Today we are less likely to feel awe in the presence of our machines than we are to experience what historian Jacques Barzun called “machine-made helplessness.”
Visiting the Paris Exhibition in 1900, the American writer Henry Adams saw something so remarkable he compared its influence to that of the Virgin Mary. It was a hall filled with machines - early power generators known as dynamos. Watching them at work, he “began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross,” he wrote in The Education of Henry Adams. “The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring.” Adams wondered if he should pray to it.
Such awe and the attendant feelings of humility it inspired in Adams were not uncommon at the time, particularly in the United States, where technological enthusiasm ran high. In the 1850s, the U.S. Commissioner of Patents was so overtaken with excitement about the country’s many new machines that he declared, “A steamer is a mightier epic than the Iliad." A writer in DeBow’s Review opined, “The great Mississippi Valley may emphatically be said to be the creation of the steam engine, for without its magic power … what centuries must have elapsed before the progress of arts and of enterprise could have swept away the traces of savage life.” Perhaps these machines had to be viewed with awe; industrialization was such a culturally disruptive force that people had to find a way to cope with its effects. Investing supernatural powers in the machines that ushered in that revolution was one way of doing this.
By the twentieth century, some cynicism had crept into descriptions of the newest machines. Writing about the impact of radio on his rural Maine community, E. B. White observed, “One of the chief pretenders to the throne of God is radio itself, which has acquired a sort of omniscience.” In the lives of the people in his town, the radio exerted a “pervading and somewhat godlike presence.” But it was also something to which they turned daily for advice and instruction. As White wryly noted, “The church merely holds out the remote promise of salvation: the radio tells you if it’s going to rain tomorrow.”
Today, we no longer approach our many machines with awe; in fact, the more personalized and individualized our machines have become, the less humility we feel in using them. No longer the large, rare dynamos of Adams’s day, our machines are often portable and are such a central part of our everyday lives that we barely notice their presence. Rather than awe-inspiring symbols of man’s power, they are merely extensions of ourselves, like the cell phone that helps us communicate or the microwave that speeds the cooking of our dinner. They are servants of our whims rather than objects of reverence.
Of course there is a danger in romanticizing the machine, not least of which is becoming so credulous that we believe they can do anything. In an infamous example in the early nineteenth century, an inventor claimed he had created a chess-playing machine, an automaton that could best any human being at the game. It proved to be a hoax (a man was hidden inside the machine) and was immortalized in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1836 story “Maelzel’s Chess Player.” Today, when the chess game on an average computer can and does regularly outsmart its human opponents, we believe ourselves free from such gullibility. But while we might be less gullible, we are far more dependent on our machines than were the awestruck audiences of the chess-playing automaton.
In the early age of machines, they inspired awe by proving capable of doing what man could never do alone (such as power an entire factory), or what we once believed only man could do (play chess). Now we expect our machines to do just about everything for us, from organizing our finances to writing our grocery lists. Our machines not only ease the mundane burdens of daily life (cooking, cleaning, working), but also serve, increasingly, as both our primary source of entertainment and the means for maintaining intimate relationships with others. Henry Adams’s dynamo has been replaced by Everyman’s iPod, and awe has given way to complacence and dependence. Your computer’s e-mail program doesn’t inspire awe; it is more like a dishwasher than a dynamo. Nineteenth-century rhapsodies to the machines that tamed nature, such as the steam engine, have given way to impatience with the machines that don’t immediately indulge our whims.
The decline in humility toward our machines comes at a time when we know almost nothing about how or why they work. Although overwhelmed by its power, Henry Adams nevertheless had a basic understanding of how the dynamo operated. Most of us know very little about how our laptop computers run or how to repair our washing machines. Today we are less likely to feel awe in the presence of our machines than we are to experience what historian Jacques Barzun called “machine-made helplessness.” This, too, is a form of blind faith, like the people who, devotedly following the instructions of their car’s GPS device, drive right off a hill, all the while certain that this must be impossible - how could their perfectly calibrated machine be wrong?
The awe experienced by earlier generations was part of a different worldview, one that demonstrated greater humility about many things, not least of which concerned their own human limits and frailties. Today we believe our machines allow us to know a lot more, and in many ways they do. What we don’t want to admit - but should - is that they also ensure that we directly experience less. Updating your Facebook page is a lot easier than venturing out into the world to confront a dynamo, as Adams did. But it is also, in the end, likely to be a lot less awe-inspiring.
In 1996, I jumped off a 350-foot-high bridge over a river gorge. I wanted to experience what it would be like to leap, head first, from a lethal height and hurtle toward my death. The death part itself I had no interest in experiencing — in fact, a fairly strong interest in not experiencing — so I had a bungee cord wrapped around my ankles. After the initial terror and involuntary-scream portion of the event, the fall was quite enjoyable. I didn’t flail or rotate helplessly like people pushed from balconies on TV, but dropped smoothly in dive formation. I felt the way, as a child, I imagined Superman feeling. It led me to believe that jumping off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge would be a lovely way to go.
I don’t feel that way anymore. This I blame on several people, including Gary Erickson, an investigator at the Marin County, Calif., coroner’s office, where bodies pulled from the water below the Golden Gate Bridge are taken; Richard Snyder, author of a research paper titled “Fatal Injuries Resulting From Extreme Water Impact”; and Herb Lopez, a Golden Gate Bridge safety patrol sergeant.
In fact, the pointed lack of loveliness involved in a bridge suicide is one of the things Sgt. Lopez uses to dissuade the suicidal individuals he encounters in his job. In response to pressure from San Francisco Suicide Prevention, the Golden Gate Bridge District has safety officers regularly (depending on their workload) patrolling the bridge on scooters and bikes, scanning crowds for possible jumpers. (Unlike tourists, jumpers are usually alone, do not carry cameras and do not look like happy people on vacation.)
Lopez regales would-be suicides with details of has-been suicides he has helped recover. (While the U.S. Coast Guard retrieves bodies that land in open water, bridge personnel are responsible for jumpers who land on the ground or in the concrete-ringed moat that surrounds the bridge’s South Tower.) I asked Lopez for a “for instance.” He thought for a moment — I cannot begin to imagine the horrors that flashed through his mind in that moment — and then he said: “One time Lt. Locati was down on the moat bringing in a body and someone yells, ‘Look out, Mike!’ He looks down, and right there on the concrete in front of him is a complete human brain. Something sheared off the back of the guy’s head.”
We were on the South Tower at the time, so Lopez leaned over the railing and pointed out the spot where the brain had sat. A tourist stopped alongside us. “What are we looking at?” he said.
"Pelicans," said Lopez.
The most recent suicidal individual got to hear about a terminally ill man who landed between two boulders near the shore on the Marin County side of the bridge. “All we could see of him,” said Lopez, “was his legs sticking up.” He made a peace sign to illustrate the man’s legs protruding from between the rocks. “When we put him in the basket to haul him up, he was about this long.” Lopez held his hands about a yard apart, as though relating a fishing story, which, in a way, I guess he was.
The basket to which Lopez was referring was a crab basket. In its present incarnation, it, and a grappling hook, are the primary tools used by bridge personnel to haul bodies from the moat. This is not to say that the crab basket does not occasionally still haul crabs. “A lot of times, we pull bodies out with crabs hanging off them,” said Lopez. Crabs apparently consider people as much of a delicacy as people consider crabs. “They go for the eyeballs first, then the soft flesh on the cheeks.” Lopez possesses the matter-of-factness and healthy remove of people who deal with death as part of their job. He didn’t strike me as callous or uncaring, just inured.
When people land on open water, the result is less grisly, though it still falls far short of lovely. “If you look at these people,” says Gary Erickson, the Marin County coroner’s investigator whose job is to do just that, “they don’t look like there’s a whole lot wrong with them.” Depending on what position they were in when they hit, very few bones may be broken. Bodies that enter the water feet first or lying flat tend to emerge with the skeleton largely intact. Of the 169 Golden Gate Bridge suicides in Snyder’s paper, 17 had no fractures at all, and two had no injuries. If you manage to enter the water feet first and close to vertical, it’s possible to survive a leap from the bridge. But it’s not very likely: At the time of Snyder’s paper, the death rate was 99.3 percent. Ironically, according to another of Snyder’s papers, suicides are more likely than accidental plungers to survive extreme impacts — perhaps because they wish to die and are thus more relaxed when they hit.
Usually what kills you is your ribs. According to Snyder’s research, 85 percent of the jumpers had broken ribs. (By comparison, only 15 percent emerged with fractured vertebrae, and only a third with arm or leg fractures.) These jagged pieces of rib “macerate,” to use Erickson’s verb, the heart, lungs and/or major arteries. Of the bodies in Snyder’s paper, 76 percent had punctured lungs, and 57 percent had heart or “great vessel” ruptures.
Dying in this manner is akin to death by gunshot or a stab wound to the heart: It’s not always instantaneous, but it’s very fast. When a major artery is severed, the brain quickly shuts down for lack of oxygen-bearing blood. “When a vessel the size of the carotid artery has been cut wide open,” writes Sherwin Nuland, author of “How We Die,” “the entire sequence can take less than a minute.” One thing is known: It happens fast enough that few people drown. Only 45 of the 169 suicides in Snyder’s paper lived long enough to inhale much water.
Out on the bridge, Lopez and I were joined by Mike Locati, the man who nearly slipped on a brain. Locati’s patrol that morning had been uneventful. He was keeping his eye on a lone man with no camera who was staring down at the water. I noticed him too, for he glanced back at Lopez and me after we’d passed. He wore no jacket, just a T-shirt and a pair of Wranglers, which, had he decided to leap, would likely have had the crotch blown out and the rear pockets blown off. (“Even on a sturdy pair of denims,” Erickson marveled.)
According to Lopez and Locati, there are two types of jumpers — and only one they can do much about. There are the suicidal people who aren’t quite sure they want to jump and who typically walk the bridge several times or climb over the railing to sit on the 4-foot-wide ledge below it, deliberating. “Ninety-five percent of the time, if we get to these people,” said Lopez, “we’ll get them back over.” The more determined suicides are harder to stop. Some people simply stop their car in traffic, get out and jump, stunning tourists — who typically compose themselves quickly enough to snap photos or shoot video — and blocking traffic for hours. (Most suicides park in the parking lot, considerate to the end.) Others appear to be out for a stroll and then suddenly turn in midstride and, as Lopez puts it, “take a flying leap over the railing.”
The only way to keep people like these from jumping would be to put up fencing, which the Bridge District thinks would spoil the view. And so, 25 or so times a year (there’ve been more than 1,000 deaths to date), someone jumps. When it happens, bridge personnel call the Coast Guard and then hurl a buoy over the side from the spot where the person jumped. The buoys have the same density as a human body, so that, in theory, they travel in the current just as a body would. Very often, though, depending on the body fat of the jumper and whether any air bubbles are trapped in his or her clothing, the body will have sunk before the Coast Guard can get to it. In this case, it doesn’t float to the surface for about a week and a half, after gases from the bacterial decomposition process have inflated it sufficiently. Talk about spoiling the view.
Almost all these patients had known, for some time, that they had a terminal condition. Yet they-along with their families and doctors-were unprepared for the final stage. “We are having more conversation now about what patients want for the end of their life, by far, than they have had in all their lives to this point,” my friend said. “The problem is that’s way too late.” In 2008, the national Coping with Cancer project published a study showing that terminally ill cancer patients who were put on a mechanical ventilator, given electrical defibrillation or chest compressions, or admitted, near death, to intensive care had a substantially worse quality of life in their last week than those who received no such interventions. And, six months after their death, their caregivers were three times as likely to suffer major depression. Spending one’s final days in an I.C.U. because of terminal illness is for most people a kind of failure. You lie on a ventilator, your every organ shutting down, your mind teetering on delirium and permanently beyond realizing that you will never leave this borrowed, fluorescent place. The end comes with no chance for you to have said goodbye or “It’s O.K.” or “I’m sorry” or “I love you.”
I have been using this to entertain people at parties for years, and I’ve finally decided to write it down. I have to credit my good friend Sam Cooper as the co-creator of this graph. (Check out his band, Horse Feathers.) The very first Nerd Graph was rendered on a napkin at Abo’s Pizza in Boulder, Colorado sometime around the turn of the millennium.
As a nerd, I have always been interested in nerd anthropology. Non-nerds often fail to understand that not all nerds are created equal. In my years of careful observation I have identified four distinct subspecies of nerd. I believe that all nerds can be generally grouped as follows: geek, dork, creep and loser.
They are identifiable along a Cartesian spectrum:
Keep in mind that these are not static categories; any nerd could be represented as a dot somewhere on this graph. The “perfect nerd” (as dubious and elusive as a cryptozoological creature) would be a dot falling exactly at the intersection of all four categories. I will now detail the distinguishing characteristics of each subspecies of nerd.
Nerds who are both intelligent and social are geeks. The geek is generally the most well-adjusted and successful nerd. His nerdiness usually does not prevent him from, if necessary, “passing” as a non-nerd when interacting with mixed company, although he feels most comfortable in the company of other geeks. I am a geek. Most of my friends are also geeks. But that doesn’t mean we’re not cool. Geeks may, for instance, do drugs. This does not make them non-nerds.
Obsessive and/or arcane hobbies: photography, backgammon, etc.
Expansive knowledge about a certain subject: for instance, there are music geeks, movie geeks, etc.
Ability to “pass”
Geeks usually have sex with other geeks. Female heterosexual geeks may have sex with non-nerds, and sometimes male creeps — very rarely with male dorks. Male heterosexual geeks usually only have sex with female geeks, though there are observed instances of male geeks having sex with female dorks. Male geeks also sometimes have sex with non-nerds, but it is observably rarer than with female geeks. However, a relationship between a geek and a non-geek rarely lasts, for at some point the geek’s mask will slip.
Where to find them
Music stores, book stores, liberal arts colleges, graduate programs, “hip” neighborhoods in major metropolitan areas
William Jefferson Clinton
Bill Clinton’s ability to “pass” is uncanny, and as for intelligence and sociability, he maxes out both scales.
(Editor’s note: You’ll have to click the link to read the rest of the definitions for dork, creep and loser. I identify with the geek label, if you’re constantly checking up on this site, you’re probably one too.)
“I THINK YOU WANT TO LEARN ABOUT ART BECAUSE YOU HAD AN EXPERIENCE OF SOME SORT— A TOTALLY NON-REDEMPTIVE BUT VAGUELY EXCITING EXPERIENCE, LIKE BRUSHING UP AGAINST A GIRL WITH BIG BOOBS IN THE SUBWAY.”—Interview with Dave Hickey in The Believer.
Paul Rand stands without peer at the pinnacle of graphic design’s Olympus, the North Star that guides professional practice even more than eight years after his death. (Indeed the first entry here at Design Observer was on Rand’s personal library.) An important new book, Paul Rand: Modernist Design, edited by Franc Nunoo-Quarcoo as part of the University of Maryland’s Issues in Cultural Theory series, adds to the already substantial body of writing on the man and his work. A combination monograph, anthology and festschrift, it also contributes to the unassailable Rand legend.
I did not know Paul Rand. I did not work for him or study under him. My understanding of his importance, then, has been gained in the same way as students and practitioners in years to come will gain theirs: through books like Modernist Design. The book’s more than two dozen contributors are almost uniformly positive, if not downright adulatory (the most notable exception is the reprint of Jessica Helfand’s critical essay from her own book.) So it’s with some trepidation that I wonder if I might lodge a few complaints about Mr. Rand as a model for graphic design practice. But here goes.
A single-minded emphasis on logos. Every organization needs to communicate intelligently, distinctively, consistently and effectively. Not every organization needs a logo. But communicating effectively is a complex challenge that needs to be addressed anew every day; making a logo is a largely formal exercise that can be priced, paid for, done once and locked up forever. It’s no wonder that so many clients and designers collude in the comfort of pretending the second activity is a substitute for doing the first.
More than anyone else, Rand placed logo design at the heart of our professional activity. His logos form the heart of each of his books and are invoked repeatedly in Modernist Design as the epitome of his practice. Dare we admit that not every Rand logo is perfect? Take his UPS logo, the redesign of which last year was treated in some quarters as an act of cultural desecration on the level of the looting of the antiquities of Baghdad. Designed in the early sixties for a company that positioned itself as a businesslike alternative to the U.S. Post Office in a world where Fed Ex was unimaginable, it looked like a shield partly because the logo it replaced was a shield. The bow (“That’s a present, daddy!”) is a patent anachronism; UPS refuses to handle packages tied with string. Although the Mighty Morphin Power Ranger Photoshop Fantasy that replaced it is truly vile (a friend who studied under Rand calls it “the golden comb over”) that doesn’t mean the original mark wasn’t flawed and overdue for a change.
An interest in the outside and not the inside. For a man who famously said “”Graphic design…is not good design if it does not communicate,” Rand seems to have paid less attention then you’d expect on the actual content of the things he worked on. If you’ve ever seen the inside of a Rand-designed annual report for IBM or Cummins, you’ll see what I mean. Behind the beautiful cover one finds completely uninflected three-column typography (always, to be sure, in an elegant typeface) with photos on a grid that look like they were pulled out of a drawer. There is none of the compelling visual storytelling one associates with less acclaimed designers like Erik Nitsche or Lester Beall. The IBM annuals designed by VSA Partners in the last few years for CEO Lou Gerstner feature the kind of overactive, pluralistic “messy” layouts that I’m guessing Rand would find really irritating; they are also much better feats of communication.
A curious detachment from history.Modernist Design features a timeline that tracks Rand’s life, Rand’s work and world history in a comparative chart. Above, one finds sublime posters and logos. Below, references to war, assassination, struggles in civil rights, and the general tumult that characterized much of the last century. The only place the twain meet is his 1940 cover for the magazine Direction: two strands of barbed wire “wrap” a package riddled with bullet holes. It is one of his best pieces. Rand’s dedication to timelessness drove him repeatedly to the purity of form bereft of specific content: the Direction covers let us see what he might have done had he continued to use his talent as a way to engage with — rather than shield himself from, perhaps? — the changing world around him.
Humorlessness. Rand’s work is so often acclaimed for its playfulness (one of his seminal essays was entitled “Design and the Play Instinct”) that I wonder if it’s some kind of selective blindness that makes the joy that others see so invisible to me. Just because children use cut paper and primary colors doesn’t mean that an adult that does the same is conveying a childlike sense of wonder. The famous IBM rebus poster - an “eye” for vision, a “bee” for industriousness, and…well, an “M” - seems to me to be waiting for its punchline.
I left that one for last, partly because in the face of the formidable Rand legend I simply wonder, indeed, if the problem is with me. I love his work and I miss not having known him. I also wonder whether young designers today are well served by having their forebears presented as infallible. In Modernist Design, Georgia Tech professor Diane Gromala contributes an enlightening essay with a title I would have liked to have used for this piece: “The Trouble with Rand.” Near the end she describes an exchange with Paul Rand that she had as a student: “When I asked him if it was a pain to be just worshiped, if that didn’t cause a certain sense of loneliness, he proffered a knowing smile.”
That smile, as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa’s, is what we’re left with as the living portrait hardens into revered icon. As time goes on, it’s only the cracks in the surface that will reveal the humanity within.
“The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.” - Thomas Wolfe