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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Do I Need You to Draw You a Picture?

This is not really the image I wanted, but I couldn't find the Tony the Tiger
 I was looking for.  But if you look closely, you'll see the bottom part
of the Morton Salt Girl on the container, who is spilling salt in the rain
just like the big Morton Salt Girl.  Does she sense the irony?

So Nancy and I got a new fancy-shmancy refrigerator.  Like any fancy-shmancy refrigeator, this one has an ice-maker and water-dispenser built into the door.  This one, however, has an added feature.  When you get water, an LED screen shows a computer simulation of water sloshing back and forth and the helpful legend, "water."  It also tells you the precise number of ounces you've poured.  When you get ice, the LED shows a simulated cascade of crushed ice.  These images, by the way, are not wholly convincing, nor are they meant to be: they are clearly computer-generated animations.

Why did GE see fit to install this LED panel?  Do they believe the experience of getting water or ice is enhanced by a graphic visualization?  

Now, this is perfectly harmless, but it's very curious.  I tried to express what I felt this meant to my friend Molly Bassett, but couldn't articulate it at the time.  I think this ties in somehow with the little decals you see on the back of minivans and such, with each family member, down to the dog and cat, represented by a smiley-faced stick figure.  Leaving aside certain practical questions - for example, if the dog gets killed by a Buick, do you have to go out and scrape his decal from the windshield? - what is the source of delight some people take in these decals.  Because, let's admit it, there is something pleasing and amusing about them, even to someone like me who never intends to get one.

Or here's another example, although admittedly rarer, probably because you can't just buy these in a store.  Sometimes you will see a mailbox which is a tiny replica of the house in front of which it sits.  A little voodoo mailbox, if you will, that the postman opens each day to put in bills and postcards.

I don't know if other nationalities besides Americans do this sort of thing, but I suspect they don't.  It would seem we like to have not only the thing itself, but an image of the thing.  We pour ourselves a glass of water, and enjoy the watching the sloshing - clearly simulated - of water on an LED screen.  We drive up to our nice house, and enjoy pulling mail from the doll-sized model, as if our mail lived in a house just like ours!  We load our charming family into our minivan - our daughter has a soccer game - and are pleased at the cartoon representation of ourselves on the back window, right down to our daughter's soccer uniform.

Is it that reality is insufficient for us and has to be supplemented somehow?  Or is it that reality is so rich that we celebrate it by representing it in these little totems?  Or is it something else?

The first commercial image that really gripped me was Tony the Tiger on the box of Frosted Flakes.  When I was a kid, Tony was pouring a bowlful from a box, on which Tony was pouring a bowlful, on which Tony was pouring a bowlful... and so on, if not ad infinitum, at least ad the-artist-got-sick-of-it.  (I have scoured the internet but can't find an image of that box anywhere.  Do I remember it correctly?  Did I really see it at all?)  That box fascinated me, and I would ponder that endless regression of Tonys.  It reminded of an experience standing between two mirrors, so that each mirror reflected not only me, but the reflection of me in the opposite mirror, and the reflection of the other mirror's reflection, and so on, this time ad infinitum indeed, for unlike a corporate cartoonist, light never loses its patience with endless duplication.

I think the LED panel, and the family decals, and the little voodoo-house mailbox are somehow traceable to that same phenomenon: the joy we have in our own reflection - I am pouring water, and the refrigerator mimics it.  The ultimate expression of this is to stand between two mirrors and look at our reflection looking at our reflection looking at our reflection in an infinite space.

Me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me.

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