Friday, January 17, 2014


I remember having a conversation with my brother back in the nineties about the wear and tear on a computer from repeatedly starting it up and shutting it down. He was writing code for a startup and had a fancy Silicon Graphics machine on loan to interface with the network at the office. This machine was always on, always connected, always beckoning him to work. It was the first time I had really considered that you could just leave a computer running perpetually, putting it to sleep when it was not in use. I was transitioning into motion graphics and working on the Mac was fast becoming the common denominator of that work. I had no computer in my own home at the time and it was standard procedure for me to “shut down” before leaving the office. With the internet still in its infancy, there were no e-mails to check when arriving home...

The technology and my relationship to it changed pretty radically over the next few years. Rendering animation took hours (sometimes days), so there were often long periods where the computer was occupied doing the work. At first this felt like a welcome respite, a mid-day mini vacation, time enough to take in a movie or hit the arcade in Times Square. Long before social media and i-everything there were still plenty of ways to kill time gazing longingly at the screen. Setting the machines to render overnight before leaving work was becoming increasingly common. Of course, this meant they didn’t get shut down. The gear we were working on was costly and keeping it in use day and night was a good way to justify its expense. And this really was key: there were always rush jobs that ended up stretching into the night, but this was something else entirely - perpetual work. When you couldn’t keep going, the machine could take over.

When I bought my first Mac (clone) I mounted it on a specially made desk which figured prominently in my apartment studio, the virtual hearth of my technologically centered life. No longer locked away in a dark office when rendering after hours; it was occupational tool, entertainment hub, and portal to the world all rolled into one, but still not quite what Buckminster Fuller had in mind. For all the convenience, for all the time and effort the box was supposed to save, it was always asking for just a bit more than it was willing to give. Render time became nap time - the post render chime acting as impromptu alarm clock. Four Macs later my laptop is more commonly asleep than shut down. Google at the ready, any question, no matter how insignificant, is but a finger touch away. Infinite memory to store all the things that I no longer remember. What a relief that it’s all still in there somewhere.

Reading Gibson’s Neuromancer in college the Moderns’ microsofts and Molly’s implants had me fetishizing the integration of technology into our lives at a deeper level. Despite the dystopian branding of Cyberpunk, I was fascinated by this future of augmented abilities and liberated information. But the technology hasn’t manifested as the effortlessly accessible information overlay that I had imagined. Privatization of content and distribution is more commonly providing us with a shallow facsimile of information to replace that which we already know or might venture to discover for ourselves. Characterization of the internet as infinite resource has many limiting their search for knowledge to the PageRanked information that it contains. A sort of one-stop-shop for all your thinking needs. If you can’t find it on Google, perhaps it doesn’t exist. If a tree falls in the woods...

Boarding the subway recently I found myself surrounded by a perfect ring of 7 or 8 folks plugged into their devices, heads down, eyes fixed. My partner and I stood there among them talking about how surreal the situation seemed. The individuals were completely oblivious to our conversation, each thoroughly involved with the particular “reality” presented by their device. Perhaps I should not be alarmed that many people seem to prefer interacting with a virtual facsimile of their environment (community?) rather than with the actual one they are in - texting, facebook, google maps, sim and multiplayer online games. After all, is this not welcome remedy for the discomfort that many experience in social situations? But what are we missing when we replace social interaction with a programmed facsimile? The maxim don’t believe everything you read relied on you having some other source of information beyond that newspaper or book, as well as you making the effort to establish and evolve your perception through conversation with those around you. How does this translate to our current information climate now that so many are getting their own “personalized” user specific information through this one medium? Is this really the boundless frontier we’ve been told, or is it yet another tool to keep us separate and sedated? Perhaps it is both.

Soon after we met, my partner and I got into watching a lot of pre-code films. The thing that struck me about the films was not their over arching themes, but the details of the interactions of the players on screen. I had never seen this kind of storytelling growing up watching classic Hollywood films on TV, the level of realism, the breadth of experience portrayed in these stories. I became aware that the Motion Picture Production Code was not simply some sort of age appropriate rating system, but a method for suppressing images of life that did not match the status quo. History is filled with examples of this type of censorship. It is not only the ideas themselves that are at risk here, but the very freedom to know that alternative ideas exist. This reminds me of another similar realization I had while taking art history. There appeared to be an abrupt shift in painting around the time of the Renaissance, from a flat illustrative style to one that seemed more anatomically correct and more realistic, albeit in an idealized sense. Were people just bad at drawing before the Renaissance? The style was more likely a function of limitations on what was acceptable and appropriate in the depiction of the subject matter. The artifacts alone tell us a story that has been limited in scope by its keepers, the curators, and those responsible for the commission of these works of art - in this case the wealthy and the church itself. Control over the medium (and media) today is exercised through shifts in creation and distribution technology. From LP to CD and CD to mp3, from Film to DVD and DVD to streaming media - who controls (owns) the information? Who controls your experience of it? With each technological shift marketed to a new generation of consumers along the arc of planned obsolescence - who will decide?

So much of our culture has been sampled from previous sources, marketed to us as the new and improved version, that it can be challenging to know what “reality” even is. Facsimiles now spawn their own facsimiles, a remake of the remake if you will. Take for example the cultural fascination with everything 70’s (“retro”) - is this actually based on what occurred during that decade or on exaggerated cliches presented in movies like “Boogie Nights”? I had a lively conversation with a young man at a party recently. He spoke passionately of the “energy” and the “feeling” of the NYC rave scene back in the 90’s. It occurred to me as we spoke that he was likely born right around the time of those parties or perhaps even after they occurred. I inquired how he had “experienced” the “feeling” that he spoke of. He told me he had watched the videos on YouTube. I was keenly aware of the shift he spoke of, from participatory events where people responded to the music in communal celebration, to spectator events where individual response is focused more on the status of the superstar dj than the music itself. Folks get dressed up, buy overpriced tickets, and wait on long lines to get inside only to divide their attention between the actual event and the luminous screen clutched tightly in hand. Friends and I have discussed again and again how and why this shift has occurred. There are a number of factors, but above all else I come back to one essential thing - when people go out they are expecting to be passively entertained rather than to actively express themselves.

I recently began teaching a class called Motion Graphics : Graphic Design. Working with the students I began to wonder if the examples I was showing in class were being received the way I had intended. When I first started out in design I worked in a print house pasting up artwork for silkscreened supermarket and deli signs. I remember having one of those moments when you realize that somebody made that thing you are looking at - it didn’t just spring into existence fully formed, it wasn’t simply churned out by some gigantic machine. It sensitized me to look for the hand in design, to find the personal touch in what might otherwise seem generic. I wondered if this hand was visible to my students in the flurry of moving images surrounding them? Are we all being desensitized by the barrage of painstakingly branded sameness? Is the majority of this ephemera actually telling a story - communicating any information beyond a tacked on market tested tagline? The hand becomes less and less visible, “story” turns to sequence and formula, the gigantic machine churns away. This isn’t just about finding (or losing) one’s voice, it’s about recognizing that life itself (not a scripted story about life) is the inspiration for the work - in all its messy unpredictable (and therefore un-marketable) grandeur.

In my last post I wrote about the process of relaxing one’s focus to see more. Years back, my father explained to me that this practice of looking into the distance was common when people are visualizing the future. Is the virtual space (cyber-space), that infinite expanse inside your screen, blocking your view? Do you actually know what is behind (beyond) your monitor, your pad, your phone? Can you imagine the world as it exists a block away from where you are now? How about a mile away? How about a year away? What gets filtered out when the experience passes through the screen? Can you recall the phone numbers of the five people you call most often? Do you even bother to call? Can you feel the warmth of hearing the sound of their actual voices, rather than quantized, digitized, replicas? Do you know what is happening in their lives beyond their status updates? Do you remember what you did to connect before Facebook? Before e-mail? What did you do with all of that time? I invite you to take a moment, silencing the electronic siren song, take pen (pencil, marker, crayon…) to paper and jot down ten things you would do if you had that time back. Got ten? Wonderful! How about ten more? Harder than you thought? Not to worry - it gets easier the more you do it. Of course, the list is just a reminder, it is the doing that makes it worthwhile.

If you are so moved, please share your ten things (or more) in the comments below - perhaps we can inspire each other to shut it down, step back from the device, and step forward into life.