In June 2006, I was on a long walk in southern Minnesota. While spending a luxurious night at a Best Western in Cannon Falls, I caught a brief report on the TV—something about Stephen Hawking (a British physicist known for his work on black holes), saying that he felt there ought to be a global effort to colonize outer space, as a response to impending global disasters like nuclear war and radical climate degradation. It certainly wasn’t a new idea, but this time the notion lodged itself in my head.
Days later, I arrived on the outskirts of a town called Mankato, where my grandmother lives. I had been walking for three or four days on a former railway converted to a bike path. In addition to the new buildings and strip malls, I saw a few gas stations, some fast food drive-thrus, and of course, parking lots. It was at that moment that Hawking’s idea about colonizing space became dislodged. I saw people ordering food from their vehicles, moving about this place as if trying not to touch the ground, absorbed in the wonderful things we love to absorb ourselves in: tiny little screens on cell phones, the dashboard controls, the drive-through interface, the display on the gas pump, and shopping bags full of zesty, processed food that will not rot well at all.
How appropriate, I thought. This is all very good practice for space travel. If we are going to colonize space, we are going to have to learn how to live without touching the ground. We are going to have to be able to conduct most of our communications electronically. We are going to have to learn how to live in small, sealed containers. I could do that, I think, but it would wear me down.
However, my inclination at the moment is to involve myself in things that are on the other end of the spectrum of mediated experience: to learn things that bring me closer to the ground, to learn the pleasures and dangers of communicating face to face. While I think I will never forget the pleasure of movies, screens and remote media, I want to know what it is like to spend extended periods of time being entertained by the people who are near to me. The question I was asking myself, after walking more or less alone through a rarified corridor for several days, being confronted by strip-mall culture is, “Is this how we want to be living?” Of course, everyone can answer for himself.
First off, let’s remember why it is important to ask this kind of question, “Is this how we want to be living?” Depending on the circumstances of the person asking, questions like this may be about things that we feel are beyond our control, or matters where we have no choice. So why bother asking? Questioning is powerful because it is inherently open-ended and unfinished. It is an act that produces liquidity, requires improvisation. It invites participation and solution making. It is an act that, rather than closing things off, produces openings. Another great thing about it is that we are all capable of it. Our minds are constantly spewing forth questions. Only a few of the questions are allowed to surface; that is our training. For me, the exciting implication in the question “Is this how we want to be living?” is that we learned how to live this way: strip mall culture. We taught each other to live this way, so it stands to reason that we could eventually teach each other something else, maybe numerous other ways of living. - Mike Wolf/Mess Hall (Rogers Park, Chicago)
Thoughtful and romantic (in a hopeful/positive/possible way) Mr. Wolf. Thank you. Time for bed cause my friend Ted and I are going to thrash at the Wilson Yard skate park tomorrow!
Sk8boarding iz not a crime dewd.