99% Invisible

Apropos of nothing, at the start of last year I started thinking about things.

This was an important fork in the road for me, an important path to take. Up until then I’d been more concerned with stuff–that is, the stuff things compliment in their various ways.

For example, I enjoy music and take great interest in sound production, melody and the hows and whys of musical emotion. Why do certain sequences of notes make us feel jubilant? Why do certain chords sound sad?

I’ve always felt this way, I suppose, but now as I listen to a new mix I start thinking about the DJ and the artists whose music features in it. I wonder who they are and what prompted them to make these tracks. I wonder if they’ve been making music for a long time and how many ideas they have kicking around on hard drives or CDs, sketches of songs that might never be finished or released or heard.

More than that, I wonder what circumstances led them to create the songs exactly how they is. Why did they use this particular kick drum, for example–and for that matter, where did the kick drum come from? Was it played live on a drum set? Is it a sample from some CD library, its origins lost in the mists of recording history? Is it even a kick drum; perhaps its a biscuit box hit with a wooden spoon and pitched down. And if that’s the case, why did the musician buy these particular biscuits, who invented the recipe for them, who designed the art work for the box and what are their stories?

And it came to me, a fact so blatant like the air around us it was easily ignored: everything comes from somewhere.

It’s obvious isn’t it? I shouldn’t need to spell it out and now that I have you’re wondering why I find this so amazing.

I’ll tell you why: we live inside a never-ending story, a Mandelbrot fractal with turtles all the way down. It’s the kind of thing scientists regard with great enthusiasm. We are star stuff, they say, we began life as microbes who were themselves spun from matter flung across the universe. A single erroneous turn, a single diversion and nothing of our lives would exist. The Earth and everything we hold dear is a wonderful cosmic mistake, something that was never pre-destined but–given the the set variables that led to our existence–was nevertheless inevitable. We are the result of cause and effect that echoes throughout all time.

It’s pretty amazing looking at the night sky and thinking about it all. I live in the flightpath of a major international airport, in a state in which on five out of seven days the sky’s clear enough to see a smattering of stars after dusk. I walk the dog long after dark beneath constellations clear as diamond dust on a jeweller’s pillow; it’s humbling, walking through darkness with the heavens wheeling overhead, and when an aeroplane flies low enough to fill the neighbourhood with its distant rumbling it’s like I’m watching another constellation swim across space, one made by us, human beings, the cosmic mistake.

Those grand decisions formulated beyond our control by the galaxy have as much bearing on that plane existing as human decisions, human work, human art. We crafted that thing, wing to wing, rivet by rivet. The revisions for even the smallest part of that aircraft are innumerable. Just as those unthinkable detours the universe could have taken would have resulted in our unbeing so very deliberate human decisions would have resulted in the plane being different in some way–up to and including not existing at all.

Thinking in such a way, even the subtleties of its design seem terribly interesting. Why choose this particular colour for the chair coverings? Why use those particular bulbs for the landing lights? What kind of lives do the crew lead once the plane lands? What adventures await them at every airport?

The answers for these questions are almost definitely terribly mundane, but they go into making a rich tapestry that goes so unnoticed it might as well be invisible. I mean, when was the last time you wondered who chose the shade of blue upholstering your in-flight headrest?

I started seeing questions everywhere. It was especially bad when shopping for furniture. The materials, the patterns, the designs are one thing, but whose job is it to name these beds? Who writes the assembly instructions? Who designed the font stamped into the rim of the large screws holding everything together?

Somebody should find out who these people are, I thought to myself. Then I prided myself on this great idea, one surely no other human being had ever had.

Later–as with many great ideas–I discovered someone else had thought the same thing, and being a far less conceited person than myself rather than throwing it away he had chased after it and made it into a podcast. Driven by a passion for design Roman Mars created 99% Invisible–which incidentally has just about as perfect a name as you could hope for, given the subject at hand.

It’s a short podcast (which is no less wonderful for its brevity) that tells the stories of why items and buildings are the way they are. In the past it’s covered the sound design of iDevices (have you ever wondered why typing on a MacBook sounds so pleasant? Did you know that distinctive silvery patter was designed by a engineer?) US postage stamps (all of which are designed by a single brilliant woman.) and public fountains. The latest episode contains a piece of investigative journalism so simplistic, so brilliant, by the end of the show my mouth was aching where I had grinned so hard.

Check this: a couple of reporters go into the US Capitol Building–where Congress holds congress, don’t you know–and start opening doors. They snoop. They’re mischievous kids going where they shouldn’t go with only visitor’s badges standing between being sent home and–quite possibly–being shot for trespassing.

Mars calls this kind of stupendous devil-may-care curiosity moxie, professes his love for the woman reporter and his envy of the guy following with her down this federal rabbit hole. Listening, still grinning, I understand completely how he feels.

(And did you know that ‘moxie’ is named after one of the first carbonated beverages mass-produced in the United States, and that its usage stems from the drink’s early advertising slogan? Isn’t that just wonderful?)

On their adventure, giggling all the way, they find a door in the Capitol Building basement that leads into what turns out to be an antique marble bathroom. It’s dusty, faded and partially renovated, although hasn’t been used in some time. As a non-sequitor not just out of sync with modern society but with the building surrounding it, a building hallowed with power, upon which the fate of the world has been routinely determined, this bathroom is important. It has to have a story and of course, it does.

Let’s take a detour of our own here, to the world of television. A month or so ago TV’s hottest property was Alcatraz, a new action mystery series from–as screamed by the vast number adverts screened in the run-up to its debut–the makers of Lost. Like the marble baths in the basement of the Capitol Building Alcatraz has a mystery at its heart: in 1963 the criminals imprisoned in America’s most infamous jail vanished. Now, in 2012, they’re reappearing, and are up to their old tricks, seemingly without aging a day in the interim. It’s up to a cop, a comic nerd and a mysterious organisation to track the villains down and unravel the prison’s secret.

It’s not a bad show; it’s just not a particularly good show, either. Defying its premise it seems inordinately formulaic, as if created to tick boxes and little else. The female lead is tough, yet vulnerable. The comic nerd (played by Hurley from Lost) is fanboy wish-fulfillment: the lovable geek cracking wise while totally out of his depth. The plot is drip-fed to the audience the requisite amount per episode–it’s a slow poison designed to cause slow addiction.

But rather than being slowly enthralled I find I can’t be bothered with it. This by-the-numbers drama has obviously been made with somebody like me in mind (“From the makers of Lost!”) just like all TV is made to cater for a certain demographic, yet there’s more mystery to that marble bathroom buried under the nation’s capital than there is in this deliberately mysterious piece of hokum.

A long time ago the biggest mystery in my life was what lay over the other side of the hill opposite my childhood house. It was a big hill hemmed with trees at its bottom and coiffed with farmland at its top. A hedgerow fringed the crest, and though it was too far away to reach I imagined it to as a wall over which I, in my childlike reveries, was expressly forbidden from climbing.

One day when revisiting the area decades later I broke away from the road running around the foot of the hill, walked up past a farmhouse (from where an irate farmer later emerged to berate me for trespassing on private ground) and for the first time in my life saw what was on the other side. It was farmland of course, more fields rolling down and away, eventually ending at a fishing village so far distant as to be unreachable in half-a-day’s walk. Was I disappointed?

I was not. I’d snooped, and triumphed, and solved a mystery that had plagued me all my life–not one created by a TV executive and his team of trained writers but one that simply existed by dint of nature, the landscape and my view upon it. Had circumstances been minutely different this mystery would never have existed. In fact it’s possible despite living in such close proximity none of my neighbours had ever considered what might be on the other side of that hedge on the top of the hill.

But I wondered, and in wondering, snooped.

I love 99% Invisible. It has born anew within me a snooper’s soul. I can’t see a building fallen into disarray without wondering what its story was. I envy the limberness of urban explorers (and that important sub-branch: civic explorers) who delve into places ignored, forgotten and invisible. I want to stop people on the street and ask them their stories–I don’t, I’m far too timid for that, but with this new soul burning within me perhaps one day I might. There’s a car on my dog-walking route with the vanity plate ‘HOLYPOL’; I want to knock on the door it’s parked outside of and ask the owner: Why? The answer can only be unsatisfactory but it’s a question I want answered and only my timidity prevents me from finding that answer, investigating, and having my curiosity satisfied.

I urge you–whoever you may be–to listen to 99% Invisible. More than that, I urge you to start asking questions of your own. This godless world–an insignificant speck alone in all the universe–is often a dour and frightening place. But if you question, if you snoop, even those of us lacking in faith will discover a heartening fact: God needn’t be in the details; details are good enough by themselves.

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