Detroit 'Ruin Porn' From a Drone

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The shift in perspective activates our media, not animal, vision.

'Ruin porn,' as it has rightly been called, is a staple of Tumblr culture. Broken down buildings catching the light just so. Stacks of tires artfully arranged by the fates and the poor. Golden ratios of trash to light, of humanbuilt to humans, of what was to what is.

The frisson of ruin porn derives, in part, by how actually scary it would be to find oneself among the sublime decay. IRL, finding yourself in a blight-filled neighborhood surrounded by decaying buildings, only the sound of trash swirling around your ankles, is not actually a good thing. Not to get too evo-psych on you, but I think a certain level of animal instinct kicks in. It might pay to stand on alert while you hold a $2,000 camera next to a crumbling building in a burned-out area of Detroit. And, of course, "terror is in all cases whatsoever . . . the ruling principle of the sublime," Edmund Burke wrote in 1757. As was true for the wilderness of the 18th century is true for the rewilded of the 21st. Sometimes, the place where you're scared also feels closer to where the truth may be revealed.

With this kind of analysis of ruin porn in hand, I was intrigued by a series of videos of Detroit that showcase the city's decrepit buildings from a camera mounted on a homemade drone. In my mind, this footage does not have the same effect as the on-the-ground perspective. The swoops and zooms recall not our time on the savannah, but a bygone era of filmmaking. I don't see the fear of a falling city or the complex reasons for its decline, but the opening of Psycho, Hitchcock's sweeping shot over Phoenix, and Orson Welles magisterial opening to Touch of Evil. We are above the city. We are not subject to the fears of the beings below.

It is not a criticism of the work, but this is not a human perspective.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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