Wednesday, October 17, 2007

1992, Uganda, East Africa.

Seated along with my brother atop stacks of doors in the back of a Bedford truck, we moved slowly under rainy season skies along the bright red dirt road carved through the intermittent brush and jungle. Visible just a dozen miles away on the right side were the steep, mist-topped foothills of the Ruwenzori mountains, the fabled “Mountains of the Moon” to Europeans. A junction with a few structures came into view ahead where the road headed toward the border with Zaire and the mountains beyond. The truck halted and we dismounted, lowering backpacks from our perch. The intersection didn’t have much going on; this is a very sparsely populated area. A few market stalls, a man operating a foot-pedaled sewing machine and working with rapidity. Ahead an area of several long tables with split-log benches under equally long individual thatch roofs. A few women were preparing food on charcoal fires amongst the tables. Charcoal dust had given the ground underneath a grimy blackness in contrast to the intense red of the soil nearby. The two of us were a noticeable spectacle on account of our huge backpacks as we lumbered forward. A woman approached having navigated the puddles and ruts across the wide expanse of the intersection. Her hand was outstretched and in it a tiny object twinkled. “Does this have any value?” she asked.

My eyes took a moment to adjust from staring off at the mountains to focus on what lay in her palm. It was a hologram. Someone had neatly cut the eagle “security feature” out of a credit card and carefully and symmetrically rounded the edges. The new object was the size of a fingernail. In surprise I blurted out an American answer “oh... it’s just part…” She made a gesture with her other hand outlining the non-existent card perimeter, sighing a bit. My mind sped to reconstructing what may have been going on- she was trying to “sell” the object and had apparently been made aware in prior attempts that it was a fragment. Someone else must have obtained the card, trimmed it to just the hologram and likely pawned it off on this woman with explanations of its immense value. She probably was taken by the object’s physical properties and was persisting in attempts to sell it based on its somewhat miraculous image.

There are numerous themes entangled in the question “Does this have any value?” To whom? My short answer doesn’t even begin to address them. The woman perhaps was left wishing she had the remainder of the card, but the card still has no value in its materiality, it simply records a number, which itself has no intrinsic value, just a use as a link in a payment scheme.

Arthur C. Clark has been famously quoted from Profiles of The Future; “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I recall my own wonder when I first saw a hologram. There was a window of time in America when holograms were rare enough to be a commodity; they could be sold, they had that “magic”. Walter Benjamin would call it an “aura”. This initial response to the dazzle of rare holograms and a resulting sense of value is similar in both American and Ugandan perspectives, with the difference that the American angle has long since subsided due to the objects’ ubiquity through mass reproduction- specifically on credit cards. Strangely, in this instance the “missing” card is actually the structure that propagated holograms thus altering the sense of value, rendering the one in the woman’s hand value-less from an American perspective.

A related story: I was asked to design fancy paintjobs for a set of toy cars. Stores contemplating the cars decided a more expensive “deluxe” version should be added to the assortment. The toy company solution was to vacuum-plate the cars with iridescent chrome to increase their “perceived value”. While not a hologram, the optical refraction of light is similar in its artificial shifting rainbow of colors. As the designer of the originals, I was asked my opinion of the chrome cars. Perhaps the spread of credit card holograms had done its damage: I didn’t think the cars justified the increased cost. But more intangibly, the original little cars with their bright, glossy paint suddenly looked so dull and old-fashioned in comparison. The iridescence had little value in itself but it cannibalized the value of everything non-iridescent around it. From this standpoint that little hologram in Africa was horrifying in the way it turned a lush landscape into a dull backdrop against its flashiness. It was less than value-less to me; it actually devalued its surroundings.


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