Eye-Through Images

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 perception.

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.