Paul Greenberg

TOPSAIL ISLAND, N.C. - A German poet once said that the great advantage of being in love is that one loses all interest in newspapers. Much the same effect can be achieved by a walk on the beach, and without all the subsequent consequences.

Time slows. The clock disappears. Only high tide and low count. The sound of the surf lulls continually. Each wave is different, each the same. The sight of the ocean stretching to the horizon steadies like the stars in the night sky. The news of the day? It is put in its eminently forgettable place, unable to compete with the waves.

But a newspaper addict is not so easily cured. I find myself searching for the local papers. No USA Today, please. That's the paper for airports and hotels, for the permanently transient. I want my news, like my food, served up with a local flavor.

So I go scouring the little IGA next to the only intersection in town with a stoplight. I'll settle for even a week-old copy of the Topsail Voice or Pender Post. It may be old news to the locals, but it's fresh to a visitor. And I still maintain my umbilical connection to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which is full of homegrown flavor.

But an unsettling story awaits in the Business and Technology section. ("Look, up in the sky, it's a logo cloud.") The things are called Flogos, and are the latest way to advertise, says their inventor. A former magician, he's developed a machine that sends foamy clouds as big as four feet across into the air, which can assume any shape the advertiser desires.

Next month the air above Walt Disney World in Orlando is due to be covered with Flogos shaped like Mickey Mouse. In the future you could follow a trail of Toyotas or Schwinns or longneck bottles of Bud to wherever they're sold. The sky's the limit, literally.

Imagine waking up on the beach one morning to find the sky filled with the kind of ads you went on vacation to escape. The Disneyfication of the world proceeds apace as a faux enchantment supplants the real kind that Nature provides.

What impressed most about this long story is that it raised - and dismissed - any number of questions about Flogos' effect on the physical environment, but nowhere did it discuss the visual pollution they represent.

Imagine getting up in the morning, taking your cup of coffee and morning paper out to the porch or deck for a few minutes of peace, and, instead of starting the day under God's pristine sky, you look up and see it's filled with Mickey Mouses or little purple pills or Nike Swooshes or political ads. Š The possibilities are as limitless as they are dismaying.

The American genius for commercialization - of everything - strikes again. How long before Flogos become as common as Muzak in elevators, or Head-On ads shouting at you from your television screen, or some disembodied, uninterruptable voice on your phone trying to sell you something? The mind recoils. So does the spirit.

The news article, by Jay Reeves of the Associated Press, explores the pros and cons of Flogos. Environmentally, there doesn't seem to be a problem since Flogos are nothing but a mass of bubbles - soap, water and air - that soon float away. But the local office of the Federal Aviation Administration might have to be notified when they're launched, lest the sight distract aircraft pilots. (Even so, you know some lawyer somewhere will someday, somehow claim damages.)

Before reading this in-depth analysis of Flogos, I had no idea that the University of Florida had a professor of English and Advertising, a combination that alarms. Like an endowed chair of poetry and propaganda. The professor's name is James Twitchell, and he sees nothing essentially novel about the basic concept of Flogos; he recalls that once upon a misguided time there was a plan afoot to launch an advertisement into space that could be seen every evening at sunset. Happily, the idea remained only theoretical.

I don't want to sound like an alarmist, or like the script of a B sci-fi movie, but the Invasion of the Flogos may be imminent. The danger is clear and soon enough may be all too present. There oughta be a law, or at least a regulation. Quick. Before the need for one becomes as evident as the once clear blue sky.

But no law, no regulation, can prevent this kind of mundane desecration if something within us - some elemental reverence - is not offended by the thought of a sky dotted with soapy Post-It Notes.

It's not so much the absence of a law that allows such schemes to take float, but a failure of the culture. Formal law is a poor substitute for manners, for the old understanding that one does not deface others' property. And the sky belongs to us all. It should be beyond such intrusions. But somewhere along the confused line, we've come to think, or rather assume, that the Universe is there for man to scrawl his graffiti on it.

I doubtless make too much of Flogos, for they are only another small but annoying example of the general intrusion on the private appreciation of public spaces. Other examples abound, from the loud cell-phone user next to you in the airport to the planners who figure the best use of land is to raze every tree on it for parking. It's not Flogos that are the basic problem; they're just one more instance of how valueless we've come to consider the invaluable.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.