Monday, February 2, 2009

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Last spring I visited the new casino at Niagara Falls. What fascinated me was how the streets all curved in ways that, about every ten paces, provided new visual perspectives of the relatively small area. It seems bigger than it is, thus far, and even the physical relationship to the falls themselves was something like a constantly adjusted reality.

A more recent New Year's Eve visit confirmed this surreality, with old motels demolished and old hotels being remodelled, amid a flourish of different honky-tonk attractions on Clifton Hill. Touring the season's light displays, and recalling their connection to the lights beamed onto the falls, reminded me that Niagara has long had a connection to Ontario's fantasy of cheap, abundant electrical power and the industrial future it would create, a fantasy we've pretty much experienced.

In December we were in Las Vegas, our first visit. It is virtual reality incarnate. In one evening you can visit New York without the rudeness, Paris without learning French, or Venetian canals without the sewage. The place reads the pulse of the global culture's biggest fantasies, the newest of which is architectural, with condos and halls designed by some of the world's biggest names. Libeskind and Gehry fantasies have altered physical realities all over the world.

As older novices we tended to think of Vegas gambling in terms of winning and losing. There's certainly that, but there's also gambling as a budgeted expense. For as little as a few cents a go, solid, down to earth, middle-class citizens can live as if they have money to lose. This is the ultimate fantasy of the consumer society, to have so much money losing it doesn't matter. If you do win, if you have anything left in the budget, spend it on everything from fridge magnets to designer jewellery, furniture and art.

The expensive stuff may be industrial-era mass produced as the ball caps and T-shirts, and one wonders if it sells. But the shops are there, and in quantity. Most surreal were the number of construction cranes in the sky, and the crowds in the casinos as the industrial economy outside Vegas scurried for defibrillators and adrenalin shots.

Through gaming, Las Vegas sustained an economy based upon selling people their dreams. Can this continue during the information age?
In Ontario, race-track casinos revived the declining horse-breeding industry. Could casinos do the same for real art if galleries were nearby? Art is about envisioning alternative realities, after all. Niagara-On-The-Lake successfully sells a Disneyfied historical fantasy, with theatre as a central attraction. Torontonians making money from the industrial economy have invested in Tuscan fantasies by buying small Niagara vineyards and wineries. Pottery studios and galleries line the lanes as well, and the region has long had a strong literary community. It's all fantasy, of course, but what's real about "the freedom of the open road" or denying global warming or the notion that billions of government dollars can revive a beyond-mature industrial economic base?

Visiting Niagara I've had the sense of a subtle economic shift from Toronto to Niagara, from an industry/resource base to an expressive possibilities context. It's not an either/or choice of course, but if it were I'd rather spend the future crawling through a wormhole to alternative realities than be in a traffic jam on the QEW running low on gas. I don't think I'm alone.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

My granddaughter Quinnlin cut&pasted the picture below (with some help from her mother I suspect) that got me thinking about recent comments by a local property developer at A case of little ideas flowing from bigger ones.

Developer Harry Stinson Declares
Public Transit in “Steel Cans”
Too Retro to be Real

This city has legs
Uses them in a towering
rush to prosperity
Even if the world runs
on inflationary flux
the system breaking down
when everything works too well
I’ll live in my investment
Lunch on my premiums
to cover the condo fees
Travel in it too, keep things fluid

What’s safer than real estate
even if there’s little estate and
less reality What’s real
about steel
these days? What ever was?

I’m with Harry
Wake each morn in a new city
Even if, entire skylines hiking
Tacoma Wash. looks exactly like
Hamilton Ont. on a rainy day

Hell, I’m positively Stinsonian
even if it’s my dreams
he’s selling me
I’ve lots of them

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

It is the time for little ideas.

Big ideas were fine for their time, the industrial era, but that time is, as we know, past. It is only the death throes of vested interests that keep big ideas on our agendas. The industrial era was about mass production, supported by mass consumption, delivered by mass communications, all big ideas. Tremendous wealth was created, but big ideas come with big problems. The automobile was such a good idea that the North American economy is built around it. It spawned individual freedom to travel, suburban living, jobs, roads, pollution, congestion and dependence. We're now spending billions of dollars to support automobile manufacturing because we can't think what else to do about our troubled economy.

The information era, with accessible media, is designed for propagating little ideas. With the proliferation of media, people have more control over their individual identities, can build and exist in small communities of common interest. Businesses can find and access niche markets. Consumers get much more choice. Little ideas come with problems too, but small ideas are more easily avoided. You don't like one small community, simply join another. When problems cannot be avoided, they affect fewer people.

Big ideas require permission and leadership. "Think globally, act locally" is an expression that emphasizes the power of little ideas. Big results come from the accumulation of small decisions made by people focused on improving their immediate environments. So thinking small is not a new concept, but my point here is that the merits of an idea can now be determined by its size alone.

The industrial era is passing. China, India, Brazil are the world centres for mass production. For big manufacturing to survive in North America more and more work will be done by robotics, while art, by its nature, is about individual, human expression. The big three North American auto manufacturers admit, as they bargain for public funds to tie them over to the future, that they are not going to employ as many people as they have in the past. The arts on the other hand, specifically the visual arts, are a form of micro-manufacturing. They may not take up the slack in the manufacturing sector alone, but they are a sector of economic growth in the same way that eating locally grown food is a response to problems resulting from factory farming and global agriculture.

The global economy is a big idea. It is complex, difficult to regulate and when parts of it fail nearly everyone is affected. Throwing billions at a few big ideas will buy some time, but finding solutions will involve testing a lot of small, local ideas.

I'd like to use this blog to discuss the little-recognized implications of big ideas, the beauty of little ideas (especially as used to overcome the difficulties with big ideas) and as an exchange for little ideas that work. Comments might even be poems, stories, articles of creative non-fiction and other works of art.

It is time for little ideas. Some of them may as well be ours.