Through a Glass Darkly


Originally uploaded by vincusses.

What rant shall I leave you with as I head to China? How about the past and the future….

Twenty years ago, I spent the better part of a year backpacking around South Asia. My goal was India, and I had this idea that I could see the past – steam locomotives, teeming early Industrial metropoli, a populace caught between agrarianism and urbanism like Chicago in 1880.

Today, of course, we go to China to see the future, skyscrapers flashing bright video skins and a billion people taking capitalism to the next step.

I am going there on an historic preservation student study trip, so I guess we are looking to the past. We go to Weishan, an old Southern Silk Road town in Yunnan province 75 clicks south of Dali. Founding city of the T’ang era Nanzhao state some 1300 years ago. Weibaoshan (mountain) hosts 22 Tao and Buddhist temples. Almost no Westerners go there – it barely registers on Google. Weishan is also one of the few places in China practicing historic preservation – most of Beijing and Shanghai are developing so fast they make 1880s Chicago look like a backwater. Everything is new and everything old is being plowed under.

Chinese culture is so old and strong it doesn’t need tangible reminders of the past as desperately as we do in the West. You start looking back on Euro-American culture and before long you hit Crusaders, Vikings and Picts and the word “civilization” starts to catch in the throat. As cultural orphans we need more reassurance. We need to touch it. In China it is so deep that it can’t be erased by the actions of the physical world.

That’s point one. Point two is technology and capitalism, an interesting feedback loop if there ever was one. Capitalism makes all sorts of fabulous technology possible, like Microsoft Word 5.1. But it also requires the “churn” which gives us dreck, like every version of Microsoft Word since. The one I am using now is a ponderously ignorant nanny, unable to show me my footnotes, rigid in grammar, desperately urging me to make it easy for the slow ones.

Upgrades are the hay feeding the capitalist elephant. Technology must improve with each new car season, even if it doesn’t. Even if no advances are made, the marketing guys will convince us there have been improvements and we will buy them lest this house of cards we love collapse.

Replacement windows, which need to be replaced themselves every 10 to 15 years, are the same thing – trendy and temporary like the multi-million dollar McMansions made of formaldehyde and wood chips that sprawl across the country. The old planned obsolescence thing. Works a charm.

(BTW the thing about vinyl replacement windows is that in fires they give off this noxious smoke that will kill you way before the fire. But this is not the windows rant…)

We are going to China with three digital cameras and a field camera (made in China of course) which uses 4 x 5 inch film, which means we are caught between two technologies and heavily laden on our journey. CDs and film, film holders and flash drives, laptops and tripods. My previous four study trips were sans electronics, a beautiful thing.

This thing everyone forgets about technology is that it is basically additive. You got a microwave? Did you get rid of your stove? You got a vacuum cleaner? Did you get rid of your broom? Yes, your computer replaced your typewriter but don’t tell me there isn’t any pen and paper in your house. I suppose an Ipod and a dock could replace a sound system, and a flat screen could replace a tube telly, but hell TVs are getting so big nowadays you’d think it was 1948 when they were freaking armoires.

So, we are laden on our trip to far west Yunnan province, beyond even the hippie trail (which ends in Dali) A lot of stuff to carry, some 40 years after miniaturization. I guess miniaturization died with Hummers and home theaters…

I even got a cell phone for the trip. I know, every American has had one for five years, and every Italian got one in 1992, but I don’t really need it….

WHAT?! Send the marketing guys out! Beat this one down! Make him wear a large-character sign until he is re-educated! He thinks he doesn’t need a cell phone or replacement windows! Tell him he is endangering his wife and children even though he has never lost them on street corners and train stations from Midtown Manhattan to Tokyo to Kracow and Schonbrunn and even on mountain trails in the Cevennes and Tyrolean Alps without even a goddamn watch, much less a cell phone.

I like technology that actually makes my life better, like my 1979 soft contact lenses and this laptop which allows me to rant on the L without fear of having my train of thought interrupted by a ringing telephone, and the 14-year old version of Word designed for those who learned spelling and my 14-year old car that doesn’t need a computer to start the engine.

So we will take pictures of traditional courtyard houses in Weishan, many with marvelous details. We will capture them digitally so we can enjoy them and disseminate them in all of their richness.

We will also capture them on film, so that the next generation can see them too.

So I guess we are looking into the future.

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One Response to “Through a Glass Darkly”

  1. Alexandra Profant Says:

    Left a comment and it disappeared I guess that is paramount to anything digital and interactive in a temporal context. Digital is temporary unless perhaps it is printed and stored by those watching us.

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