August 21, 2012

Transparency vs. mystery

I don't know what basic psychological trait this boils down to (maybe tolerance of uncertainty), but it affects all kinds of social and cultural preferences. In a falling-crime culture, the inescapable transparency makes it feel soul-starving; a sense of everyday wonder comes from the cozy pockets of obscurity during rising-crime times. There are too many examples to explore in detail, but here are some big ones, mostly drawn from popular rather than elite culture.

The clearest case of see-throughiness is in architecture. In both the mid-20th century and over the past 20 years, buildings with ceiling-to-floor glass walls exploded in popularity. You see this in down-to-earth places like the drive-in restaurant or the Googie-styled coffee shop, as well as the Apple Store; the Mid-Century Modern house, as well as the Zen Minimalist house; and public libraries and office skyscrapers from both periods. There was also the Crystal Palace of the Victorian era.

John Portman, one of the few sublime and humanistic architects after Art Deco, remarked that these glass walls and doorways rob the entrances of any ceremony or anticipation. With no emotional build-up, there can be no release once you enter the building. Everything that lies within is instantly revealed to the passerby.

This kind of architecture thrives in falling-crime times because people are more paranoid about the threat posed by their fellow man, so they want to see inside to make sure it's totally safe before even getting close to the people in an enclosed public space. Furthermore, they have what to me seem like abnormally restrained emotional systems, so they prefer building features that will prevent any chance of anticipation and release. Just skip right to the end, cross that task off the to-do list, and move on to the next item of business.

In contrast, the higher trust in rising-crime times means that people approaching a restaurant, coffee shop, etc., won't need to inspect it thoroughly in advance. An increasingly dangerous world makes you rely on and support others to get through it, so overblown suspicion of your fellow community members settles down to a more realistic level. Also, being more in a state of preparedness for danger means you're in a state of arousal more often, so your mood or mindset is more congruent with the effects made by bold contrasts that strike an emotional chord, that build up tension and then release it.

Glass is an ancient material, but transparent plastics are not. So, when it comes to product design, the time periods we can compare are more limited to the past 20 years vs. the '60s through the '80s. There were only a couple somewhat popular products that were see-through from the '80s: a Conairphone (and judging from the very bright neon colors, I'd say that was the very late '80s or even the early '90s), and a line of Swatch watches. There may have been other little things like that, but nothing big comes to mind. It was possible to make things that way, but consumer demand must have been low enough to make them a minor novelty at most.

In the past 20 years, all kinds of ordinary stuff has become see-through -- the casing of pens and mechanical pencils, video game devices (both the home console and its controllers, as well as handhelds), inflatable furniture (like those ubiquitous ball-chairs), even one-time-use beverage containers, which used to be aluminum but are now clear plastic (why not opaque plastic?). These are only those that come to mind. Narrow and particular explanations for a change in any one of these categories ignores the larger pattern that product design nowadays is more likely to feature transparency, although that is still not part of most products.

The cocooning behavior of falling-crime times stunts our social and emotional growth, so we move more toward the autistic side of the "people vs. things" spectrum of interests. People then become more curious about knowing what the guts of their gadgets would look like if you dissected them. In rising-crime times, when people are more social, who cares what it would look like? There are more pressing social matters to attend to, like looking out for one another and getting laid.

John Keats, who hailed from the rising-crime world of the Romantic-Gothic era, accused Newton of deflating the wonder we get looking at a rainbow by showing that it could be scientifically explained by light passing through a prism. The accusation may have been misplaced, but it's still the kind of approach that was more common in the falling-crime Age of Reason / Enlightenment, when people were fascinated by Vaucanson's digesting duck automaton and its schematics.

And when Lucas made those terrible new Star Wars movies, he had to "unweave the Force" and explain how Midichlorians cause its effects, like one of those dopey 1950s science reels for schoolchildren.

Speaking of which, every narrative these days, whether it's a novel, movie, or video game, has to have so much back-story. It's basically the same as the gadget whose blueprint is on full display to the user, only now an exotic world is being dissected. Again it's like a neo-Victorian, neo-Enlightenment time, when readers needed to know all kinds of irrelevant shit to make it through the novel. Gothic novels, as long as some are, generally don't use all those pages for back-story or micro-cataloging every detail of the environment: Sublime terror needs mystery to cloak many of the particular details.

Then there's gift cards -- nothing at all left to the imagination of the recipient. You paid a known amount for it, almost certainly picked it up at the check-out aisle, or a nearby display stand, in a supermarket, and might not even wrap it up in anything to delay knowledge of what the gift is. The fact that about half of the shelf space for Christmas cards is for gift card / money holders (often with a part of the front cut out to instantly reveal that there's cash inside), just goes to show how far this transparency thing goes. They only became popular during the '90s, even though gift certificates had existed for a long time before then.

In social relations, there's the hook-up culture. Now, remember that rates of all sexual activity have been plummeting since the early 1990s, so kids these days are a lot less active. However, on the rare occasion when two of them find themselves on a path toward getting it on, they prefer to skip anything emotional in the lead-up, have some joyless sex, and then return to not being in contact with each other.

Those who want us to be more emotionally restrained should be careful what they wish for -- a lack of emotional conductivity leads to robotic transactional relationships. "I'm hot, you're hot, I guess we might as well get each other off, and get that out of the way," so they can go back to their meaningful lives of playing video games and posting inanities on Facebook.

Music of the past 20 years is a lot more obvious, or transparent, about what they're going to deliver. There's no wandering through this corridor, spying some other room, then leaving into yet another inviting space. Norah Jones is so overly cutesy, and the breathiness is laid on so thick, that it doesn't feel like she's guiding you through different places -- just kind of dropping the curtain right away for you to see what's behind it. I think a lot of mid-century pop music is like that too (like "Beyond the Sea"), in whatever other ways it may differ.

Folks had it so much better in the '80s, when good music was mainstream instead of a fringe thing. Even songs in heavy rotation on MTV transport you to a mysterious place, and lead you through a variety of emotional spaces, building up and releasing tension -- "Wrapped Around Your Finger," "Save a Prayer," "La Isla Bonita," "Sweet Child o' Mine," just to name a few.

I'm not a classical music buff, but I got the same impression from the rising-crime Classical period (the Romantic-Gothic era in literature and painting) vs. the falling-crime Romantic period (i.e. the Victorian era). Beethoven and Schubert seem like effortless masters at leading you on a mysterious tour, whereas composers like Brahms or Liszt feel more like they're revealing more. You don't feel that same build-up and release.

I'm not using "mysterious" in the sense of unfamiliar, or mostly mellow with sudden shock scares. From what I've heard, I can't put Wagner in the same group with Beethoven and Schubert. The pop music equivalent is kind of like Radiohead mixed with some dark metal band. It feels more like floating adrift in a heroin haze, and occasionally being jarred awake, than being pulled along this way to see this space, then pulled some other way to see some other space.

Bach was a shining exception from the Age of Reason / Enlightenment period, although I still think Beethoven and Schubert are quite a bit more emotionally nimble and unpredictable.

Jeez, this is going on pretty long now, and I'm drawing on material I don't know so well, so I'd better cap it there. Feel free to add examples in the comments.


  1. In the Matrix, the hero's superpowers are the result of being plugged into a virtual reality program. His training is "downloaded" into him via a computer program. At the end of the movie, when he finally learns to "use the force", he begins seeing the world in computer code! As if using magic is simply a matter of understanding how the 1s and 0s add up.

    Even when rising-crime movies use scientific explanations as a plot device, they still leave some mystery. The implication is that no matter how scientific we become, there are some things we'll never understand.

    For instance, in the first Terminator movie, a time machine is invented. Yet its never explained how John Connor's father is able to travel back in time to conceive him, while still existing as a peer of Connor in the future. Cameron just leaves it as a paradox, a hint that there may be Higher Forces at work.

    Rising-crime media and fiction also warns us against the limits of scientific understanding. The Michael Crichton novel Jurassic Park(1991) depicts characters who get their asses kicked because they apply science to a situation which is impossibly complex. The novel discusses Chaos Theory in-depth, and Chrichton himself toured the world taking part in traditional spiritual practices.

  2. In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is given no backstory or psychobabble whatsoever for why he likes to bite and eat people. He comes across as pure evil, even labelled "a monster" by a head FBI agent who is supposed to understand him. One character calls him "some kind of a vampire", and Jodie Foster remarks "I don't have a word for him".

    The other serial killer is given no explanation for why he is making himself a dress from women's skins. On the DVD, there's a deleted scene where he's briefly explained as "perceiving his mother to have rejected him", but the director wisely cut this out of the theatrical release in 1991.

    Compare this to your average crime show, where terms like "narcissist", "sociopath", "borderline disorder" are freely thrown around to explain away cruelty.

  3. Does anyone tell stories anymore? Try telling a story on the internet and a slew of people rush in to shout "no way you troll liar." Or they need 5 scientific references to believe it.

    Thats a kind of transparency that people in dangerous times could live without. Heck, they might get enjoyment out of a story, actually adopt it to their beliefs, and teach it to others.

    Now you need convoluted ironic supplicating humor to get noticed.

  4. "Rising-crime media and fiction also warns us against the limits of scientific understanding."

    That's one of the strongest differences between rising and falling-crime culture. Dr. Faustus, Frankenstein, Metropolis, Alien, The Terminator...

    "Hannibal Lecter is given no backstory or psychobabble whatsoever for why he likes to bite and eat people."

    That's the worst part of horror movies since I guess the mid-'90s -- helping the audience understand the genesis of the monster's freakiness. They ruin new movies this way (such as the Saw series), but they also re-make good ones with a pointless and deflating update about how the killer came to be (Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street).

    That was there in the mid-century too. Not many people remember how hugely popular Freudian psychobabble was in the Ozzie and Harriet days. Hitchcock's movie Spellbound, the #4 movie at the box office for 1945, is a film-length exploration of psychoanalysis.

    Even through 1960, when the larger culture was just beginning to shift, you still found Freudian balderdash delivered with a straight face at the end of Psycho (#1 at the box office for the year), to explain how and why Norman Bates became such a wacko.

    "Does anyone tell stories anymore?"

    You mean like narratives, not just relating what they did last night? I don't hear them, and I'm out in a variety of public spaces every day. Urban legends, for example, died out during the '90s. Try telling one now, and the listeners will look at you unsure of whether you're trying to be ironic or not. "Yeah right, that could never happen..."

    I think most people back in the good old days didn't truly believe those things either. They understood them to be fables, legends, etc., that had an important message to remember. "Well, I don't know if it actually happened -- but it's the kind of thing that could."

  5. Spelling out how social interactions will unfold through a list of rules is another way of striving for transparency. That way, no one is in for too much of a surprise.

    I keep harping on this example, but fucking beer pong or flip cup or whatever else sums up how lame and predictable younger people are today. Just getting drunk requires a formalized game.

    Even those Ride the Subway In Your Underwear Day "spectacles" are so highly regulated, specifying precisely what variety of items are and are not allowed, exactly when it will begin and end, what interactions are and are not condoned with each other and with the pants-wearing public, etc.

    Nobody knows how to just, er, let it all hang out anymore. Go with the flow. They've probably got their helicopter parents there with them to do a head count before and after the ride.

    Transparency goes along with legalism, spelling it all out to avoid any ambiguity. That has its uses in social life, but it's getting stifling by now.

  6. New study: sleeping in separate beds more common

  7. Anonymous, the original Terminator does not feature a paradox. It is exactly the sort of time-travel which is consistent with a modern understanding of physics (in which time is really another dimension and you can't assume there is one correct order of events which causes another). The second Terminator movie really screwed things up, and the third (which I prefer to the second) had to repair the damage. Sean Carroll's "From Infinity to Here" has more on the physics, here is an explanation of how the time travel can work in the Terminator movies.

    Also, Hannibal Lector had already appeared in a previous book/movie, that's where the explanation of his background should have occurred (though he was an already incarcerated interviewee regarding the main killer in that as well).

    Telling bullshit stories is acceptable at The Moth in New York. Mike Daisey got in trouble for putting across such a performance as a legit NPR story.

    Some stunning entries from the kids-these-days-are-too-transparent files.


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