The Allure of Techno-Glamour
The Wall Street Journal , November 18, 2010
When Robert J. Samuelson published a Newsweek column last month arguing that high-speed rail is "a perfect example of wasteful spending masquerading as a respectable social cause," he cited cost figures and potential ridership to demonstrate that even the rosiest scenarios wouldn't justify the investment. He made a good, rational case—only to have it completely undermined by the evocative photograph the magazine chose to accompany the article.
The picture showed a sleek train bursting through blurred lines of track and scenery, the embodiment of elegant, effortless speed. It was the kind of image that creates longing, the kind of image a bunch of numbers cannot refute. It was beautiful, manipulative and deeply glamorous.
The same is true of photos of wind turbines adorning ads for everything from Aveda's beauty products to MIT's Sloan School of Management. These graceful forms have succeeded the rocket ships and atomic symbols of the 1950s to become the new icons of the technological future. If the island of Wuhu, where games for the Wii console play out, can run on wind power, why can't the real world?
Policy wonks assume the current rage for wind farms and high-speed rail has something to do with efficiently reducing carbon emissions. So they debate load mismatches and ridership figures. These are worthy discussions and address real questions.
But they miss the emotional point.
To their most ardent advocates, and increasingly to the public at large, these technologies aren't just about generating electricity or getting from one city to another. They are symbols of an ideal world, longing disguised as problem solving. You can't counter glamour with statistics.
Glamour always contains an element of illusion. (The word originally meant a literal magic spell.) By obscuring some details and heightening others, it offers an escape from the compromises, flaws and distractions of real life. It shows no bills on the kitchen counter, no blisters under the high heels, no pimples on the movie star's face.
In those glamour shots, wind power seems clean, free and infinitely abundant. Turbines spin silently and sometimes appear barely taller than a child. The wind blows constantly and in exactly the right amount—never so much that it piles up unwanted power and never so little that it requires backup supply. The sky is unfailingly photogenic, a backdrop of either puffy clouds or a brilliant sunset; the landscape is both empty and beautiful; and there are no transmission lines anywhere.
The image of a speeding train, meanwhile, invites you to imagine taking it when and where you want, with no waiting, no crowds and no expensive tickets. Like the turbines, high-speed trains exemplify autonomy and grace, sliding along effortlessly, with no visible source of fuel. To a stressed-out public, they promise an escape from traffic jams—and, at least until the first terrorism scare, from the hassles, intrusion and delays of airport security.
For all its deceptiveness and mystery, glamour reveals emotional truths. What today's green techno-glamour demonstrates, first and foremost, is that its audience has no inclination to give up the benefits of modernity and return to the pre-industrial state idealized by radical greens. Neither the Unabomber nor Henry David Thoreau would go for wind farms and high-speed rail. To the contrary, these iconic new machines cater to what Al Gore denounced in "Earth in the Balance" as "the public's desire to believe that sacrifice, struggle and a wrenching transformation of society will not be necessary." They promise that a green future will be just as pleasant as today, only cleaner and more elegant.
For at least some technophiles, in fact, the trains and windmills are goods in and of themselves, with climate change providing a reason to force the development and adoption of cool new machines that wouldn't otherwise catch on. These technologies also restore the idea of progress as big, visible engineering projects—an alternative to the decentralized, hidden ingenuity of computer code. They evoke the old World's Fair sense of hope and wonder, a feeling President Barack Obama draws on when he endorses high-speed rail subsidies as "building for the future." They are the latest incarnation of flying cars and electricity too cheap to meter.
The problems come, of course, in the things glamour omits, including all those annoyingly practical concerns the policy wonks insist on debating. Neither trains nor wind farms are as effortlessly liberating as their photos suggest. Neither really offers an escape from the world of compromises and constraints. The same is true, of course, of evening gowns, dream kitchens and tropical vacations. But at least the people who enjoy that sort of glamour pay their own way.