Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Get off Your Milk and Drink Your Horse

Jakarta is home to a lively selection of foreign cultural institutes such as the CCF, Erasmus Huis and the Goethe Institute, which all put on classical music concerts, lectures, exhibitions, film festivals and the like. Now though, Uncle Sam has also got in on the act and has come out all guns blazing by setting up the incredibly high-tech @america centre, the first of its kind in the world, down in the suitably high-tech surroundings of Pacific Place mall. The propagandist platitudes of Voice of America are no longer deemed adequate in these ideologically charged times, and so a glitzy, tech wonderland has been constructed, which more closely resembles the Epcot Centre or even the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, than any of the city’s other cultural centres. 

@america's mission is to boldly go where no US embassy has gone before and disseminate an ideology of truth, justice and the American way to eager visiting school kids (before Obama is ignominiously booted from office two years hence and the centre is closed and replaced by a more traditional new world cultural artefact, such as a branch of Starbucks).

First things first though, in order to penetrate into the digitally wired inner sanctum of Pax Americana central, I first had to breach the Fort Knox-esque security detail, which included an x-ray scanner, a full body frisk (my socks came under particular scrutiny for some reason) and the storage of my bag in a clear, Perspex locker. One could perhaps forgive the Guantánamo style vigilance however, as there are no doubt many in Indonesia who would wish to see @america blown into rubble.

I entered the main @america auditorium and was simply staggered by the technological wonderland that had been constructed. There were screens everywhere, multicoloured lighting, an iPad lending centre, interactive touchscreens on stands, a DJ and a huge six screen surround Google Earth to try. I felt like an ant that had accidentally crawled through the USB port of high end smartphone.

All very impressive, but was there actually any substance behind the semiconductor pizzazz? Or would @america proved to be more Shania than Mark, Twain wise that is? I strolled over to one of the jumbo, three foot wide iPad style touch tablets and fired up a quiz about the US. "What's the name of the American national anthem?" the screen said. I was presented with four options, "The Star Banner, The Star Spangled Banner, Stars and Stripes Forever or The Pledge of Allegiance." Smarty-pants that I am, I correctly stabbed the second answer and was mildly disappointed that Jimi Hendrix's stratospheric rendition of this iconic piece of music didn't fire up over the speakers in celebration.

Time for another question: "Which of the following US presidents never visited Indonesia: George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter." Well, I knew that the first three had all washed up on these shores during their time in office. On his 1986 visit to Indonesia, Ronald Reagan famously described Suharto as a, "longtime friend of the US," and talked of how, "the winds of freedom are blowing," through the region, which I think it speaks volumes about the US’s purported goal of spreading democracy overseas. 

I touched the last name on the list, Jimmy Carter, the one-time peanut farmer who ironically never found time to make it over to the land of satay sauce during his single term in office. However I remember him being here in 1999 as part of a delegation sent to check the impartiality of the country's first post President "Winds of Freedom" Suharto election.

After browsing some groovy interactive science and eco-consciousness raising software, I headed into @america's other main room and chanced upon my favourite part of the whole place, namely a version of Google Earth rendered on six large surround screens. (The screens themselves were made by that most celebrated of US tech brands...erm... Samsung). I'm sure that most of you reading this have enjoyed a good click around on Google Earth before, and the new 3D street level views are particularly amazing and allow you to zoom right up to your old geography teacher's front door and fantasise about lobbing a grenade through the letterbox.

The six screen surround version was simply jawdropping though and I could have spent all day clicking around, burning through the Grand Canyon and wondering exactly why Google's London buses had all been rendered hovering two feet above the road.

I finished off my @america afternoon in front of a web cam, which took four pictures of me covered in digitally rendered snow and then sent them automatically to yours truly via e-mail (although at the time of writing they still haven’t arrived in my inbox. Julian Assange may have got to them first perhaps).

@america may not be the most intellectual of environments but it perhaps offers some insight into the school of the future. There is an increasing mismatch between the traditional, analogue classroom, in which the teacher stands at the front and drones on and on, and the new tech savvy, touchscreen jabbing younger generation, who are having their central nervous systems rewired and accelerated by interactive digital technologies. In this regard, perhaps @america is a glimpse into the future. Definitely Shania though.