Sunday, August 24, 2008

Yes icon

The image of the modern-day wind turbine has become the symbol representing the vision of achieving a global clean energy future. In many ways, wind energy is both of and ahead of its time. Therein lies the frustration. Many people who proudly wear or display the icon signaling their support for renewable energy are more reticent when wind projects are actually proposed for their communities.

Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder. Unfortunately, for some, the farther away wind turbines are sited, the more beautiful they become. But this too is subject to change as the twin goals of energy security and global climate change continue to converge.

Becoming the Big New Idea: First, Look the Part

The wind turbine’s detractors fall into roughly two categories. To some objectors, the turbine is the devil’s own trident — a whirling, whirring one that thwacks birds, chews bats and sets whales’ teeth on edge. To the less eco-minded, it is the blight just outside the front window or off the back porch — if yours happens to be the front window or back porch.

But none of that matters just now. The wind turbine is the “it” item of summer 2008.

It is everywhere, and not in a bad way. Advertisements broadcast by the presidential campaigns of Senators John McCain and Barack Obama during the Olympics have featured almost identical pastoral panning shots of turbines. If you add the General Electric commercials that boast of the green-powering of the Games, the TV screen has shown wind turbines gleaming white more often than Michael Phelps flashing gold. There are turbines posing among the mannequins in the Calvin Klein windows on Madison Avenue. And last week Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg planted in New Yorkers’ heads images of turbines on the bridges and rooftops and — an instance of icon meeting icon — lighting Lady Liberty’s torch with their gusty might.

Not since Don Quixote have so many windmills presented such an orgy of illusion: wind power accounts for only about 1 percent of the nation’s energy. Notwithstanding the ardent advocacy of people like T. Boone Pickens, oilman turned windman, it will be some time before the production catches up to the publicity.

But that’s the way it is with a cultural icon: it is both of and ahead of its time, and it knows that looking good is half the battle. (You can almost hear Heidi Klum telling the “Project Runway” contestants, “Your next challenge, designers, is to create an outfit for a wind turbine, fashion icon!”)

The most common wind turbine is a Danish design. Tall, sleek, clean, futuristic in a kind of retro Jetsons way (the turbine’s a little old for an ingénue), it’s your childhood pinwheel all grown up and playing for keeps.

“What makes this such a powerful icon is that it’s unbelievably simple and telegraphic,” said Allen P. Adamson, managing director of the New York office of Landor Associates, a corporate branding firm, and “and yet it’s a serious idea.”

Edward Tenner, author of “Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity,” suggests that the appeal of the design owes something to a Modernist and Scandinavian revival. The popular television series “Mad Men,” for example, is a catalog of Danish modern.

Mr. Tenner, whose next book will be about positive unintended consequences, sees in the rise of the wind turbine parallels to icons like the compact fluorescent lamp, the geodesic dome, even the railroad. A rectangular fluorescent bulb had been around for a while, he noted, but “I think there is something about the spiral design that makes it visually arresting.”

Of course, one man’s arresting is another’s hideous, but this is a matter of how people train their perceptions. Mr. Tenner cites old bumper stickers that say “Jet Noise: The Sound of Freedom.” Similarly, advocates of wind power “may actually see the sound of these blades as reassuring, but to others it’s a visual and sonic intrusion.”

But “perception of technology in the environment changes,” Mr. Tenner said, recalling the railroad that cuts through the lovely Lake District. “Is then no nook of English ground secure/ From rash assault?” Wordsworth complained in 1844 in his “Sonnet on the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway.” Now railways like that are greatly admired. “On the other hand,” Mr. Tenner said, “wind turbines don’t really complement the terrain as, for example, the Ribblehead Viaduct in Yorkshire did.” The turbines “are a bold, Modernist appropriation of the landscape.”

The geodesic dome was associated with the same sort of progressive thinking in design that led to the wind turbine. It was “part of this movement for lightness and new materials and a smaller human footprint,” Mr. Tenner said, and it became almost a cult object on college campuses beginning in the 1950s. But technical problems over time consigned it to a niche standing.

So what else does an icon have to do besides look good to a lot of people?

The best icons tell a story, says Seth Godin, author of “All Marketers Are Liars,” and it’s “a story that validates our feelings and amplifies the way we look at the world.” The fins on cars of the 1950s are a good example, he said. “It didn’t have anything to do with how good the car was,” but the fins evoked a rocket ship. “Rockets, of course, were the icon of the day, so capturing that rocketness in a car transferred some of the magic.”

The wind turbine also plays to American mythology, which “is all about supply,” Mr. Godin theorizes. “Demand is our right. It’s our right to be wasteful and profligate. The supply is never-ending and will take care of itself. So an icon that represents a risk-free way to increase supply resonates with us.” Mr. Obama is right when he says you should put more air in your tires, Mr. Godin says, “but there’s resistance, because that is something you have to do right now. For some people, this is scolding. Somehow, they think, ‘it’s my fault.’ ”

Still, “there’s a huge danger if we try to build public policy about risk-free iconography and storytelling,” Mr. Godin says. “We end up with nuclear waste dumps and ethanol. There really is no free lunch, but that’s a difficult story to tell.”

The windmill, Mr. Adamson said, has “transcended its literal functionality to become an iconic symbol of the ideal.” These reedy beacons are “almost branded icons of hopeful, we-can-beat-them better mousetraps,” but there is a risk in overuse, and in offering a promise too long undelivered. Today the icon has potential, he said. “Right now it stands for ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts.’ ” But “it’s at the tipping point right now,” unless people go ahead and make good on the promise.

In the meantime, wind turbine, enjoy your moment. Stick that landing and blow a few kisses.


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