Representing Utopia, or Advertisements of a World to Come

[Image: Test-crash from “California Freeways: Planning For Progress,” courtesy Prelinger Archives].

For those of you here in Los Angeles, I’m thrilled to be hosting an event tomorrow evening at USC with “rogue librarianMegan Prelinger, on the subject of representing utopia.

Megan is cofounder of the San Francisco-based Prelinger Library, an independent media archive specializing “in material that is not commonly found in other public libraries.” Their collection has a strong focus on California history, science, and technology, from obscure technical publications to books on environmental politics, topics that can be tracked throughout Megan’s own work as a researcher and writer.

She is also the author of Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race, 1957-1962 and Inside The Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age. Both books reproduce beautifully designed promotional materials produced as part of an earlier era of science and technology; these include often-overlooked ephemera, such as corporate advertisements and business brochures, or what Alexis Madrigal has described as “the hyperbolic, whimsical world of the advertisements these early aerospace companies created to sell themselves.”

New satellite systems, microchip designs, space program components, electronic home appliances, from televisions to microwaves, to name only a few: all were the subject of visionary business models premised on utopian narratives of the world to come.

Taken as a whole, the Prelinger Library’s collection of these materials raises the interesting possibility that, in order to understand twentieth-century science fiction, we should not only read Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, or J. G. Ballard, but back-of-magazine ads for firms such as Frigidaire and General Electric. These are corporations, of course, applied futurism sought to create a new world—one in which their own products would be most useful.

[Image: From Another Science Fiction, via Wired].

At the event tomorrow night, we’ll be discussing both of these books, to be sure, but we’ll be doing so in the larger context of utopian representations of the state of California, treating California as a place of technical innovation, artificial control of the natural environment, and even perceived mastery over public health and the risk of disease transmission.

Megan will be showing a handful of short films about these themes, all taken from the Prelinger Archives, and we’ll round out our roughly 45-minute Q&A with open questions from the audience.

The event will cap off 500 Years of Utopia, our long look at the legacy of Sir Thomas More’s book, Utopia, timed for the 500th anniversary of its publication. The accompanying exhibition closes on February 28.

Things kick off at 5pm on Tuesday, February 7th; please RSVP.

Your Brain on Brake Pads

[Image: Flying over Los Angeles; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

For those of us living near freeways—and scrapyards and waste-processing centers and oil refineries, to name but a few delights of my own particular neighborhood—rest well knowing that all that pollution is going to your brain.

The discovery of nano-scale “microspheres” in the brain tissue of urban residents—based on people tested in Manchester, UK, and Mexico City—was “dreadfully shocking,” a researcher told the BBC. “[T]he particles found in the study were not only far more numerous but also smooth and rounded—characteristics that can only be created in the high temperatures of a vehicle engine or braking systems.”

This is not really news, of course. Recall the report published last year in Mother Jones about the connection between “air pollution and dementia,” with a particular focus on “fine and ultrafine particles—specks of waste at least 36 times finer than a grain of sand, often riddled with toxic combinations of sulfate, nitrate and ammonium ions, hydrocarbons, and heavy metals.”

Though we have long known that these tiny particles cause and exacerbate respiratory problems—like asthma and infections and cancers of the lungs—they are also suspected to contribute to a diverse range of disorders, from heart disease to obesity. And now cutting-edge research suggests that these particles play a role in some of humanity’s most terrifying and mysterious illnesses: degenerative brain diseases.

“While coarse pollution particles seldom make it past our upper lungs,” we read, “fine and ultrafine particles can travel from our nostrils along neural pathways directly into our brains. Once there, they can wreak a special havoc that appears to kick off or accelerate the downward spiral of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”

Of course, this only adds to the long list of already-known threats presented by air pollution, “including asthma, heart disease and autism.”

The New York Times, for example, ran a terrifying article two winters ago about air pollution in Delhi, pointing out that some international ambassadors have been warned not to raise their children there for fear of the long-term cognitive effects caused by exposure to airborne nanoparticles. One memorable detail: “One article about Mr. Obama’s visit focused on how, by one scientist’s account, he might have lost six hours from his expected life span after spending three days in Delhi.”

Now imagine years—and years and years—spent living in the spray of brake pad dust and diesel fumes and catalytic convertors in the shadow of freeways and power plants, as your brain, and your kid’s brain, absorbs seemingly limitless tiny bits of metal, the way an air filter in your car might fill up with pollen and dust.

Imagine the interior of your head becoming cobwebbed with metal. Now imagine these idiots.

Recall, as well, that Republication presidential candidate Donald Trump wants to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, meaning that there would, in effect, be no regulation at all for this sort of thing. Embrace your dementia now, I suppose, while you’re still cognizant enough to do so.

Under the Bridge

Photographer Gisela Erlacher has been documenting “the spaces found hidden underneath highways and flyovers across Europe and China,” as seen in the many photos posted over at Creative Boom. “Each photograph reveals not only her own fascination with these massive concrete monstrosities, but also her interest in how they’re now being used by the people who choose to wedge themselves into these forgotten areas.”