Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Zombie Spring

It's the first day of spring, but it has felt like spring for weeks already. Global warming is well upon us. All these unseasonably balmy days have forced the flowers and pressured the trees to bud before their time. The downsides, of course, are coastal flooding, mass extinction, and malnutrition due to falling crop yields. In New York City, the warming has also brought about the unfortunate premature return of smartphone zombies.

(In winter, when cold nips at fingers, there's not so much sidewalk texting or talking, and we get a needed break from the scourge. I miss winter.)

iZombie illustration by Victor Kerlow

All the attendant ducking and weaving on the sidewalks has me thinking about Chuck Closterman's essay "My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead," published in the New York Times in December 2010--and stuck in my mind ever since.

In that essay, he makes an eloquent argument about the rising popularity of zombies and how, with their computer-like brains and lack of consciousness, they've become an allegory for the way our day-to-day existence feels. He writes, "It’s not that zombies are changing to fit the world’s condition; it’s that the condition of the world seems more like a zombie offensive." And that offensive, concludes Closterman, is the Internet and email.

see more zombies here

But there are also zombies walking among us. You see them every day. They are attached to the Internet and electronic communications--you might even say they are humanoid extensions of the Internet.

Drifting down the sidewalk, gazing into electronic devices, iZombies are the living dead, constantly and mindlessly consuming. They lack consciousness. And, yes, they do eat brains. How many times have you tried to think while on the street or the bus, or in a cafe, only to have your thoughts snatched away by a loud-talking zombie on a cell phone or by a collision with a walking iPhone ghoul? The thought is gone--the zombie gobbled it up.

They're trying to turn us all into zombies by devouring our minds. The only way to shield yourself from them is to become like them--to turn on the iPod or tuck into the iPhone. Of course, the manufacturers of these devices want us all to be zombies. Zombies don't think, they shop. They'll stand in line for hours to buy electronics, cupcakes, hamburgers, shoes, whatever the Hive Leader tells them to desire.

Without an iPhone, I have to "play zombie" to keep them away from me. When I see them coming towards me, I look down and twiddle my thumbs in front of my chest, as if I'm texting, even though my hands are empty. "I'm an iZombie like you," this gesture says. "Don't hurt me." This fools them. They think I am one of them and they veer away. If I don't perform this empty-handed thumb twiddling, they will aim right at me.

When a texting zombie comes at you from behind, you will know them from the sound of their shuffling, stuttering steps, their weaving, jerky gait. They sound like zombies. In this situation, you have a few options (I have tried all three): 1. Run away to put distance between you and the zombie. 2. Stop short and brace for impact, thereby deflecting the zombie. 3. Start walking like a zombie--step left then suddenly right, stop and start again, weave from side to side. The zombie will tire of this and go around you.

Since Closterman's essay, zombies have become even more popular. They are everywhere. There's that Walking Dead show and the Zombie Crawls. In New York City, Ricky's pushed zombies as a personal ethos of cool with the slogans, "Zombies: Looking Dead. Feeling Good" and "Own Your Inner Zombie."

Somehow, zombies have become sex symbols.

There are zombie sex toys that simulate rotting genitals, because what's more exciting than intercourse with an animated corpse?

Of course, zombies are having sex with each other, not just silicone bits. A zombie doesn't want to be with a non-zombie and vice versa. The non-zombie might want to have an actual relationship, with real intimacy, or at least conversation, while the zombie would rather plug parts into other parts and send a bunch of text messages back and forth--sometimes simultaneously.

When zombies mate, they make baby zombies. Making a human baby into a zombie is simple--just give it electronic devices to play with and then ignore it. Its already primitive brain will wither quickly, along with its capacity for empathy. Soon it will want the same things all zombies want--mindless distraction and communal stupidity. It will aim to destroy thought because thought is frightening. It will grow up to devour the brains of non-zombies.

More zombies are coming every day. How will you protect your brain?

(Here's an idea--read more novels. They stimulate your brain, increase your empathy, and foster prosocial behavior--unlike, you know, "socially disruptive" narcissistic activities like updating your Facebook page.)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Standard Full Monty

Back in 2009, we were all titillated, outraged, or both by the Standard Hotel's porny displays of guest exhibitionism. For months, they posed, screwed, and jerked off for the tourists on the High Line. And then we stopped hearing about it. But did the show ever end?

I looked up at the massive slab of glass on a recent morning to see a fleshy figure at a window.

A man, a woman? I zoomed in. Clicking away on a cell phone in full Monty, the man wore aviator shades and a thick mustache. (I've blurred his face here to preserve his, uh, privacy.) Very 1970s--an homage to what the Meatpacking District used to be?

He made his connection and chatted away, showing off for the shoppers and tourists below.

Who was he talking to? His mother? A phone sex operator? Or does he do this when phoning MasterCard to settle the issue of his late fee?

A moment later, he grabbed hold of his "turgid member" and began tugging.

And then, running out of courage or maybe needing more drugs, he padded away, giving his ass to Chelsea.

The big question is: Will these highjinks make their way east to the new (more quiet and introspective) Standard East Village?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Burn the Kindle

Amazon calls their successful e-reader the Kindle. Indeed, it is the kindling in an electronic fire that is destroying our books, bookstores, and libraries. Their newest gadget, released yesterday, is the Kindle Fire.

Fireman Bezos

I'd love to see a real Kindle fire, piles and piles of Kindles set ablaze. Would anything be more delicious?

But, you say, it's the words that matter, not the physical object that carries them. Sure, the words are on those screens now, but how much of a leap will it be to just erase them? Amazon has already done it more than once. When they recalled 1984 (of all titles) in 2009, they simply sucked it back out of the devices like magic.

When it's time to take all the books away, there will be no need for lighter fluid and blowtorches. Big Brother will just press a button.

When it's time to take all the books away, people will give them up willingly. They already are.

Listen to the book-hating venom in the voices of people in fetishistic love with their Kindles and Apples. You can hear it everywhere. Destroy the dusty old tomes! Onward with the gleaming future! Even the Pulitzer Prize-winning authors among us have sucked down that toxic Kool-Aid with a smile.

The analgesic tyranny of the screen has all of us drugged and brainwashed to some extent. This is what Ray Bradbury was writing about in Fahrenheit 451. "I wasn't worried about freedom," he said. "I was worried about people being turned into morons by TV... Fahrenheit's not about censorship, it's about...the proliferation of giant screens and the bombardment of factoids."

In the late 1950s, Bradbury wrote about a prophetic scene:

"In writing the short novel Fahrenheit 451 I thought I was describing a world that might evolve in four or five decades. But only a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog. I stood staring after them, absolutely stunned. The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera cries, sleep-walking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there. This was not fiction."

In the novel, he wrote about the first iPod, a device for conveying propaganda and keeping people subdued:

"His wife stretched on the bed, uncovered and cold, like a body displayed on the lid of the tomb, her eyes fixed in the ceiling by invisible threads of steel, immovable. And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind. The room was indeed empty."

But most people don't worry about the devices and the screens and all the strange things they're doing to us, whether it's watering down our brains or stealing our privacy, turning us into zombies, eager to hand over our humanity.

Your Kindle is watching you. It keeps track of the books you read, how often you read them, how quickly you turn the pages, even the personal notes you make in the margins. And the new Kindle Fire is even better at it. It can track, bundle, and sell you in seconds. Said Representative Edward Markey last month, “Consumers may buy the new Kindle Fire to read ‘1984,’ but they may not realize that the tablet’s ‘Big Browser’ may be watching their every keystroke.”

Burning comic books in Binghamton, NY

There is a hatred and fear of books inside human beings. Our lust for and allegiance to the Almighty Screen is its latest expression.

It's time to revolt. Burn those Kindles. Say no to Amazon. Stand up for real books. Before it's too late.

World War II poster

Monday, October 17, 2011

Steve Jobs, Ergo Sum

Last week, in preparation for the new iPhone launch, the Apple store in Chelsea removed all of the Steve Jobs memorial Post-It notes from their windows. (People are still walking around the city with Steve Jobs memorial hair, however.) While they were there, the notes gave us a glimpse into the hive mind of the Cult of Apple.

For the record, I am a long-time consumer of Apple products. I am not, however, a member of the Cult. I like my MacBook, but I don't want to meld my mind and body to it. As for Steve Jobs, I never thought much about him--I didn't think about his suicide-plagued sweatshops in China, nor the fact that he never gave a sou of his billions to charity. Plenty of others are speaking out about Jobs' lack of godliness, and that's not what really interests me.

What interests me is what's going on in the heads of people who seem convinced that Steve Jobs was godly to begin with.

So, to the notes.

The notes are an outpouring--"global" said the blue-shirted Genius inside--a global outpouring of grief and gratitude for Steve Jobs and the products he marketed so well.

"Thank you for the touch screen" and "I love my iPhone," they say. "I loved my iPad," says another, oddly in past tense, as if a product could die without its designer. That seems to be a fear people have, that all these shiny objects will vanish into the ether. Says another: "Thank you for changing our lives. May Apple products live on."

Can people separate the man from the product line?

"Thank you for your brain. XXOO," says one. Is Steve Jobs' brain embodied in the products themselves? In a way. Do people feel as if Jobs and the iPhone are one? Some notes would indicate yes. Like this one: "You were my first and I'm staying electronically true to you!"

Has some intimate exchange involving virginity transpired? "Electronically true" conjures an image of robotic love: When your USB cable plugged into my port for the first time, I knew...

Many people feel that Steve Jobs and his products improved their lives and the lives of everyone on the planet. Several notes say "You made my life better" and "You were a benefit to humanity."

What was that benefit? One sums it up: "You made us look and feel cooler." To look and to feel is to be. Isn't it?

How did Jobs do all of this? Apparently, he was God.

Members of non-Apple religions have declared their allegiance via conversion: "I'm a Pakistani who has completely converted to the Mac cause." They write, "Thank you for getting us where we need to go. The iPhone is a Godsend!" We can feel Godlike just by being connected to God via His products.

According to the notes, we would not exist without Jobs.

"We're different because you were," says one. (A similar note at the Soho Apple store says, "I am because you were." Forget about thinking--it's "Steve Jobs, ergo sum.")

More disturbingly, another note attests: "Only you could make the world."

The idealization of Jobs, and concurrent devaluing of the self, goes even further as one note-maker who worships the God of Jobs sees him or herself as NOTHING in comparison.

Is this the crux of the global outpouring of grief? Without Jobs and his products we are nothing. Is this the perverse message at the wormy core of Apple's marketing?

Look at the iPhone, the iPad--there's that "i" that seems to focus on you and me, providing a narcissistic extension of the self, but it is rendered only in lowercase, always smaller than the name of the product proper, less than. "i" am just a small addition to the product, clinging to its greatness.

The notes, in total, sound like a prayer, a sticky yellow prayer on a retail window. If we can sum up their collective message, the prayer might go like this:

"i am attached to You, and thus blessed, but i am less than You, oh God of sleek and shiny things, You who made the world, You who improved the suffering lot of humanity, You with Your incomprehensible, superior brain, You with your halo of goodness, You who made us look and feel like something important even though we were, and continue to be, nothing compared to You. i exist because you exist. For You so loved the world that You gave your one and only product line, that whoever believes in You shall not perish but have eternal iLife."


Post Script:

The Jobs memorial at the Soho Apple Store remains up. On a piece of pulp board someone has created a bloody valentine of sorts--"The streets miss you!"--with a deformed, half-blind, zombie-faced human clinging for life to the Apple logo.

Someone else has affixed an "Occupy Wall Street" sticker to the board. Above the sticker, a simple reminder: "SJ = 1%."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Safe as Starbucks

There's a false sense of safety in this city. We see it when people leave their doors unlocked while they go off on three-hour jaunts, only to come home to find that thieves strolled in and stole their Rolex watches and Apple products. We see it when people leave their bikes unlocked, their strollers unattended, and their laptops free for the taking.

Now the New York Times reports: Starbucks is the epicenter of thievery, the heart of the Bad Old Days' return.

As a regular chronicler of this phenomenon, I'm enjoying the Times piece with ample Schadenfreude. It's filled with examples of people who believe they can leave their valuables on a table or chair, then ignore them completely--people who are shocked when they're then stolen. One "commanding officer said people who left laptops behind to use the restroom should not be surprised to return to an empty table."

It never fails to amaze me, but people really do that--and then they panic. This is what happens when your false belief in safety comes crashing into reality. So what's happening here? Why are New York City Starbucks a hotbed of five-fingered crime?

In the Times article, Starbucks is described as "A place so comfortable and familiar, with its jazz, leather chairs and Wi-Fi," that people don't think twice about leaving their purses and laptops unattended. Starbucks has provided a perfect environment for feeling safe--without actually being safe.

It all reminds me of a 2004 Malcolm Gladwell article. In "Big and Bad," Gladwell concludes that for SUV drivers the feeling of safety is more important than actually being safe. "That feeling of safety isn't the solution," he says, "it's the problem," because SUVs aren't safe--they rollover and kill other drivers.

He explains how people who feel helpless will seek a seemingly safe environment, like an SUV, where they can be passive and thus have their perception of risk distorted. Says cultural anthropologist and marketing expert Clotaire Rapaille, "Safe means I can sleep. I can give up control. I can relax. I can take off my shoes. I can listen to music."

Research has shown that people who drive SUVs tend to be self-oriented, attracted to luxury, and fearful of crime. What about the avid Starbucks customer?

At Starbucks they like round tables, because round makes single people appear to be less alone, and they like the odd names for sizes, because the special language makes them feel like part of a special community, according to author Karen Blumenthal. From this we could assume that people who love being inside a Starbucks fear being alone and want very much to belong to a select group.

This false sense of community could certainly make people feel safe, lulling them into blunders based on a belief that everyone around them is like them, and looking out for them. No wonder the buzzards are circling. But we know this isn't just a Starbucks issue. It's happening all over town, this blind belief in false safety.

The city as a whole has been engineered to be like one big Starbucks or SUV
, a comfy womb-like environment, up high (in status) and filled with cupholders (amenities), created for helpless, frightened people who want to feel safe, so they can relax. The people who design Starbucks and SUVs make them this way so they can sell the products and make money. Why would a city be so engineered? Who benefits from a passive and pacified populace?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

We Love Your Dog!

The signs of the city can tell you a lot about what's happening socially. About a decade ago, we started seeing "Shut Up" signs all over the place. Clearly, they were necessary, and so we must assume that people needed to be told to shut up because they were getting louder and louder, caring less and less about their impact on others.

There's another breed of sign that's been cropping up everywhere more recently. It's the "We Love Your Dog" sign. It might also be the "We Love Your Baby" or "We Love You and Your Laptop" sign, but most often it has to do with dogs. ("Pets" really means dogs, since cat people don't usually bring Fluffy on errands.)

Years ago, businesses that sold food had signs on the door that said "No Dogs Allowed." Simple, straightforward, unassailable.

But today, more and more, they say something along the lines of: "We love your dog! Unfortunately, the big bad laws of the land say we can't let your dog inside. Please don't get mad at us--it's not our fault! To placate you and contain your narcissistic rage, here's a bowl of water and some treats. Really, truly, we LOVE your dog. Please don't get mad." (I am paraphrasing.)

You see these signs everywhere--I've collected quite a few--on the doors of big chain stores and little coffee shops. On grocery stores and Chinese restaurants. Many of them come with pictures of cute dogs. See? We really, really like them! (Please don't get mad.)

"Love" is the operative word here. The signs typically say we "love" your dog, pets, etc. Not: we're tolerant, or we don't mind, but we LOVE. The message is: We're not "haters" filled with negativity.

The signs almost always say "your" dog/pets. We love YOUR dog, not dogs in general. "We love dogs" could actually be true, but "We love your dog" is almost impossible. "We don't know your dog, so how could we love it," would be more accurate. But the words "you" and "your" have taken over marketing. They make people feel special, so there it is, the appeasing "your."

And then comes the turn, usually in the form of the word "unfortunately." It has a stammering quality, like a big gulp before the delivery of bad news you're afraid will get you slapped in the face. Don't upset the dog owner!

In this climate, some businesses just want to be the good guy. Like Ricky's, where they don't sell food, and so can allow pets. They make the most of it with this sign, basically saying, "Hey, we're not dog-hating jerks like a lot of other people in this neighborhood. We're cool."

So what are these signs telling us about human interactions in the city today?

It seems obvious that they are revealing a trend: Entitled people with dogs are getting very upset when they walk into a food establishment with their pet and are asked to take the animal outside. Maybe the dog person throws a fit. Maybe they go home and attack the business on their blog or give them a scathing review on Yelp. This happens frequently enough, and causes enough disruption, that the business has been forced to put up an ass-kissing sign.

We see a variation of the sign, though less frequently, with babies and strollers. "We really love your baby" they say, but the fire code says we can't have strollers in here. Again, the subtext is: "Please don't blame us! Please don't get angry! It's not our fault! Blame the government. We are not baby haters."

With good reason they cover their asses--we know what the stroller brigade did to the anti-babies in bars people.

But one of my absolute favorites in this genre of signage comes from a popular coffee shop in Park Slope, the New York neighborhood that is perhaps the epicenter of entitlement, and home to many dogs and strollers. It's a very long, funny, ass-kissing, walk-on-eggshells explanation about why they don't want customers hanging out for hours on their laptops, and it begins, "We're absolutely thrilled that you like us so much that you want to spend the day...and we love having you here, believe you me!"

It goes on to apologize in advance for having to "say something" to people who don't follow the rules, and "we really dislike that sort of thing, it is so not 'us' and makes everyone uneasy." Once again, the message is: Please don't make us be bad guys.

There's something pathetically simpering about all these signs. When did businesses get so afraid to be the heavy? It's like the Mom or Dad who wants to be pals and buddies with their children, rather than the authority figures who say what's what. In fact, I'm inclined to blame those Moms and Dads for the behaviors that led to the necessity for these signs.

Finally, here's how it should be done. This sign--in parent-coddling Park Slope, no less--is not afraid to assert itself and tell it like it is. "This is a doctors office, not a playground!!" But maybe you have to be a needle-wielding M.D. to get away with that?

Friday, March 25, 2011

New York Dick

One thing that isn't vanishing from the city is penis graffiti. It's been around for a long time, since the Paleolithic days, and is still going strong. A connoisseur and documentarian of the genre, Galen Smith, has published New York Dick, a collection of such defacements featured on subway advertisements. I asked Smith some questions about his quest.

Q: I'm impressed by the sheer abundance of graffitied penises you were able to gather with your camera. For how long have you been an observer of New York dicks, and what inspired you to put them together in a book?

A: I've been shooting subway poster defacements of all kinds for about four years. Among the most common and weirdly powerful of the defacements were the ad-violating penis drawings.

Whenever I mentioned seeing a notable example of a schlong attacking a superstar, whoever I was talking to would join in and recount their favorite examples of pricks on posters, the weird details of the drawing style, the pop personality involved, and where the thing was sticking, or growing. I started to realize that these dumb defacements really make an impression.

I began to get a feel for the crazy conflict/dialog that was occurring. A pushy statement is made by the voice in charge of the situation (the ad), but at the very moment that I'm supposed to be won over by the ad, these rude graphics bust in and make clear how strange, fake, and self-absorbed the whole situation is. This upsetting of the expected is what made the dirty doodles funny, and not just lewd or hateful. The statement of disrespect was a fair one, and one we all understood.

Q: Has anyone ever reacted negatively--or positively--when catching you in the act of snapping a dick photo?

A: I do most of my shooting early in the morning, I try to work when there aren't many people in the stations. When there are people around they seem curious why I'm so laboriously poring over a sloshy prick drawing, lovingly photographing it like it's an adorable puppy. This attention makes me nervous so I try not to attract it, but I have noticed that after I've tipped them off that there is something worth seeing on this penis-ized poster they seem to check it out more carefully.

Q: Why do you think people feel compelled to graffiti penises? And why don't we see as many graffiti vaginas?

A: The quick hard-on sketch is an easily understood folk graphic that has a lot of powerful meanings, some very nasty, some fairly benign. Tagging a poster image with a dorky penis is delivering a sexualized insult, an implication of idiocy, and an intense disrespect mixed with buffoonery. They totally reframe the dialog.

I've seen some terrific female genital defacements too, but they don't seem to be perceived as having the same multifaceted insulting power as the penises. Also, it's harder to use the vaggie doodles in the same kind of conceptually disruptive interloper role that the wee-wees are used in. I think most of the defacers feel it's easier to use the penises as rude invaders of the mind space. They're easy to draw, easy to read, and pack lots of disrespectful meanings.

Q: Have you noticed any trends in New York dicks? For example, do they fluctuate in number according to the economy? Are they different in different neighborhoods?

A: Its very difficult to pin down trends in dick drawing, and impossible to prove what's causing them. Certain train lines seem more fertile, probably because these lines have a lot of waiting time, have graphically gregarious riders, and more than a few of them might be intoxicated. Often the trends seem more conceptual, such as a certain poster enticing huge amounts of defacements of all kinds, and other posters getting the same dong drawn in the same spot all over town. The other common phenomena is that some personalities seem to motivate lots of people to get smart-alecky. Eddie Murphy seems to always attract intense graphic brutalization.

Q: One thing we've seen a lot of in the East Village, in wintertime, are penises drawn in the snow. My fellow blogger EV Grieve often chronicles the activities of what he calls The Penistrator. If you had to guess, how might you compare the psychology of a snow-penis maker to a Magic Marker- or spraypaint-penis maker?

A: Snow penises always seem to have more whimsy about them than Sharpie or paint penises, and I imagine that the maker is more witty and whimsical too, at least at that moment. I think this is caused by a combination of factors. First, snow penises have a sort of here today gone tomorrow wistfulness. Second, they seem less edgy and hard, less destructive, and less aggressive, probably because their physical qualities are unconnected to traditional urban graff and it's confrontational attitude. Sharpie artists working on ad posters are witty too sometimes, but the "vandalism light" aspect of their work makes them clearly more graffiti-like, and they do occasionally drift into bad nastiness, not fun nastiness.

Q: Tell the truth--have you ever drawn your own dick graffiti?

A: I haven't, I feel that if I did it would violate the spirit of what I'm trying to document, I'm not a public prick artist, I just have a sincere appreciation of those who are. But I do often see posters that seem to be begging for some penis upgrades, I often want to scrawl across the ad "WHY AREN'T YOU DRAWING DICKS ON THIS!" but I resist, and in time, people tend to wake up to reality and dick that which needs to be dicked. We are wise to do so.