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Thursday, November 16, 2006

not pictured

Third Mainland Bridge

There's a great article by George Packer in the Nov. 13 issue of the New Yorker about Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria and one of the ten largest in the world. It's a fantastic piece of journalism, rich in on-the-ground detail, and it presents a pretty cohesive picture of a city teetering on the edge of chaos. Along the way, it also takes some shots at an attitude that's deeply ingrained in the geek establishment--"liminal spaces," William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, etc.--that the functional anarchy that apparently prevails in much of Lagos (no state presence whatsoever, all civil functions provided by citizens/gangs, all space as public space, the ever-present market) represents a kind of utopia and model for the future. But being "off the grid" isn't so great when you can't get on the grid even if you want, and a place where some of the most basic social services, such as garbage collection, aren't being performed, and where nothing is done without an economic incentive, is a pretty depressing model for the future. Valorizing the slums of Lagos or Rio De Janario just seems like an urbanist varient on envying the rural poor their simply, uncomplicated lives.

But aside from that, it evoked two more tangential reactions in me. One was related, sorta, to an exhibit Jesse did a few years back about spam. Packer mentions briefly in the article the rash of e-mails from Nigeria trying to scam Westerners by dangling a supposed lost fortune in return for some bank account info and, eventually, transfers of cash to "finance" the effort to recover the illusory millions. He does this as a way of illustrating the culture of Lagos, one that finds nothing wrong with scams as long as it enriches the scammer, and that trades in deception as a daily matter of course. But Packer also did a good job in the article of presenting everyone he dealt with as a full human being, not just another hustler. And so when he brings up the e-mail scams, it made me reconsider my whole notion of who was at the other end of those e-mails. I've had my e-mail account for over 10 years now, and so it's probably on every spam list on earth. When I get the Nigerian scam e-mails, they're mixed in with all the bot spam I get, and like the bot spam, they're rife with mispellings and odd grammatical constructions and all taken together, they just sound like more nonsense looking for a click. But they're not--they're actually looking for a fairly sustained interpersonal interaction. And while there may be some spamming involved, it's presumably much less broad than the e-mails trying to sell me pills or porn. Those don't care about me, and indeed I have an only vague idea why someone would send that out.

But the scam e-mails are different. Packer's article presents the people trying to hustle him--one actually offers him a varient on the e-mail scam, in person--as people with clear motivations for doing what they do. And so now I have a picture of the person sending me that e-mail--they probably paid someone for my e-mail address, and if they suceed in the scam, they will owe multiple people their cuts of that money, from their patron to the person who let them use the computer to the cops to their local gang. It was a strange feeling, an absolute shift in perception, like a sudden translation. The gibberish made more sense now.

The other thing it made me think about was, of course, Matt Friedberger. (I know--what are the chances, right?) While some of the things in Lagos have very evocative names clearly rooted in the past, others have names like "Third Mainland Bridge," being, I guess, the third bridge going between Lagos Island and the mainland. Mr. Friedberger named one of his solo albums Seventh Loop Highway, and while it had no particular resonance for me at the time, it's now come a bit more into focus. I never really got into that album, but the lyrics were fantastic, and reading this, I can see why he's attracted to those sorts of names. There's something attractive about their obdurate banality, their insistence on the name exactly matching the description, in contrast to our modern tendency to hide behind names chosen more for their aesthetic qualities, like "Shady Acres Estates" or "Viagra." At the same time, though, such prosaic language doesn't seem to fully capture the essence of what is being named, given that it is, after all, a Motherfucking Bridge, a massive triumph of human ingenity whose sheer scope can stop you short. And so this duality serves a useful artistic function: it evokes something specific yet unfamiliar with very few words, while hinting at a whole superstructure beyond the mere facts. It's something you have to focus on to really let it hit you, though, and the fact that it's mixed with music that doesn't encourage that is a nice summation of the strategy that album seems to take.