September 24, 2017: What is Lost

24 Sep

I’ve recently begun playing the game Nier Automata, which takes place (as so many things do) on a far-future earth where machines have taken control, exiling humanity to the moon, from which they stage attacks on the machines below. Describing that setup by itself doesn’t do the game justice; it’s beautiful to look at, the atmosphere is rich, and, though I haven’t made it very far yet, there are already strong hints that the story is going to be much more complicated. (If nothing else, the human forces are actually made up of androids, and so if nothing else the android/machine distinction is going to have to be clarified).

The settings (so far) are made up of rusty girders and crumbling buildings— again, not particularly novel, although beautifully rendered; it’s not too far from Fallout 4. But as I ran though this world, I thought about how there is a kind of melancholy in the destruction or dissolution of any made thing. It’s not the loss of the object, per se, or not that alone; it’s the labor and care that went in to creating it, and the loss of the purpose for which it was made. Even if a thing was mass produced in a giant factory, it is still sad to think about the vast quantities of effort and material that go into creating such operations, and keeping them running, and shipping their production around the world. A cheap plastic widget lying broken on a city sidewalk represents an expenditure of resources that, not really so long ago, would have been simply impossible. Ben Lerner, in his novel 10:04, refers to “a kind of aura” possessed by objects, which is “the majesty and murderous stupidity of that organization of time and space and fuel and labor becoming visible in the commodity itself…” Lost and broken things stand for a greater loss, a greater waste.

The problem is that, of course, human beings lose and break stuff all the time. “The Peculiar Poetry of Paris’s Lost and Found,” by Nadja Spiegelman, describes the city’s Bureau of Found Objects, established in 1804 under Napoleon, where anything lost anywhere in the city can be brought, or claimed. Not surprisingly, the range of objects is huge, and it changes over time, providing a kind of cross-section of the society, or at least the city, in which they are found:

The aisles of shelves are systematically emptied in waves. The summer months bring sunglasses and tourist guidebooks, and autumn a rush of children’s schoolbags and lunchboxes. The shelves change with the times as well. “In the past, we had cufflinks and tie clips,” Cassignol told me. “Now we have USB sticks and scooters and even—what are those things—that slide?” He mimes the motion, and I supply the word: hoverboards.

According to Spiegelman, the Bureau also represents the idea, in France, of property as a sacred right, which is not interrupted or undermined by the loss of an object. It’s still yours, in other words, even if you don’t have it or know where it is. Prior to the Revolution, lost objects belonged to the person on whose land they were found, in effect giving the ownership of real estate a higher value than ownership of other kinds of property. The architects of the Revolution deliberately altered that norm, and the Bureau reflects the new(er) standard.

The recovery of something you thought was lost can carry a lot of emotional weight, as the story in the piece of a woman who recovers her lost wallet illustrates. But the most poignant moment for me comes when Spiegelman asks the director of the Bureau about its name:

When I ask Cassignol why this department is called the Bureau of Found Objects, rather than the Bureau of Lost Objects, his answer was pragmatic. “Because we do not know if they were lost or stolen. We know only that they have been found.”

Pragmatic, maybe, but more than that. To emphasize “found” over “lost” is also to make a statement about what the most important thing about the object is: not that somebody lost it, but that, in all the noise and chaos of a vast city, somebody found it, and tried to make sure it could get back to its owner.

 

“Documenting the Disappearance of America’s Most Toxic Ghost Town,” by Allison Meier, presents loss in a higher register: that of an entire town. Picher, Oklahoma, was a mining boom town in the 1920s, a major source of zinc and, especially, lead, providing, supposedly, half of all the lead used by American forces in the First World War. When the metal ran out, the town was left with the toxic remnants (acidic and polluted groundwater, lead-filled piles of “chat,” or mining debris), with predictable results for the its residents’ health. On top of that, a tornado in 2008 destroyed large parts of the town, and today only a handful of residents remain.

That we have the term “ghost town” shows that this happens: towns are established and then, for whatever reason, abandoned. Picher is not unique in this, not in the role that mining played in its abandonment (At BLDGBLOG, where I heard about this in the first place, Geoff Manaugh mentions the Pennsylvania town of Centralia, where a coal fire has been burning underground for over 50 years). But the abandonment of a town is a large number of people deciding to cut their losses, and those losses include not only the tremendous labor and energy and material that were required to build the town, but also the hopes with which residents invest it.

(Meier is actually writing about a book and exhibition of photos by Todd Stewart; some of those images are in the piece, but you can also see more of them here).

 

Of course, not everything that can be lost is something that was made through human effort. “The Great Nutrient Collapse” by Helena Bottemiller Evich, describes new research suggesting that the nutritional content of many staple food crops is declining due to increasing C02 in the atmosphere— a surprising finding, since in general more Co2 helps plants grow. Essentially, as CO2 increases, plants produce more sugars and other carbohydrates, while other nutrients— like protein, potassium, or zinc— all decline. Thus there is more food being grown, but it is less nutritious. For people dependent on one or two food sources, in particular, this could have serious health consequences.

I was also struck in the piece by the obstacles created by disciplinary boundaries. Irakli Loladze, the main researcher profiled here, is a mathematician by training, and he approaches the study of plant nutrition accordingly. This has led to problems:

He was told he could pursue his research interests as long as he brought in funding, but he struggled. Biology grant makers said his proposals were too math-heavy; math grant makers said his proposals contained too much biology.

In other words, interdisciplinary work was actively discouraged. This is new research, and nobody knows for sure what is happening or how bad it could be, but a refusal to countenance new methods or perspectives may amplify the losses before we are even sure they are happening.

 

It’s an older article now (from January), and it doesn’t strictly apply to all (or maybe any) of the cases above, but I could help thinking about all this in terms of Atul Gawande’s “The Heroism of Incremental Care”. In one of the most thought-provoking articles I’ve read this year, Gawande is concerned first and foremost with primary care doctors and their role in the larger health care system. He contrasts the primary care doctor with the surgeon or specialist, who works in moments of acute crisis with very targeted, one-time interventions. That kind of care seems, in some ways, more helpful, because it treats a specific problem in a fairly direct way. But, for overall health, regular primary care is probably more important:

Not long ago, I was talking to Asaf Bitton, a thirty-nine-year-old internist I work with, about the contrast between his work and mine, and I made the mistake of saying that I had more opportunities to make a clear difference in people’s lives. He was having none of it. Primary care, he countered, is the medical profession that has the greatest over-all impact, including lower mortality and better health, not to mention lower medical costs. Asaf is a recognized expert on the delivery of primary health care around the world, and, over the next few days, he sent me evidence for his claims.

He showed me studies demonstrating that states with higher ratios of primary-care physicians have lower rates of general mortality, infant mortality, and mortality from specific conditions such as heart disease and stroke. Other studies found that people with a primary-care physician as their usual source of care had lower subsequent five-year mortality rates than others, regardless of their initial health. In the United Kingdom, where family physicians are paid to practice in deprived areas, a ten-per-cent increase in the primary-care supply was shown to improve people’s health so much that you could add ten years to everyone’s life and still not match the benefit. Another study examined health-care reforms in Spain that focussed on strengthening primary care in various regions—by, for instance, building more clinics, extending their hours, and paying for home visits. After ten years, mortality fell in the areas where the reforms were made, and it fell more in those areas which received the reforms earlier. Likewise, reforms in California that provided all Medicaid recipients with primary-care physicians resulted in lower hospitalization rates. By contrast, private Medicare plans that increased co-payments for primary-care visits—and thereby reduced such visits—saw increased hospitalization rates. Further, the more complex a person’s medical needs are the greater the benefit of primary care…

Success, therefore, is not about the episodic, momentary victories, though they do play a role. It is about the longer view of incremental steps that produce sustained progress. That, such clinicians argue, is what making a difference really looks like. In fact, it is what making a difference looks like in a range of endeavors.

The larger point is that we are generally very bad at a appreciating the importance of the incremental and continual, preferring big, one-time actions with direct, easily-discernible results. The part of the piece that has stuck with me the most is actually about infrastructure, and the tendency to spend large amounts of money on new roads or bridges, but refuse to spend anything at all on maintaining those things once they are built. And far from discouraging this, public opinion generally rewards government officials for it:

Today, however, we still have almost a hundred and fifty thousand problem bridges. Sixty thousand have traffic restrictions because they aren’t safe for carrying full loads. Where have we gone wrong? The pattern is the same everywhere: despite knowing how much cheaper preservation is, we chronically raid funds intended for incremental maintenance and care, and use them to pay for new construction. It’s obvious why. Construction produces immediate and visible success; maintenance doesn’t. Does anyone reward politicians for a bridge that doesn’t crumble?

That’s obviously a problem, simply in terms of public safety; it also results in a lot of wasted money. But letting things fall apart that were made with vast amounts of labor and effort and material— and, in the case of things like highways and bridges, often a great deal of ingenuity and brilliant engineering— is also a waste of all of those things, and a kind of disrespect for the people who did the making.

Earlier this week I read Jenny Offiill’s Dept. of Speculation (which is very good, by the way), and in it the narrator at one point describes her husband getting out tools to repair something that has broken in their house, saying:

This is another way in which he is an admirable person. If he notices something broken, he will try to fix it. He won’t just think about how unbearable it is that things keep breaking, that you can never fucking outrun entropy.

Thinking about it now, it’s probably that description, more than anything else, that inspired this post. When I read it, my first thought was that I would like to be more like this person, in this way. Rather than a futile effort to “outrun entropy,” we should see maintenance, in a broad sense, as a way of recognizing the value of what is, sometimes, inevitably, lost.

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