Xenon - Speculatively Accumulated Common Knowledge

Pinball Machines, Safety Dances, Styx, Mad Men and Roots:  Maintenance Memories

One of my favorite posts of the past season, "EWaste Entrepreneur Mad Man Meets Primitive Wire-Burning Robots"... tied to Mad Men, Season 3, "Episode 305: The Fog"...  Was surrounded in Vegas by people who would have remembered those references, but don't read blogs...

Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame Vixen
Vegas revolves around retro.  The music, the games, the restaurants, the shows... ISRI's conference recycled themes and images of good enough days.

This was the electronic woman known as Xenon, the newest pinball game at the Carleton College Sayles-Hill student union.  The arcade was nicknamed the "Peter Tork Memorial Game Room" for Carleton's most famous drop-out, Peter Tork of the Monkees band.  Xenon was hilariously erotic for a pinball game... "the game with the sticky cover".  The bumpers caused the robotic woman to exhale "Ahh!"..."Ahh!-Ah.. Ah-Ah!" as the steel pinball zigged around the slope of play.  If you lit enough of "her" lights,  um... something spread itself and you had to shoot the ball up the hole for a climactic free game (It was "Special").

At the same student union post office, I got my Peace Corps assignment for Cameroon (1984). In Africa, there were home-made "pinball" games (non-electronic).  The nails and springs and wooden pegs were, I guess, "primitive" compared to Xenon.  And there was an overall assumption pervading Africa that they were incredibly far behind the USA in technology.  This was 1984-86, before the personal computer or cell phone (they had bag phones in limos in the USA back then).  Today, Africa is far more wired than the USA was when I lived there... but as Louis CK describes in his Conan O'Brien interview, "Everything is amazing and nobody is happy" (and if you haven't watched that yet, yes it's more insightful than this blog, go ahead and follow the link).

Electricity in households in Africa has grown at a slower pace than television and internet.   Once you get access to energy, you have lots of things to plug into it.   But in the 1980s, TVs in Cameroon were extremely rare. If the Mad Men Show "The Fog" was having difficulty understanding why black Americans in the 1960s were buying "Admiral Brand" televisions, it was not as difficult to figure out why Africans were choosing used TVs from the USA and Europe.  It was that or nothing, and the amazing thing was the TV or the internet, not the shape of the bloody display device.  Once someone has a choice, getting picky becomes and option.   Reminiscing about retro is, in part, having common experiences with a generation that had fewer choices to stray from.

The first television arrived in my hometown of Ngaoundal after my service was over... the country had just opened its first TV station and people crowded around the first TV, which was in the military district ("Zimb") close to my house.  About 50 people, some out in the yard looking through the windows...  It reminded me of my mom's description of the first TV broadcast in the Ozarks.

Ahem... the first weekend the TV was there, they showed the first broadcast... in English (not understandable by many)... of Alex Haley's ROOTS, the 1970s miniseries.


It was of course "common knowledge" in Africa that white Americans had enslaved blacks, though the dates were a little fuzzy, and some people there included conscription of African soldiers in WWI and even WWII as part of the history of the slave trade (and they may have a valid point).  It was not uncommon to think that slaves taken by force were still alive in America today.

And the exact beginning of film and technology was also blinky.  When my landlord's wife saw me the next day after ROOTS broadcast, I asked her what she thought.  She said "it was terrible what they did to that boy, they cut his foot!"  I said yes, it was terrible.   I said he was a very good actor, Levar Burton, and had won several awards.  She told me no, that was not his name, it was "Kunta Kinte".   I said yes, that was the character's real name.  The actor, I said, was named Levar Burton.  No, she explained, his real name was Kunta Kinte, but they whipped him and made him change it to Levar Burton.   This is not a joke, this was the actual conversation.  And this was my landlord's wife, who spoke English, French, and two other languages.

At the ISRI conference ending party, the resurrected 1970s rock group "Styx" took the stage, playing their hits, with the white haired lead singer sounding quite a bit the same as he did when I was in 9th grade, leading off with "Grand Illusion" (a song I hated, hated as only a 9th grader can).

Speculative accumulation of focus materials at PHF Las Vegas
I guess this is about the concept of "common knowlege" and common experience.   There were many younger people at ISRI who didn't have a clue who "Styx" was.   There are Africans being born now who will know only new Chinese-made TVs and computers, and who may be told stories about their grandparents "exploitation" through repair and reuse and DIY.   And my past addiction to pinball will seem faintly silly, from a time when Frogger was high-tech, and World of Warcraft and Doom were only dreamed of.

There are billions of trillions of things that not a single human knows.  There are our secrets.  There are lies and things people think they know but don't.   And there is common knowledge.   As the common knowledge fades, it becomes history.

This "e-waste" dialogue is a war over history.  

Many peace corps volunteers struggle with the idea of going back, trying to keep up relationships.  And a lot of us try to keep a connection with our old college and university friends.  And some of us have an ongoing, romanticized relationship with old technology friends, like Xenon.

Some old loves are best left alone.  Some become more valuable the more they are maintained.  Some antiques become more valuable.  Maintaining things, rather than forgetting about them, is a quality which tinkerers and fixers understand.

This was one of only 3 VCR tapes owned by the only other African I met in the 1980s with a TV set.  He was the brother of my African housemate.  He had grown to afford a used TV by repairing coffee hulling machines parts that wore out... I've written about him before.   He was an older brother, probably close to 60 now if he's still alive.   And he'd have been one of the first generators of E-Waste, if his TV eventually wore out.  But as an African he probably kept the TV up to date, and in repair, and he may still have the VHS tape with Men In Hats Safety Dance, the video of the day, which itself tells the story of the middle ages... about as well at BAN tells the story of used electronics.  Some people get all the common knowledge they need about the middle ages from a video like this... one of the first MTV videos to make a one-hit wonder.   Like Exporting Harm.

Red Tape and Safety Dance Allusions In Primitive History:  Video

Sadly, the 2011 link Nigerian Evening News television broadcast of interviews with people in the electronics market is no longer available... but person after person openly laughed when asked whether they buy "new" or "used" electronics.  But in Lima, the question was more serious, as cheaper and cheaper Chinese brands, combined with stricter and stricter used USA models, make selling our used goods - functional or not - more difficult in the emerging markets.  I think we had one decade left, and we lost it.

Legally, in Vermont, the 1978 pinball machine I have squirreled away in my basement is defined as "e-waste" and therefore illegal, as I've kept it for more than a year... it's "speculative accumulation".  I'm the underground railroad for used electronics.

Maybe it will be replaced by an android or IPhone App, and history will record that I was exploited for having to use Xenon, just as Africans were exploited by relying on used computers for the internet cafes that took down three dictators last year (Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, in case you are counting).

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