The Pollinators of Technology

by Evan Edwards

DownloadOn the night of Monday, April 3rd, a man stood in the middle of the intersection at Franklin and Columbia in Chapel Hill, NC. Within minutes, thousands of people poured out of bars, houses, apartments, fraternity and sorority homes, and who knows where else, barrelling down the largest streets in the town to join him. There’s a video that shows it happening in high speed. The University had just won the NCAA men’s basketball tournament which (if you don’t know) is a very big deal.

I grew up in North Carolina, and as the week drew closer to the game, I watched so many people that I know from Middle and High school making their way back to the state, just to be there if/when they pulled it off. If they couldn’t make it, many documented their excitement wherever they were, on social media, and sent messages and memes to one another as the game loomed closer, just brimming with enthusiasm. Although I never really got into sports, it was a bit moving to watch people get so very joyous about something when nearly everything else in the news is tinged with a kind of abysmal horror.

If you watch the video I linked to above, you notice that the frame shakes as it pans from side to side. Because we’re used to it, we can read this erratic movement as the work of a smartphone camera because professional cameras and drones aren’t this sloppy, and no one uses handheld video-cameras any more. In the shot, too, you see the arm of the man in the intersection upstretched in the first few frames, the luminous glow of his iPhone at its apex, almost giving him the look of an angler fish wandering the deep, or a single firefly waiting in a meadow. As the crowd rolls in, you can’t always make out the screen glow, but it’s clear that almost everyone in the crowd is either raising their phone up to take a picture, to record video, to go live, or to snapchat.

When I was younger, my friends and I did something similar to this. We would call each other during concerts, to leave voicemails or let them listen for a while if a song that meant something to both of us was being played. For me, it was a special way of using technology to deepen a personal friendship. This was before I was on Facebook (you had to have a college e-mail address to get an account when I was in High School), Myspace was not used for sharing things like this, and so the concert voice mail was, in some way, the most cutting edge social medium we had. It was extraordinary to wake up to a voicemail like that from a friend. Absolutely moving.

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Competing to Live: On Planet Earth and Being in Nature

by Nick Werle

David Attenborough reserves a certain mournful tone for narrating death in the natural world. In the Jungles episode of BBC’s epic documentary series Planet Earth, we hear that voice, interspersed with the rich, crackling sound of splintering wood, as we see a massive rain forest tree collapse under its own weight after centuries of growth. Just as the tree’s last branches fall out of view through the canopy, Attenborough, in his reassuringly authentic British accent, opines: “the death of a forest giant is always saddening, but it has to happen if the forest is to remain healthy.”[1] After the surrounding trees spring back into place, we descend to the rain forest floor, and enter a realm whose usual gloom has been suddenly washed away by the new hole in its leafy ceiling. Here we can see, with the help of Planet Earth’s signature time-lapse cinematography, how the flood of light that now reaches the forest floor triggers a race to the top by the unbelievable variety of plant life struggling to collect that valuable light. The narration explains how each species has its own strategy for besting its competitors. Vines climb up neighboring trees, sacrificing structural strength for rapid vertical growth. Broad-leaved pioneers such as macarangas are the clear winners at this early stage; their huge leaves provide them with enough energy to grow up to eight meters in a single year. But “the ultimate winners are the tortoises, the slow and steady hardwoods,” which will continue striving for their places in the light-drenched canopy for centuries to come.[2]

The series’ unmatched capacity to bring the natural world to life, as it were, has made it both the premier wildlife documentary of its day and the most enjoyable toy for twenty-first century stoned college students. Time-lapse photography and stunning footage of impossibly rare animals transport us, as viewers, into virgin territory, a territory that operates according to its own natural laws, thus far spared from human interference. While the show’s inventive cinematography animates the natural world, Attenborough is able to give meaning to natural processes by articulating the concealed, organic logic that organizes life. Sped up, slowed down, zoomed in, or seen from above, Planet Earth explains nature’s apparent randomness by casting the world’s plants and animals as players in an epic struggle for survival. The planet’s breathtaking beauty – along with its inhabitants’ sometimes-bizarre bodies and behaviors – is the integrated result of countless relations between harsh climates, scarce resources, and living things competing to exist. But if this is the narrative of the natural world, does it accurately reflect an already existent reality? What artifacts can we find of this production of meaning about the world? Is there a difference between Nature and the natural world? And most importantly, where do we – as viewers, as humans, as people – fit into this story?

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