Arcosanti - An Urban Laboratory in the Arizona Desert.

Arcosanti, Arizona: Out Here On the Edge

by Jeff Stein

Barry Vacker is associate professor of media and cultural theory at Temple University’s School of Communication and Theatre in Philadelphia. He has also founded the Center for Media and Destiny a think-tank dedicated to mapping those two concerns on Spaceship Earth. Best of all, he is a man who has spent serious time at Arcosanti and has written about this place, most recently in an essay that accompanied the photographic exhibition, BEFORE AND AFTER UTOPIA at the Open Lens Gallery in Philadelphia, a year ago.

In that essay, Vacker proposed that “humans need Utopias,” that this moment especially is ripe for models that might provide grand narratives that are “sane and sustainable, that could help humans to live and think more in harmony with nature and the cosmos.”

Arcosanti, for Vacker – and for many more of us – attempts to provide such a model. Not perfection! (Don’t laugh, those of you who have spent time here...) But a powerful and noble idea.

Arcosanti began the year after the Apollo 11 moon landing, and has grown in the shadow of the famous “Earthrise” photo that first showed humans as a global species in a global ecosystem, floating in a vast, expanding universe, and nowhere near its center. Arcosanti’s continued construction, out on the edge, might still inspire humans to be a success in the universe at a time when, as Paolo Soleri has suggested, “The minute and the immense are confronting our existence.”  Vacker agrees:

“This cosmic stance is what makes Arcosanti so radical a concept, for it offers a direct challenge to the existential view of nearly all urban, suburban and domestic architecture and technology, all of which combine to sequester humans away from nature and the universe.  Just look at the millions of suburban homes, hunched under their pitched roofs, with walls containing tiny windows, all suggesting a structure afraid of nature and terrified of the cosmos above. Many urban homes are no better, squeezed together and shielded from nature and the sky. Should we be surprised that television and computers dominate our lives and “realities,” even more so at night? It is not shocking that nature has become a “lost world” in our cities and suburbs, though that effect was not the original intent.”

Barry Vacker has published a new book this week, THE END OF THE WORLD – AGAIN. In it, he examines the endemic “Apocalypse Meme” and how it replicates in Media, Science and Culture. This is especially timely, if you were among those waiting for the rapture on the 21st…

THE END OF THE WORLD - AGAIN tells the story of what has happened since humans discovered we are at the center of nothing. We do appear to have a need to be at the center of things. (Did you imagine the “i” in iPhone stands for information?) When we discover we are not at the center – of the universe, of the solar system, of the countryside, of our family’s attention– it feels like the end of the world. Vacker’s book shows that in fact life is a series of these discoveries, for individuals, tribes, countries, our entire species, and apparently, it has always been thus.

Human history is comprised of a series of shocks to our psyches: the telescope showed we weren’t at the center of anything; the electric light helps us pretend we are; war; economic apocalypse; ecology, resources, population; science out-of-control, digital apocalypse, chaos theory, zombies. (Zombies are, after all, the ultimate consumers, perfect for our age.) These are among the myriad ways worlds are brought to an end, not just a through a profound misunderstanding of the Mayan calendar.

But it is not just shocks that affect us. In our era visual media magnify and multiply those actual shocks: Hollywood, film, television, the internet. Far from being neutral, today’s media participates in various apocalypses for profit, as nothing sells like disaster.  Emblematic of the electronic media’s take on the world is Roland Emmerich, director of the disaster film “2012,” who states: “We’re going down, no matter what.”  What!?

Jerry Mander, media activist and rebel advertising exec, was worried about this attitude among story-tellers and electronic journalists a generation before Vacker’s new book. He pointed out part of the problem back in the 1970’s in his famous book 4 ARGUMENTS FOR THE ELIMINATION OF TELEVISION. For him, the medium of television itself is an apocalyptic technology, good only for conveying gross, linear, simplified messages, accelerating our alienation from the rest of nature, and unable to communicate real sensory information, context, intuitional experience, mood, process. A good argument for Arcology, frankly. “Cutting down redwood trees is better television than trying to convey their aura or power,” says Mander. This from the man who helped to create Redwood National Park.

He helped to create that park through a series of fund-raising TV commercials. Television only exists to sell products, of course, so the product of a beautiful redwood forest seemed a natural to Mander. But after a couple of complex and telegenic TV spots failed to gain any attention whatsoever, he revised his approach. What really sells on TV? Apocalypse! Mander directed a camera to pan the smoldering stumps of a former stand of redwoods that had been clear-cut and then burned. Money from viewers came pouring in.

We fear the void. But the void is what the media technologies that are massaging our consciousness are best at communicating. Social critic Jeffrey Scheuer writes that “there is a grammar to the language” of electronic media. Socially binding activities and complex, future-oriented processes, those involving peace, growth, education, cooperation, community involvement and family harmony consistently resist or elude the camera. While “what is simple, fragmented, short-term or localized plays well” in modern media.

Now, through the dissociative internet, we are even more tied to television-like media for practically everything. I typed these words on the equivalent of a TV screen and you’re reading them on one now. You can link to this from Facebook. Of course, if our cities were designed properly, scaled for people, not machines, oriented for face-to-face human contact, we wouldn’t need Facebook, for whom providing a service is secondary to making a profit from selling your personal information.

And so we invent ways of understanding the world. Arcosanti is trying to be one of those ways, through a process of confronting the material world on its own terms. Because humans are both intelligent and fallible, our ideas about the world are often conjecture. Vacker, Mander, Zuckerberg, Jobs, Soleri…the 7,000 of us who have worked on Arcosanti, are trying to fill the void of the future while not blinding ourselves to a universe of possibilities. As Barry Vacker says at the end of his new book, “We should keep our eyes open.”