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Context matters April 21, 2014

Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100 , trackback

One of the basic lessons of STV 100 is that technological context matters. Time and place make a big difference. At one point not that long ago, boys and girls colours were reversed: boys wore pink and red, and girls wore blue. A smartphone in the hands of a 20-year-old student entrepreneur at the University of Waterloo means something different than one in the hands of a farmer in the developing world.

So it was delight to run across a gallery of famous monuments and landscapes in their normal photogenic contexts and their “real” contexts (more information here), all arranged for your the pleasure of cognitive dissonance. For example, the Great Pyramid of Giza in its traditional location:

Great Pyramid of Giza, courtesy Wikimedia/Nina Aldin Thune

Great Pyramid of Giza, courtesy Wikimedia/Nina Aldin Thune

What majesty! What magnificence! The mysteries of ancient religion, engineering, and politics captured in stone almost 4000 years old. Or, you can see a modern landscape, from the air:

Giza pyramids from the air. Courtesy Wikimedia/Raimond Spekking

Giza pyramids from the air. Courtesy Wikimedia/Raimond Spekking

Suddenly, it seems a little different. Is that a KFC down there?

Giza from a KFC; Photograph by houstonau on reddit

Giza from a KFC; Photograph by houstonau on reddit

Not that a KFC makes the Great Pyramid less impressive, nor the creeping urbanization. But the shift in perspective is, at the very least jarring, and certainly revealing. In David Nye’s “Technology Matters”, he defines landscapes as the “infrastructure of our existence” as a way to appreciate that much of the invisible technologies that we ignore on a day to day basis are actually the very things that sustain our lives. Consider the power lines suspended dozens of meters high that our eyes somehow blot away or sewage lines that we bury (but still appear as manhole covers or processing plants hidden away from public viewing). When we choose to see our monuments as isolated constructs, we’re also hiding them from the surrounding reality.

I think it would be fascinating if it were possible to see some of the alternative contextual photographs as a time-lapse series. Nye talks about how the progression of rural landscapes in North America would portray our greater reliance and dependency on mechanized agriculture. But consider the Great Pyramid, one of the most impressive tombs ever constructed, now just a mere background in a globalized urban landscape. Just how fast did the surrounding urban area grow up around the Pyramids, and what’s holding it back? The sand dunes or politics? Or consider the Sagrada Familia, a truly remarkable cathedral begun in Barcelona in the late 19th century; how did a near-perfect grid of high-rise towers grow around it? In STV 100 we talk about Niagara Falls as a natural wonder when seen up close, and a symbol of technological fakery and an “icon of artifice” when you step back and consider the surrounding context of the growth of the leisured middle class and electrical power in North America (I recommend Ginger Strand’s “Inventing Niagara”).

What these photographs remind us of is to step back occasionally and remember what matters from one simple (if traditional or awe-inspiring) perspective doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story and that if we want to truly understand something we should avoid isolating it from it’s context.

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