From the Editor: “This Very Night Your Soul…”

Ray Waddle

It all started six years ago when artist Rob Pettit lost his cell phone. It was an annoy- ing moment, naturally, but it also stirred some unexpected thoughts.

“It occurred to me how dependent on it I had be- come,” says Pettit, who lives in Brooklyn NY. “I started thinking about our waste and overconsumption of technology, our dependence on it, the desire always to want the next device.”

He replaced his phone, but his thinking didn’t stop there. He started collecting discarded cell phones. A notion grew: perhaps out of these now- silent little units of circuitry, something new could be communicated.

He had no trouble gathering them. Friends handed him their old models. Recycling companies sent them by the hundreds. Before long, he had 5,000 recycled cell phones – a new palate for making art, painting, floor sculptures. This Reflections features some of his work.

Mobile phones are synonymous with efficiency, speed, convenience, intimacy, multitasking – also with the stressful paradox of being always connected remotely even if it means ignoring the person nearby. Pettit is mindful of these themes, but his work breaks in a different direction. Out of these little icons of hyperactivity, his quest was to create something restful and meditative – spiraling pat- terns, rhythms, and repetitions that spark a connection between the viewer and the work. (In his paintings, he uses a pointillism effect, drawing tiny cell phones – thousands of them – to attain the im- age. See pages 40 and 60 for examples.)

He takes inspiration from the sand mandalas of Tibetan Buddhist monks. Full of intricate beauty that takes hours or days to complete, these sand paintings embody a deep spiritual practice: the monks ritually destroy their meticulous artwork after completing it. The gesture is a rebuke against possessiveness, attachment, the arrogance of permanence.

Pettit captures that spirit with his cell-phone spirals and other works, taking hours to complete them in galleries or other art spaces, enjoying the meditative calm of the crafting, then happily dismantling them moments later.

“I was drawn to the Tibetan idea of spending a long time on a piece only to see it get washed away,” he says. “I enjoy the satisfaction of doing the work and then letting go and not holding on to it. I think I’ve always felt a strong will not to have a great attachment to things.”

Examining the larger new media world, this Reflections issue confronts some of these questions of connection, perspective, attentiveness, glut, anxiety, balance, imbalance, and ambivalence, the search for a humane strategy through the technological gauntlet.

Debates today around media, spirituality, and society carry much of that struggle and search. So many books and arguments simply pit celebrants of technology against debunkers, while the rest of us try to sort out the next breakthrough coming at us from the glimmering horizon.

Clay Shirky fearlessly sees a new era of social collaboration and creativity emerging from our new media moment. The technology has finally caught up to our own dreams of transformation, he says.

“What matters most now is our imaginations,” he writes in Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (Penguin, 2010).

“The opportunity before us, individually and collectively, is enormous; what we do with it will be determined largely by how well we are able to imagine and reward public creativity, participation, and sharing.”

Shirky is exuberant and companionable about our possibilities. Others see a coming darkness – intellectual fragmentation, sensory overload, dangerous distraction.

“The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention – the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultured progress,” writes Maggie Jackson in Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Prometheus, 2008).

The personal journey of David Ulin, in his book

The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (Sasquatch Books, 2010), acutely de- scribes the dilemmas many of us face.

He is a professional book critic, a lover of books and reading. But something happened around 2006. He started having trouble sitting down to read. That’s the year he got high-speed internet. By the 2008 election, he was fully plugged in, checking news and analysis almost constantly. But he sensed something violent was happening to the old time- honored value of silence.