbed to their charms and still own the piece I bought that day. They are grown men now with children of their own and our friendship is solid. We drank hot steamy sweet spicy chai standing under the same flimsy shelter that had withstood the earthquake and talked about the rain in the warmth of this community of friends.
Back in Bhuj (district headquarters of Kachchh), school kids hung out of auto rickshaws laughing as passing wheels threw up great streams of the brown water that rose up suddenly in the streets – challenging the drainage system to its limits. In the small block printing village of Ajrakhpur, mud stopped all traffic in and out and conversations were shouted across an expanse of impassable sticky brown clay. In rural villages Embroidery production virtually stopped as women exchanged needles for farming tools – taking advantage of this once-in-a-year (when the gods/goddesses are smiling) opportunity to plant crops. You can’t expect orders to be on time when the rain comes and so unfinished business is an ongoing thread in a material life that frequently unravels – and after fifteen years of coming and going I’ve learned to patch and darn. Stitches in time – more or less!
Conversely, or perversely, we don’t want more rain in Sydney and late last week we celebrated the arrival of unseasonably temperate days as we switched overnight from wet and cold to dry and warm. For those few days however I did not sit in the sun. Instead I attended a **symposium absorbing the stories of a series of speakers from several different countries as they probed many of the issues one encounters or ponders when working with traditional artisans in another culture. In light of ideas expressed I’ll take yet another look at my own processes – at myself and at my own expectations in relation to the expectations of the artisans with whom I work. It’s time to probe a little deeper into the cultural implications – into the whats and hows, ifs and buts from the both sides of the greater story – the sum of the parts – and seek answers that always pose more questions. It is a bottomless ethical well. In the end, I reckon that knowledge only comes from understanding the dynamics of competing and complex systems that are only sometimes compatible and that’s when one grabs the moment. And runs with it. I’d like to build a holographic view of this complex interplay and as I can’t do that on the current machine I’ll wait until a certain other arrives – clean and clear of conflicts and with great empty spaces. Free of moss. Together we will make a fresh start. I will not allow it gather useless information while I am not watching. Between us, we will learn to synchronise our divergent systems – machine and human inextricably linked. We will make our entrance with feline grace and roar down highways of our own making – cursor paused on the brink and just one click away from anywhere we choose to travel and that’s just about where I came in!
* Bhirenderia is the last village before the Banni region and lies just before the new permit office. No longer able to get permits for border villages from Bhuj, one now has to wait until 10.00am for the roadside office to open. Hard luck for those travelers with just one day to see the White Rann and the Black Hills and all else in between!
** College of Fine Arts (UNSW) Symposium ‘Collaboration in Experimental Design Research’
5th-6th August 2011