The trick that Arcade Fire's latest video uses to bludgeon its viewers into tears would be crass, if it weren't so clever.
In fact, in the interest of maximizing its ability to clobber you over the head with your own childhood, I recommend that you go visit the interactive site - TheWildernessDowntown.com - and enjoy it unspoiled.
It works as follows: Viewers punch in the postal code of the house in which they grew up. Then, to the strains of Arcade Fire's latest piece of earnest violin-sawing, the site creates, on the fly, a music video that takes place on the very street you grew up.
Why, there's your house right there! And the Johnstons' next door! With great reliability, viewers get mist in their eyes, and in their hearts the slightly grudging sense that Arcade Fire just mashed their buttons harder than a six-year-old in an elevator.
Of course, artists have been emotionally manipulating their audiences since a Cro-Magnon first got verklempt over a sad-eyed mammoth on the cave wall. But there is something new here, something mechanically precise and coolly dispensed. We've been fabricating feelings since time immemorial, but the manufacture of emotion may be about to hit its industrial revolution.
The Wilderness Downtown is worth seeing for its technical merits alone. It was put together using a ballyhooed new way of building websites (called HTML5, if you're so inclined). Instead of taking place in a single frame, it unfolds across a series of little windows that dance across the screen, giving it an experimental-installation kind of aesthetic.
Instead of taking place in a single frame, it unfolds across a series of little windows that dance across the screen, giving it an experimental-installation kind of aesthetic.
In the piece, as the music (Arcade Fire's We Used to Wait) plays, a hoodie-clad youth runs through a suburban landscape at dawn, his footsteps timed to the music. Eventually, he pauses to look around. Sure enough, the program has looked up your postal code, and the street he sees is the one you grew up on.
The site pulls in images from Google Street View and Google Maps. (You'll also need Google Chrome to view it)The visual effect isn't entirely successful at first - the stark lighting conditions in the Street View images tend to stick out against the moody tone of the video.
But the experiment gets cleverer as it progresses. Soon, as the music swells, you're wheeling away from your hometown, pulling back into the sky as its contours spin below you. The most remarkable sequence comes in the final act, when the video starts to combine the live-action footage with animated effects. Stylized trees erupt from the ground beneath the running youth - and soon, they're erupting around the grounds of your childhood home, too, like a dreamscape, as the camera flies through it.
And at this point, with great reliability, I and everyone I've spoken with have started making little gurgling noises and blinking furiously.
Triumphantly affecting as it is, the project is less a new technology as a demonstration of what you can do by cleverly compiling data that's already out there. Google has long made its maps and images available for creative reuse like this. Nor is the idea of revisiting one's childhood haunts precisely revolutionary. The video is really a dramatic re-enactment of the first thing everybody does the first time they use Google Maps: look up their own home.
Yet there's something utterly disconcerting about the way that this project takes something that's immensely personal and automates it. It's one thing to find your house on the world map by scrolling across countries and provinces, until finally you find that one street in that one out-of-the-way village, and zoom in on the little dark square that you - and only you - know represents the roof of your little house. It's quite another to punch in a six-digit code, and have your own heart served to you on a platter.
In presenting you with the story of your own childhood, it leaves you entirely passive. Instead of seeking out the images that were dear to your youth, a computer program obtains a tiny bit of information about you, and then uses it to mine the vast wealth of information on the Web to reconstruct images from your youth based only on a key code. Not only that, but it goes one step further: It alters those images blending fact and fantasy.
The more you think of this fun little experiment, the more inadvertently dystopian it gets. The idea of reading, reconstructing, and altering memories in order to manipulate people is a mainstay of science fiction. (Think Blade Runner, Total Recall, every third episode of Star Trek.)
In a way, by doing this reconstructive work for you, the program is generating custom pieces of individual identity, manufactured from raw data online. It presents us with ourselves, as products of Google data. Instead of user-generated content, the Internet is now coming up with content-generated users.
You could call it the latest incarnation of the Barnum effect, in which things that are passed off as highly personal (say, those life worries that psychic pinpointed) are actually universal. Give the Internet a slice of information, and with some smoke, lights and Arcade Fire music, it can conjure up a moving vision of your youth.
That's just with a postal code. Imagine what they could do with a Facebook profile. Hold on to your tears: The Internet has some emotions for you.