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March 13, 2007

Alyssa Wright's "Cherry Blossoms"

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Empathy + Tactical Media

We were filming a brief video segment at the Lab today, with journalist John Hockenberry, on some of the non-standard interpretations of assistive technologies our group is working on. The last segment was with Alyssa Wright, and Hockenberry strapped on her pamphleteer/ performance technology, Cherry Blossoms.

Alyssa began working on Cherry Blossoms last semester, wondering how to think about ó and feel about ó the civilian war deaths in Baghdad. She found an artistís site that superimposed the map of Baghdad over San Francisco; it was a lovely project, but it failed to engender the empathy and sense of tragedy that remarkable works of art can. She felt this was important, because the average American believes that about 9000 Iraqi civilians have died so far in the war. The truth is very different.

Cherry Blossoms is a backpack that uses a small microcontroller and a GPS unit. Recent news of bombings in Iraq are downloaded to the unit every night, and their relative location to the center of the city are superimposed on a map of Boston. If the wearer walks in a space in Boston that correlates to a site of violence in Baghdad, the backpack detonates and releases a compressed air cloud of confetti, looking for all the world like smoke and shrapnel. Each piece of confetti is inscribed with the name of a civilian who died in the war, and the circumstances of their death.

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Alyssaís genius was in sacrificing herself. After all, itís not an easy piece to perform. You donít know when itís going to blow. Itís shocking and loud, and one has no sense of how others will react. Of course, she wonít get hurt by the compressed air, but she might well be confused for a suicide bomber (or, more appropriately, a mooninite) and arrested.

Iím writing about the project because even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, even though Iíve seen test runs, even though I worked with Alyssa from the inception of the project, I was completely rocked, as was Hockenberry, when the backpack exploded. He was brave to wear it, but he was dumbstruck by the effect of it blowing. Lives, fluttering, pale and light as souls, covered him like ash.

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau considered empathy the most primary, most basic human emotion; the one that allows civilization to exist. His Second Discourse was written, for the city of Geneva, to offer a moral basis for the abolition of slavery. Itís incredible to imagine the necessity of building a moral basis to oppose slavery, but at one time it was. Itís no less incredible that the average US citizen underestimates how many innocent civilians their tax dollars have helped to kill by several orders of magnitude. Our system of public media and government has developed in a direction that systematically helps reduce empathy. And, as a result, civilization is going elsewhere.

[blogged by Chris CsikszentmihŠlyi on Edgy Products]

Posted by jo at March 13, 2007 02:04 PM

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