Little Black Lines in the Sky

Most of us living in industrial countries of the developed world have long since lost sight of the great transformation of our environments from the agrarian to the mechanical to the electrical. The McLuhan quote at the top of this blog holds true:

Environments are invisible. The groundrules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns elude easy perception.

It’s an easy thought experiment to ask yourself if you can remember how you lived without the Internet, and cell phones before that, and maybe even the ATM machine if you’re old enough. Some people can still tell you what it was like when television came around, and maybe, if you’re lucky you can still come across a person or two who remembers the introduction of radio. Of course, no one is alive to give you a firsthand account of the introduction of the telegraph, or the electric light. And there’s the first glimmer of understanding at how fast we’ve come to accept the artificial environment around us as natural and “the way it is.”

My grandmother used to regale us with stories of ice deliveries. Big blocks of ice that were put inside an “icebox” in the home to keep the food cold. Where would we be without our electric refrigerators, right? Well, the first thing we’d do is bring back the icebox and the ice delivery service. Once you enjoy the benefits of cold stored food, you can’t imagine a world without it. Where would supermarkets go? What of the neighborhood deli or the soda machine on the corner?

As I ran around doing errands this morning, I snapped a few photographs of the electrical infrastructure in plain sight. This is a much easier task in Japan where the geology prohibits burying most electrical cable and creates a distinct and somewhat unsightly criss-cross of wires across the sky…hence the title of this post.

Just imagine…this one photograph represents a tiny fraction of the material resources required to bring electricity to each home, restaurant, hospital, traffic light, school, business, and vending machine on a single corner in rural Japan. What you don’t see is far more impressive, costly, and technically advanced than this mish-mash of cables, transformers, connectors, and poles.

It’s actually quite a miracle of human ingenuity and organization that this is even possible, yet while we sit at our computers, sipping a cool drink, enjoying the artificial climate of our air-conditioned homes and workplaces, it all disappears.

Where forests once stood and the natural ecology reigned supreme, our artificial layer of concrete, metal, rubber, and plastic now shape the world that we know. Trees, flowers, grass, birds…all transformed to works of art. Encroaching dandelions are weeds to be eradicated in order to maintain the manicured art form that is greenery.

To the pre-industrial human, a giant pole made of concrete would stand out. Black wires intersecting the sky and tangling with tree branches would puzzle and mystify. The industrial complex just beyond the trees would appear as though from another world. The only reason I notice that industrial plant is because it was recently closed and stands empty, for sale.

The view from my front porch. More wires and more concrete. The shopping mall across the street was an open field, not 15 years ago. Some of the first residents of this neighborhood remember when… In fact, many of the locals remember when there were no houses at all here. Not 20 years ago. At night, I can hear motorcycles racing on that street. The colorful neon signs penetrate the night and tell me that there’s little rest for the world of electricity, where night is day and summer is cool.

The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility has given people around here a new awareness of electricity, with public campaigns to avoid taxing the broken infrastructure. No one is going to be ordering blocks of ice for their icebox just yet, but those little black lines in the sky have become slightly less invisible, if only temporarily. The whole thing reminds me of a beautiful Korean film about Buddhism called “Why has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?” Particularly, the little black lines in the sky (or my awareness of them) brings to mind the opening scene from the film, which fortunately can be seen here via the magic of YouTube. Embed is not available for the clip, so you’ll have to click this link to watch it, but it’s the least you can do, right? Enjoy

About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University
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