The wind turbine's detractors fall into roughly two categories.
To some objectors, the turbine is the devil's 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 off the back porch - if it happens to be your back porch.
But none of that matters just now. The wind turbine is the "it" item of the year.
Ads broadcast by the campaigns of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have featured almost identical pastoral panning shots of turbines. There are turbines posing among mannequins in the Calvin Klein windows on Madison Avenue.
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.
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.
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 ingenue), 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 yet it's a serious idea."
Edward Tenner, author of Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity and 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. This is a matter of how people train their perceptions. 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." Either way, the turbines "are a bold, Modernist appropriation of the landscape."
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," 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."
Obama is right when he says you should put more air in your tires, 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," 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, 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.