Category Archives: off-topic

Nothing to see here

Mona Lisa

I don’t have time to keep up with the various ITP discussion lists—yet another reason for my general feeling of not being a part of this program, no doubt—but I do try to glance at them now and then, especially the topical ones, such as phys-comp and ICM. I’m never qualified to answer anybody’s questions, and I’m not working on anything ambitious enough that I need to take advantage of the advice that’s given there, but I do think it’s useful to keep an eye on the list, so that when I do have a question, I may have an inkling of how to look for the answer.

So this morning I was skimming the latest phys-comp digest and saw that gracious Tom Igoe had addressed a comment by the tedbot about this, in which he castigated “clueless people” who use flash when taking photographs, as well as tourists in general, who apparently are “consumers of the misery of the past.”

Never mind that the example image in the Core 77 piece is of the Mona Lisa—hardly a picture of misery, unless you want to get all Marxist about it. The money that Francesco del Giocondo wasted on that portrait of his wife should have been in the hands of Florence’s working poor!


Tom’s response was to take the high road of assuming generally good and intelligent intent on the tedbot’s part. He chose to (a) poke at this random lump of spewage by asking if tedbot had never been a tourist, the reply to which included the elaboration “I guess it’s just the sort of thing that strikes me as tasteless… taking crappy snapshots of the remnants of a painful history,” and (b) say something relevant and thoughtful on the matter, citing personal experience and reframing the tension between tourists and locals as an “art opportunity” and matter for consideration by “physical interaction designers in the tourist industry.”

I always admire that kind of graceful and classy redirection. Whereas my response to the tedbot’s comments would have been, “Oh, shut the fuck up, you pretentious git,” Tom’s was more like, “Oh, go make some art, you pretentious young interaction designer.” Kind advice, assuming you’re not already drowning in phys-comp wretchedness.

But I’m still not satisfied with sidestepping the basic assumption that tourists and tourism, in general, are bad.

What is a tourist? NOAD says it’s “a person who is traveling or visiting a place for pleasure.” So, isn’t that something we want to encourage? Isn’t a big part of The Problem with this country right now that there are too many people who’ve never ventured outside their native zip code, have no interest in doing so, and think that everyone outside that line is Other? Travel is not always but often broadening.

I think that if you took ten ignorant, isolated/isolationist Americans and dropped them in the middle of, say, Rome, at least five of them would learn something. For example, they might learn that people in other countries don’t just talk differently—a common misconception about foreigners seeming to be that they’re just like us, only they’re doing everything in Italian/French/Chinese/etc. and they’re dumb—but they also dress differently, drive differently, design signs differently, shop differently, build differently, use public space differently, think differently. Some of our hypothetical tourists would undoubtedly go home confirmed in all their ignorant assumptions about people not like themselves, because there are always some people who can see only what they expect to see. Hence all those people who still believe that the 9/11 hijackers were I-raqis, and that Barack Obama is one of them A-rab muslins. But others would realize that some of the assumptions on which they’d based their assumptions were unfounded. It might take them a while, but the experience would make some permanent dent in those people’s ignorance.

Of course, the best thing that could happen to our hypothetical tourists would be for them to have the good fortune to ask for directions from somebody kind and generous, who in addition to pointing out the way would also engage them in conversation. Maybe they’d even have a meal together. Maybe they’d exchange e-mail addresses and stay in touch after the trip—for example, to send a crappy, flashed-out snapshot of our tourist standing in front of the Colosseum with his or her arm around the friendly Italian. Tell me you’ve never seen this kind of photo.

That kind of exchange—random and rudimentary as it is—humanizes both sides of the relationship. The funny-talking Italian becomes a specific funny-talking Italian; the stupid American tourist becomes a specific stupid American tourist. And forever after, those two people will probably think of each other, whenever they’re tempted to generalize about the other’s country, linguistic group, race, whatever. And that kind of thinking is what makes people less stupid, right?

So maybe instead of trying to fuck with the clueless, tasteless tourists by sneaking stupid messages into their crappy snapshots, we should fuck with them by talking to them. Fuck with them by trying to belie the stereotypes about the people in the place that they’re visiting, wherever it may be—such as that New Yorkers will probably run off with your camera if you ask them to take a photo of you standing in front of the whatever. Or that, if they don’t do something outright illegal like that, they’ll probably fuck up your snapshots by projecting crap into them, and then deliberately give you wrong directions.

Being kind is a little more work than simply sneering at people, but it might also be a tad more constructive.

Photo: Mona Lisa by See Wah Cheng; some rights reserved.