Arthur and Marilouise
The Post-Alphabet Future
The real world of digital reality has always been post-alphabetic.
Probably because the letters of the alphabet were too slow to keep up with the
light-time and light-speed of electronics, the alphabet long ago shuddered at
the speed of light, burned up and crashed to earth. Writing can't keep up to the
speed of electronic society. The result has been the end of the Gutenberg Galaxy
and the beginning of the Image Millennium. Images moving at the speed of light.
Images moving faster than the time it takes to record their passing. Iconic
images. Special-Effect Images. Images of life past, present and future as
culture is fast-forwarded into the electronic nervous system. Images that
circulate so quickly and shine with such intensity that they begin to alter the
ratio of the human sensorium.
This is probably why artists, scientists and engineers from Xerox Parc
have created a creative installation titled "Experiments in the Future of
Reading" (XFR) at the Tech Museum in San Jose, California. All these experiments
in the "Future of Reading" project have a very practical purpose: to suggest new
consumer products for post-alphabetic society. Here, the alphabet is blasted
apart and creatively reconfigured by the shock-wave of electronic culture. Touch
screens fill with texts which shift at any moment to follow another story line:
single words that open up into continents of lost dreams; paragraphs that
recombine into novellas; stories that compress into a single emotion. Or huge,
gleaming light-tables on which are displayed graphic puzzles that can only be
solved by physically tilting the table back and forth by hand, watching the
letters of the alphabet slowly roll across the screen, forming new creative
combinations. Literally, hand-writing for the new electronic
cave-dwellers. A paradigm-shift in the form of ideas for new consumer products
in which writing itself bubbles to the electronic surface, searches anxiously
for its lost chain of (alphabetic) signifiers, dances hesitatingly across the
old literary divide between metaphor and metonymy, finally realizes that words
are on their own in a liquid digital world, and comes to life as light-through
and sound-through and eye-through electronic words. The words slide up and down,
mutate one to the other, creating new digital meanings. Pixel events,
light-screen language, and soundscape texture.
Consider our personal favorite. A children's book telling the story of
a cool cat doing the jazz scene in San Francisco. Except this time, rather than
reading the book, you play the reading. Sit in a comfortable armchair
equipped with micro-speakers (with a mega-computer tucked away behind the
chair), open the book, run your fingers over the pages, and the sounds of jazz
on the written page suddenly surround-sound your ears. The cool cat at the
Purple Onion, at the Hungry I, at an after-hours club down by the
docks. In traditional reading culture, the eye was privatized, shut up inside
the privacy of the central nervous system, isolated from the other senses. In
the future of (electronic) reading, the eye goes public. It reconnects to the
other senses, notably to the ear and the hand. Tactile Reading. Touch the page
at any point and the sounds of jazz being written about can be instantly heard.
You are actually in the sound-field of the book. Move your hand closer to the
page or further away, and the sound intensifies or fades accordingly. The end,
therefore, of passive reading, and the beginning of in-depth participation in
the electronic book. The future of reading will be fun. It will be experimental
and immersive. It will be unpredictable. It is a full-body, full-mind, full-ear,
full-eye experience. It will certainly involve the complete ratio of the senses.
Instantly, you are the reading.
Or are you? If this project is about the 'future of reading', then
what's really being read? Not words rolling off light tables or books as
soundscapes, but the eye of human flesh itself. Seduced by electronic reading as
a packaged consumer product, the eye is externalized in the transcendent form of
a light-object, a sound, a liquid consumer graphic, a simulacrum of ocular
Virilio's "sightless vision" or an immersive game of alphabet soup?
Clicking-in to the Global Show
Did you catch Quantum Project on the net? According to its
promo: What the Jazz Singer did for the age of talking motion pictures,
Quantum Project will do for the Internet as the global cinema.
Quantum Project is the holy grail of the tech future, that
magical point where two previously separate media - cinema and the Internet -
touch and spark and converge. More than a made-for-TV movie in the Matrix
mode, Quantum Project is the planet's first big budget Hollywood style
made-for-the-Internet movie. Here, Hollywood crosses Silicon Valley, and the
result is digital cinema with a big twist. Because what's really converging in
Quantum Project is not simply two media - one millennium new, the other
twentieth-century old - but something much more interesting. Here, the real
software of Hollywood - its star system together with its high-intensity
promotional culture - merges with the streaming software of the Internet to
produce an Internet cinema that is global, immediate, and intense. When
Hollywood promotional culture meets the planetary distribution system of the
Internet, the result will be the world instantly retooled as a global cinema.
When the world becomes a global show, the Internet will finally be experienced
as popular consciousness. It will have its stars and its stories and its
tragedies and its scandals and its blockbusters and its failures. The Internet
will be the geist of electronic life. Going to the Internet will be the
ticket to the future.
What Hollywood does best is streaming mythology with electronics,
bundling charismatic stars and advanced (imaging) technology to produce a
celluloid vision of life in the high-tech future. In these sometimes wonderful,
sometimes haunting cinematic images, electronics is directly downloaded into the
human imagination. For its sheer consumer appeal, nothing beats it. Cinema is
iconic, fascinating, seductive, and, of course, often extremely profitable.
Consumer electronics of a special sort blown up to the size of an IMAX screen.
Maybe this is why the secret dream of all the Palm and PowerPc's and interface
devices of the world of consumer electronics has always been to leave behind
their purely instrumental work-day role as enablers of fast communication,
becoming instead real players in the creation of human dreams - interfaces to
the stars. Which is why Quantum Project can attract such a crackle of
media excitement. Because what is really a quantum project is not just digital
cinema, but the future of consumer electronics. Following the thread to the
stars is the quantum project of the global show. Interfacing hot consumer
electronics with cold cinematic stars is the future theater of eyeball culture.
But, of course, digital cinema won't leave the Hollywood star system
unscathed. Because let's face it: the real stars of digital reality are
special-effects. Cool software programs that realize impossible
perspectives: special-effects sequences that can be so fascinating and seductive
because they always deal with reality hyped-up to the point of hyperreality.
Matrix bodies moving faster than speeding bullets. Star Wars warp
jumps. Morphed flesh. Streamed vision in every movie. Invisible digital editing
in every televised newscast. And this is just the way it should be. In the age
of the Internet, we are already living in a special-effects culture. Fast
communication. Speed economy. Java memories. Linux open-architecture as a model
for living by the dot.com generation.
The seduction of special-effects is where the Internet has the jump on
Hollywood. And this makes sense. Special-effects is what digital cinema streamed
on the Internet does best. The future stars of all the Quantum Projects of the
future, therefore, as special-effects hybrids probably being dreamed up right
now in the image-factories of the global cinema. Producing digital stars for the
global show, therefore, as one future of electronic society. Not the Jazz
Singer, but clicking-in to the Digital Eye.
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker edit CTHEORY, and will be at Boston
College next year, working on a new CTHEORY project involving the future of
biotech. For 2000-2001, Arthur has been appointed Distinguished Visiting
Professor in the Department of Sociology at Boston College.
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