Wednesday, April 25, 2012


LES Local Color
Lower East Side

There was a toner spill at work yesterday.  It was a big deal, if you wanna know.  Turquoise splotch on the carpet, an associate covered in the stuff, and excited chatter that lasted for at least 15-20 minutes.  "Oh no, what happened!?" "Did you see what happened?" "I thought you were supposed to shake the cartridge!" "Is the machine broken?" "What's going on?" "It was an accident!" "That's a special cartridge." "I have a presentation due." "Where's the nearest color printer?" "Look at the carpet."  "Uh-oh, who made the mess?"  "That's hilarious." "You're not supposed to shake the cartridge."

On and on and on, my co-workers went about the toner spill.  They weren't mad or annoyed - people seemed really very energized by the whole thing.

My first thought was that we must have a pretty boring office, if a toner spill can make this big of a splash (bam!) in the ol' routine.  And that's not untrue.  It is a pretty boring office (sorry, folks!)

But after reading an article about tattoos on Slate, I wonder if there's something even beyond routine boredom at play in the Great Toner Shake-up.  The author of the article, Simon Doonan, presents a somewhat tongue-in-cheek hypothesis about why people get tattoos these days:
"Here is my theory: Tattooing is no longer just tattooing. It’s a culturally sanctioned form of delicate cutting. Participants, i.e. everyone on Earth apart from me, are seeking an antidote to the numbed feelings and detachment that result from their idiotically screen-centered lives. If you look at Facebook, play video games and online Scrabble, and/or scour Slate 24 hours a day, you will eventually reach a freaky plateau of desensitized unreality. You will crave the enlivening, awakening, back-to-reality release which comes from the jabbing pain of a tattoo needle. Before you know it you will be begging some dude with a pierced tongue and a shaky hand to emblazon your chest with rutting unicorns and a lunar landscape."

It's a sweeping generalization, and a facetious one at that, so obviously it doesn't adequately capture everyone's motivation for getting a tattoo.  But I think he makes an interesting point about lives that are lived ever more virtually and "screen-centered."

I don't have a tattoo, but I can relate to feeling that craving for an "enlivening, awakening, back-to-reality" experience.  I spend precious few moments away from my computer and/or phone: while running in the park, or at the gym, the dentist's chair. (Really had to stretch for that last one.)  There are so few situations these days when I am really, truly unplugged from the virtual world and 100% present in the real one.

We spend hours a day 'pinning' cute craft ideas, but how much time do we actually spend making something real with our hands?  We skim through friends' 140-character quips, but how much time do we actually spend looking into their eyes, hearing their words, and letting ourselves be changed by them?  Jobs where you "push paper" - never very stimulating to begin with - have lost even their sense of tactile productivity; instead of paper we now just push buttons, moving virtual files around a virtual work environment.

Which brings me back to the Great Toner Shake-Up.  Maybe it was so exciting for people partially because it was real - something really happened.  Someone used his hands, shook a cartridge, turned the floor turquoise.  None of this happened on a screen, it happened in reality.  Our workplace was physically altered (i.e. the carpet is now blue).  "What happened?"  Something happened.  And it awoke us to the toner-mess of a moment, out of our desensitized detachment.

Didn't mean for this to be an anti-technology manifesto.  I'm not about to smash my computer screen or cancel my smart phone contract.  Just wanted to remind myself to take more frequent breaks from the "freaky plateau," and revel in reality of life lived in the moment (messes and all).

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