New Media Renewed

Jay David Bolter has been writing and theorizing about new media since it actually deserved to be called “new.” If his Writing Space (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991) isn’t on your shelf, you’re missing a big chunk of literary thought, internet history, and hypertext theory—a strong precursor to all of the below. As he told me in 2001,

On the question of linearity vs. hypertextuality as modes of thinking and learning, I’m an agnostic. I don’t know how we could decide whether associative (hypertextual) or linear thinking is more ‘natural’. Both hypertexts and linear texts are highly artificial forms of writing. Both have to be learned. The idea that hypertext is natural can be refuted simply by browsing through a random sample of websites. We see that people do not find it easy or natural to create good sites — either of the hierarchical or associative kind.

At the time, Bolter had just finished Remediation: Understanding New Media (The MIT Press, 1999) in which he and Richard Grusin help update some of McLuhan’s ideas for the 21st century. His latest, The Digital Plenitude: The Decline of Elite Culture and the Rise of New Media (The MIT Press, 2019), continues his deep thought about broad issues of millennial media. Starting with our current political moment, Bolter looks back at the megatrends that landed us here and ahead to where they’re taking us next, including everything from McLuhan and modernism to sampling and remix.

In her book, Animal, Vegetable, Digital: Experiments in New Media Aesthetics and Environmental Poetics (University of Alabama Press, 2016), Elizabeth Swanstrom takes an object-oriented view of new media aesthetics and the environment. Swanstrom breeches boundaries and collapses binaries, seeing code as performance instead of infrastructure and analogous to the “mechanizations of nature,” including an analysis of the revelations of William Gibson‘s Agrippa (1992). She writes, “Digital art collapses subjectivity and combines it with expressions of nature; as such, it creates networked instances of subjectivity—ecological portraits with no subjective center” (p. 146). Her goal lies in gaming conservation and fostering ecological holism.

Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation (Stanford University Press, 2017) by Dennis Tenen presents yet another take on the many facets of new media. Again looking at code as a kind of performance, Tenen calls us to investigate the processes of its encoding. None of these media or their parts are static, yet few of us know where and how they move. I keep thinking about the search engine I often use that claims—unlike its competitors—that it doesn’t track my search terms or their results. How the hell would I know? Are you using a private window? Private to whom? None of these processes are transparent enough for us to know.

In a section called “The Medium is Not the Message,” Tenen writes, “In examining the material conditions of digital representation, we find format—a quality distinct from both medium and content—to emerge as a political construct that governs the physical affordances of communication” (p. 192). These texts are not plain. Tenen wants them to be.

Wheel to Reel: Bicycles and Big Screens

New cyclists in the city are easy to spot. They’re like insects that are able to fly but aren’t that good at it. “Eyes trained accurately to measure distances and muscles accustomed to prompt obedience are especially able to cope with the exigencies of our crowded thoroughfares,” wrote Isabel Marks in 1901. “When watching the stream of cyclists amidst the sea of vehicles and horses it is easy to distinguish between the ordinary rider and the expert” (p.6).

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the bicycle in my life. I grew up riding them, and I never stopped. I got rid of my last car over twenty years ago, and I’ve ridden bikes as my primary form of transportation in a dozen different cities since.

A scrap of ephemeral zine fodder in a package from my BMX brother Brian Benson.

In Cycling and Cinema (Goldsmiths Press, 2019), Bruce Bennett writes about kids, old women with funny hats, and, of course, movies. Though Premium Rush (2012) is noticeably absent, cinematic cycle adventures of the 1980s like E.T. (1982), BMX Bandits (1983), Rad (1986), and Quicksilver (1986) all receive thorough analysis. Bennett organizes these analyses around several theatrical themes: comedy, work, sport, gender, childhood, and technology. Along the way he encounters everyone from Danny MacAskill and Alfred Jarry to Francis E. Willard and Pee Wee Herman.

In one of my favorite lines, Bennett writes, “The bicycle and the film camera are technologies of mobility.” They’re both escapes, one through the physical, the other through the virtual. He continues,

In this respect, they exemplify the cultural transformations that characterized modernity as industrial capitalism remodelled the social and physical landscape (p. 19).

Like Lynne Kirby in her book Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema (Duke, 1997), Bennett takes a long-lens historical view of the two technologies in question. Paul Virilio famously argued that the technologies of war and the technologies of film parallel each other (e.g., guns and cameras, shooting and such). Bennett goes back to photographer Eadweard Muybridge and media theorist Marshall McLuhan: “The movie camera and projector were evolved from the idea of reconstructing mechanically the movement of feet. The wheel began as extended feet…” (p. 181-182). Muybridge’s late-19th century, rapid-fire camera studies of race horses just pre-dates motion pictures and illustrates the connection McLuhan made between feet, wheels, and film.

Bennett ends with further connections brought on by the internet, GPS, and ubiquitous screens. Conflating the physical and virtual, we not only map, track, and film our routes as we ride over long distances, but we also view similar routes while riding stationary bicycles. Escape is available in many forms, and the bicycle makes many of them easily accessible.

As Frances E. Willard would say, “Go thou and do likewise!”

References:

Bennett, Bruce. (2019). Cycling and Cinema. London: Goldsmiths Press.

Kirby, Lynne. (1997). Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Marks, Isabel. (1901/2013). Fancy Cycling: Trick Riding for Amateurs. Oxford, UK: Old House.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Virilio, Paul. (1989). War and Cinema. New York: Verso Books.

Willard, Frances E. (1895). A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle with Some Reflections By the Way. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books.

Investigating Veronica: More on Mars

Nostalgia, that longing for a place and time that no longer exists, was once considered a sickness, a curable homesickness akin to the common cold. Now it’s a market-tested tool of sales and merchandising. It’s just so much easier to sell something with a built-in audience than it is to build an audience around something new. While I’m no fan of a remake or a reboot, we all have our weaknesses. That’s why the ploy works.

Rewatching the first two seasons of Twin Peaks (1990-1991), it’s easy to see the pieces of that strange world that informed the ontology of Veronica Mars (2004-2007). The kids are in control of the investigation as much as the adults. The technology is different, but its use is integral to the plot. In the 15 years between the two shows, that might be the main thing that’s changed. The human drama and intrigue certainly remains intact. They’ve both come back in their various ways: Twin Peaks with a third season on Showtime in 2017 and Veronica Mars with a fan-funded movie in 2014. With a new season of the latter coming to Hulu this summer, it’s time to return to Neptune.

At first glance, Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) might seem an unlikely hard-boiled private investigator. Simmering between the extremes of an endless summer, she might seem soft-boiled at best. As much as she claims to be a marshmallow, Veronica has seen more than most her age: Her best friend was murdered, her alcoholic mom is gone, her dad has been relegated to private investigator after the corrupt local power structure removed him as sheriff, and he might not even be her real dad! Neptune, California, a town without a middle class, prefigured the rest of the country when it was introduced in 2004. Now, unfortunately, perhaps more of us can relate to its problems of parity. Veronica Mars and Philosophy: Investigating the Mysteries of Life (Which is a Bitch Until You Die) (Blackwell, 2014), edited by George A. Dunn, which was already being compiled when the movie was announced and came out before its release, ponders Veronica’s too-young pessimism.

A few of the Big Issues discussed in the book include Neptune’s socioeconomic inequality and status anxiety, anomie, memory, victim-blaming, race, and gender, as well as Veronica’s conflicts with identity, feminism, friendship, truth, trust, and reason. Her sense of self within these conflicted conditions fills the story with many of philosophy’s core concerns. It’s deep.

Though it takes up many of the philosophical interrogations mentioned above, Investigating Veronica Mars: Essays on the Teen Detective Series (McFarland, 2011), edited by Rhonda V. Wilcox and Sue Turnbull, takes a more academic angle. It’s not all philosophy and theory though. Both of these books also talk about the show itself: its origins, its style, its ratings, its writers and their writing, its fans and their support. There’s something about the mix of detective noir and high-school drama that makes this show connect with people on so many levels. Re-watch and read up and you’ll be ready for Season Four by July.

Uncanny Cartographies: Finding J.G. Ballard

It’s been a decade. A decade without J.G. Ballard. It should be more noticeable. Like filling the empty pool with emptiness, to paraphrase China Miéville. Like losing Bowie or Prince. A void of perspective, crumbling and gaping at our heels. Everyone should feel it.

His work has been translated to the screen by directors with styles as varied as Steven Spielberg (Empire of the Sun) and David Cronenberg (Crash). He was interviewed by countless talented writers, including Jon Savage, V. Vale, Will Self, Richard Kadrey, John Gray, Simon Sellars, and Mark Dery. His influence is found in sound from Joy Division, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Sisters of Mercy, K.K. Null, and Gary Numan to Madonna, Radiohead, Trevor Horn, Cadence Weapon, and Danny Brown. His writing and thinking is broad enough to elude categories and focused enough to remain absolutely singular. His work gerrymanders genre distinctions, defining and defying its own boundaries as it goes. I think of him in the same way I think of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Samuel R. Delany: as giants beyond genre.

“I suppose we are moving into a realm where inner space is no longer just inside our skulls but is in the terrain we see around us in everyday life,” Ballard told Carol Orr in 1974:

We are moving into a world where the elements of fiction are that world—and by fiction I mean anything invented to serve imaginative ends, whether it is invented by an advertising agency, a politician, an airline, or what have you. These elements have now crowded out the old-fashioned elements of reality (p. 62; see also Ballard, 1985 p. 4-5).

Since then a lot of mental offloading and cognitive outsourcing has occurred, our inner thoughts texture-mapped onto every surface. In that meantime some of Ballard’s children have emerged in mongrel forms and curtained corners of mass media. Think Wild Palms or Jackass or the ever-blurring lines between reality and show, news and entertainment. “It’s not news,” he wrote, “it’s entertainment news. A documentary on brain surgery is about entertainment brain surgery.” Inversely, Ballard collaged and kludged together the sets of his own Atrocity Exhibition out of internal organs: “[T]he nervous systems of the characters have been externalized, as part of the reversal of the interior and exterior worlds. Highways, office blocks, faces, and street signs are perceived as if they were elements in a malfunctioning central nervous system” (p. 76). Michel de Certeau once wrote, “Books are only metaphors of the body” (p. 140). Ballard often seemed to be crash-testing that idea.

The transmedia spread of everted inner space is nowhere more evident than on this confounded internet. William Gibson said as much in his novel Spook Country (Putnam, 2007, pp. 63-64). As Simon Sellars points out, unlike the cyberpunks who followed him, Ballards maps of these near futures weren’t as celebratory as they were cautionary: Dangerous Curves Ahead. Slow Down.

Sellars’ Applied Ballardianism (Urbanomic, 2018), aptly subtitled “Memoir from a Parallel Universe,” is an appropriately Ballardian blend of genres. Memoir, yes, but also biography, travel writing, narrative nonfiction, and, of course, science fiction. I haven’t finished reading it. I’m still finding my way. I’m also trying to take my time. Michel de Certeau wrote elsewhere, “What the map cuts up, the story cuts across” (p. 129). This is a map of a different terrain and a story of a different cut. I aim to enjoy it.

I feel it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: This is the way, step inside.

References:

Ballard, J. G. (1970). The Atrocity Exhibition. London: Jonathan Cape.

Ballard, J. G. (1985). Crash. New York: Vintage.

Ballard, J. G. (2012). Extreme Metaphors: Collected Interviews. Simon Sellars & Dan O’Hara, Eds. London: Fourth Estate.

de Certeau, Michel . (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Gibson, William. (2007). Spook Country. New York: Putnam.

Miéville, China. (2008). Introduction. In J. G. Ballard, Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, an Autobiography. New York: Liveright, pp. ix-xiv.

Sellars, Simon. (2018). Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe. Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic.

Making Sense of the Future Tense

If you think we’re terminally distracted by our devices now, just wait a few more years. Virtual Reality, a wholly immersive set of technologies ever-poised to change everything, may finally become not only readily available but prevalent. In Future Presence: How Virtual Reality Is Changing Human Connection, Intimacy, and the Limits of Ordinary Life (HarperOne, 2018), Peter Rubin argues that though VR has been around for decades, but it might be redefining your world sooner than you think. Rubin, a senior editor at WIRED, has been covering VR for years. Immersive and accelerated intimacy stands out as a key concept in Rubin’s analysis, and outside of the obvious sexual connotations, one that’s been largely missing from previous studies. 

Simon Penny has been working in the future world of advanced technologies for a long time as well. I met Penny once in Los Angeles at Coco Conn’s house. It was the night before a talk he, Eric Paulos, and Mark Pauline of Survival Research Laboratories were giving. Eric had invited me up from San Diego. Coco’s house was buzzing with people and ideas. Aside from Penny, Pauline, and Paulos, Richard Metzger of Disinformation (now of Dangerous Minds) was there… Benjamin Bratton… It was crazy. It was one of those nights that defines a stretch of time that follows.

Likewise, Penny’s book, Making Sense: Cognition, Computing, Art, and Embodiment (MIT Press, 2017), should help define the stretch of time that follows. Arguing that cognition is as embedded as it is embodied, Penny relies on the autopoesis of Maturana and Varela as much as he does the command-and-control of Norbert Weiner. That is, the cultural processes he’s parsing are as naturally emerging as they are intentionally programmed. Penny’s primary concern is art and artistic practice, and he argues that contrivances derived from computing are not neutral. He also argues that we need to be more mindful of the metaphors we use to describe such things. All of these tools and toys are culturally loaded and must be handled as such. With its sober consideration and solid grounding, Making Sense is a very important book and deserves to be embedded in the brains prefiguring the future.