241 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

Read the most recent articles, or mail the editorial team to contribute.

Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

It was easy to revive the dead in the 18th century: just insert a tobacco resuscitator into the rectum and deliver a quick puff of smoke. The body would be stimulated back to life.

The kit comprised a bellows ­­– originallya pig’s bladder – a tobacco pipe, a mouthpiece, and a cone for insertion. The technique gained popularity in 1746, when a drowned woman was resuscitated courtesy of a rolled piece of paper and a sailor’s pipe; a success story that saw ‘The Institution for Affording Immediate Relief to Persons Apparently Dead from Drowning’ install the kits at various points along the Thames, and build a centre by the Serpentine in Hyde Park to rescue drowned skaters.

Doubts about the credibility of tobacco-smoke enemas led to the phrase ‘blowing smoke up your arse’, no doubt after experiments, including a mass resuscitation effort in a Paris morgue, failed. Yet the object was standard medical practice across Europe and America for over a century, not just for resuscitation, but for treating constipation, strangulated hernias and intestinal obstructions.

A surviving example of the tobacco-smoke enema sits in a display case at London’s Wellcome Collection. This is the accompanying description: ‘There are no known accounts that the Tobacco Resuscitator worked.’ The label may be short but it has a subtext that says: ‘Look how foolish they were. We know better.’

But do we? Just down the road from the museum, British model Kelly Brook’s derrière is the focus point of a billboard. She is wearing Reebok’s EasyTone trainers: a type of shoe that supposedly tones the buttocks 28 per cent more than regular shoes when you walk in them. The shoes are Reebok’s most successful new product in five years. Even when the Federal Trade Commission forced Reebok to rein in its claims, the shoes continued to sell.

This puzzle plays in my head later when I am flicking through TV channels and land on Pitch TV. Celebrity builder Tommy Walsh is demonstrating the Paint Pad Pro, a painting tool with ‘the speed of a roller and precision of a brush’. The paint glides over the patterned wallpaper, giving instant coverage: ‘It uses less paint than a brush, with minimum effort!’ I stare at my grubby walls.

Next channel: A woman delicately throws vinegar, oil, eggs, orange juice and a can of tomatoes onto a tiled floor. She picks up Whizz Mop, and moves it over the puddle. ‘Look at that! All gone and no streaks! And what do we do now?’ The male presenter smiles at the pretty assistant. ‘Whizz!’ she says, and places the Whizz Mop into a bucket, pumping a pedal to give the mop-head a spin dry.

Flick back: ‘And get the detachable extension pole too. No ladders – no splatters! And wait! We’re so confident that you’ll like this that we’ll double your pads for free!’ I go onto the Amazon website. Customers gave the product a blanket one star, except for a suspicious two who gave it five.

The tobacco resuscitator was administered in good faith; both the physician and the patient believed the product worked. But it is fairly obvious that the EasyTone shoes are not going to make you thinner, that the Whizz Mop and Paint Pad Pro are no faster, and no superior, to average mops and paint-rollers. So why, with the resources and knowledge available to us, do we continue to buy them?

Buckminster Fuller asked this question back in 1947 when he set up fictional company Obnoxico, to criticise those who make money selling worthless objects. The outlet was a faux mail order catalogue, and the star product was a gold cast of a baby’s last worn nappy; a memento of the moment a child is toilet trained, in object form. ‘Somehow or other the theoretical Obnoxico concept has now, twenty-five years later, become a burgeoning reality,’ Fuller reflected in the 1970s. ‘As the banking system pleads for more savings-account deposits (so that they can loan your money out to others at interest plus costs) the Obnoxico industry bleeds off an ever greater percentage of all the perennial savings as they are sentimentally or jokingly spent for acrylic toilet seats with dollar bills cast in the transparent plastic material.’

We live in a world filled with Obnoxico products, accompanied by a marketing industry highly skilled at mass manipulation. In 2004, two Czech film students created a supermarket, Czech Dream (Ceský Sen), in a Prague field. They employed a leading marketing agency to produce TV and radio ads, distribute 200,000 pamphlets and build a website, all boasting products at unbeatable prices. The project was filmed, and culminated in the opening of the building. The students, masquerading as businessmen, cut a ribbon, triggering 3,000 people, laden with shopping baskets, to run towards the hypermarket, only to reach a canvas façade supported by plinths. Their faces slowly turn to anguish as they realise they have been duped. The entire project was a fiction.

But marketing is not enough in itself to keep us buying Obnoxico products. Often, products with a dubious use-value have another, less obvious function that keeps them in the market. The useless tobacco resuscitator became useful for something else: to ritualise – in a rather unfortunate manner – the end of a life. The process gave a purpose to the doctor who arrived to pronounce a man dead, and set the grievers on their path, knowing that ‘we did everything we could’. For the survivors, the shock of the events quite possibly caused a psychological and bodily effect that aided recovery. Similarly, people who buy Reebok’s EasyTone shoes do so because they feel they are investing in their wellbeing, and this improves their state of mind. They may notice an improvement to their derrière even if there isn’t one.

This is called the placebo effect and has been defined by psychiatrists as ‘any therapy prescribed… for its therapeutic effect on a symptom or disease, but which is actually ineffective or not specifically effective for the symptom or disorder being treated’. In medicine, our belief in a pill’s ability to work sends a message to the pituitary gland to release its own endogenous pharmaceutics. The effect causes many red faces: when the pharmaceutical industry’s new wonder drugs are tested against sugar pills, half fail to beat the placebo. The same has been found for medical procedures. When physician Edzard Ernst performed an electrocardiogram diagnostic procedure on one of his elderly patients, the patient responded: ‘That was great. I feel much better, my chest pain has completely gone.’ Placebos are so effective, there’s a regular debate between government parties, doctors and psychologists as to whether they should be available on the NHS.

That unquestionable faith we once had in God, nature and even witchcraft to make us better is today transferred to science and technology. Functionless things, pills and procedures can improve our wellbeing simply through our belief in them. And they can easily be designed. That thermostat in your office probably has its wires cut, and is connected to nothing but your imagination. Turn the dial up and you’ll feel warmer; Wall Street bosses admitted that this act saved them a fortune. The ‘close door’ button in the elevator only works when the engineer plugs his key in; some say it exists to give us the illusion of control. Have you noticed how if you hit it repeatedly it seems to work?

So if the effects are good, is it right to deceive people, and wrong to tell people the truth? Perhaps sometimes, but because we don’t always know which things are placebos and which aren’t, we can’t critique them. They are an irreversible equation; they switch instantly from useful to useless once we know. We can’t decide at which point we need to know we are being duped – because then it’s too late. So should we allow people to orchestrate these elaborate spectacles in our mind?

Placebos – Latin for ‘I will please’ – work to various means; but as often as the intentions of duping us are good, they can as easily be driven by unsavoury goals. There is also the placebo’s evil twin to contend with: the nocebo, meaning ‘I will harm’. Voodoo curses that lead to death have been explained as extreme nocebo reactions. More recently, an autopsy of a man who died of terminal cancer revealed that his tumour was not large enough to cause death. Was it, the doctor suggested, the expectation of death that killed him?

The tape-recorder, photograph and hard-drive are typical metaphors used to describe our memory. Devices of direct repetition; a flawless copy of a saved memory. What characterizes our contemporary age is this external storage. Not only of personal memories, but more importantly of information. The World Wide Web has become our primary source of information, our modern library. Information has become so accessible, that we now add more value to remembering how to locate it, rather than actually taking the time to possess knowledge of it.

The vital difference between the human brain and the artificial ‘brains’ mentioned before is it’s reliability. Our own memory is unfortunately (?) not flawless, most often we only remember bits and pieces, and we’re left to reconstruct the rest of the information. Our minds tend to get a general idea of a situation and not necessarily pay attention to details, subconsciously filling these gaps with what we would expect that detail to be. A hard-drive on the other hand, can reproduce the exact same information as when it was received.

Although this mechanical accuracy is so appealing, our own memories may actually not be so unfortunate - for the exact reproduction of items is also the machine's downfall. All information absorbed by a hard-drive acquires the same value. In other words, it enters. That is all. It sits there waiting to be retrieved, exactly as it was before. What makes our natural memories so strong is the hierarchy we appoint to it. A certain quality is given to each (natural) memory depending on what happens after it has entered the mind. The human mind still processes information long after we receive it, making connections to prior knowledge. We are constantly re-evaluating for ourselves and are capable of putting thoughts and ideas into perspective with other related information. In a way, we rate the information we receive, we are able to decide what kind of information sticks by deciding which to focus on more.

Some might say ‘we must leave room in our minds’ to think, - and consciously leave the task of remembering to external devices - however, this statement would suggest that there is a capacity to our long-term memory. On the contrary, we do not need to make space to be able to further our thinking processes. We are able to take in an endless amount of information and thus construct our personal network of memories. A strong basis of knowledge enables us to contemplate, review and be critical - which eventually results in a strengthened mind.

The World Wide Web contains an immense amount of connections. The fact that eg. Wikipedia (hyper)links to just about every concept known to man, does not mean that the machine itself can make ground-breaking discoveries because of all the ‘knowledge’ it contains. These connections are man-made and not understood by the computer itself. This lack of understanding prevents the machine of being able to make conclusions for itself. Computers are merely capable of accomplishing tasks with human direction, seeing as eg. webpages are designed to be read by people, not machines.

When we use the internet as a substitute for our memory, we lose the strong basis we require to accumulate more knowledge and sacrifice the wealth of connections in our mind. Because however much we want, we will never be able to call the innumerous amount of connections on the web our own. We seem to be “conceited in the idea of wisdom”, as we don’t possess the basal content to work with, denying ourselves the ability to reflect and contemplate. The internet remains a tool of reminder, and therefore information cannot make the translation to knowledge. We would expect from the information/knowledge age that we are knowing more, but we are actually knowing less.

Excerpt of “A Research on (Spatial) Memory from a ‘Graphic Design’ Perspective” including parts on spatial synesthesia, the importance of spatial orientation & cartography, underlying relations and structures, graphic design as a vessel for memorization, etc.

Carr, N. The Shallows. New York, 2010

Clapman, M. History of Technology vol 3. from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, c. 1500 - c.1750. London, 1957

Foer, J. Moonwalking with Einstein. New York, 2011

Lievers, M.Mens Machine. New York, 2008

Sagan, C. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: Pt. 11 The Persistence of Memory, 1980

Oculus Rift
Oculus Rift

I was born in 1985. The rise of the Internet is something that occurred as I was maturing into adolescence. Unlike my brother, seven years younger than myself, I remember a time before the Internet and remember vividly experiencing that pivotal point.

In the early nineties, my family was already in possession of a modem that accessed a Bulletin Board System (BBS). The BBS was limited to a network of local users who each stared at their black screens waiting in anticipation for the green text to light up. And text was all it was; even the ‘adventure game’ consisted of pure text, yet this was an entirely unknown world of excitement for me, a malleable world where interaction with other living, breathing beings was possible.

There are moments in life when you’re confronted with new technology and you’re immediately hinted at its significance. In-ter-net. It must have been ’96 or ’97. Despite my venture into the world of BBS, I had absolutely no conception of what this new world would offer. At this point, the only person I knew with an Internet connection was my techno-geek uncle. I remember my first encounter with the Internet at my uncle’s house and looking over my sister’s shoulder, who was patiently waiting for the excruciating slowness of the modem to yield her a full colour image on a Marilyn Manson fan page. The virtual world then unfolded itself to me in the form of ICQ messenger, Hotmail, Angelfire personal web pages, LiveJournal; and the rest, as they say, is history.

On a side note, the first time I ever heard of Hotmail, I was quite convinced that this would be a homoerotic website of sorts. I’ve always wondered if this was a shared first association or just my hormonal teen mind speaking.

A few other first encounters in technological history that I can clearly remember include: Facebook, Google, my first SMS, the first smartphone, etcetera. But let’s fast-forward to my latest, and possibly the most mind-blowing: the Oculus Rift. The idea of virtual reality has been around for ages. The Lawnmower Man, after all, came out in 1992. Computer technology has only recently caught up to the possibilities of virtual reality as an every-day household appliance. Although not yet widely available, (amateur) game developers are fanatically toying, experimenting, and creating new worlds through a premature version of the equipment as I write this article.

I’m at a birthday party at a friend’s house who happens to be a game developer. A group of excited partygoers is ushered down to his study where the promise of virtual reality lies in a pair of goggles, otherwise known as the Oculus Rift. I sit down and don the apparatus that covers my entire vision with two LCD screens that together form a complete image. I am suddenly in rural Tuscany. The sky above is filled with clouds, dust particles and fluttering butterflies. In the distance, rolling hills are covered with cypresses. The trees around me softly rustle their leaves with the blowing wind. I turn my head, and the world turns with me. I look over the balustrade of a balcony and the towering heights cause a twinge of a fear to course through my body. I pass my hands before my eyes and see nothing – ah, this must be what it feels like to be a ghost!

The eyes quickly adjust to the substandard pixelated screen of this prototype Oculus Rift, as though the brain wants to accept the total immersion in a digital world as truth. And that, of course, is where the crux of the ‘danger’ of this new technology lies: how will life change when the virtual world and the physical world are indiscernible? Will we never have to leave the house again? Will we prefer the virtual world over the real world? How will this affect the relationships we have with one another?

There is one major glitch to the Oculus Rift. Turning your head within the game is accepted and understood by the body. However, travelling and walking back and forth within virtual reality is not. The effect is similar to carsickness: the static body cannot cope with the travelling mind and thus, nausea ensues.

As I make my way back to the party, trying to cope with my turning stomach, I become more aware than ever of my movements and of how my body, mind, and vision are in unison once again. The discord had been lifted. But as I sit down on the couch and look throughout the room a creeping sensation comes over me: what if the discord is always here, and I’ve merely grown accustomed to it? What if what I was seeing every day was nothing more than a film covering reality? What if life was just a virtual reality of another nature? Of course, these thoughts are nothing new, but I had never before felt the possibility of the falseness of reality as intensely, as concretely, and as convincingly as before my foray into the world of the Oculus Rift.