April 14, 2002 – 9:14 am
After having written yesterday about mythology and the digital ground, I spent a couple of hours this morning reading more from the Donald Theall book, ‘The Virtual McLuhan’. Naturally, it started at once to talk about McLuhan and his interest in the mystical – the kabbalah, tarot, and other hermetic structural bases.
Of course, the first thing this coincidence led me to think of was the concept of synchronicity – two things that are connected, with no causal relation. Synchronicity got me to Jung, Jung to the collective unconscious – and so on. Free association, with links to secret societies, psycho-analysis, alchemy, Francis Bacon, the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, and in the back of my mind Umberto Eco’s ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’, which I will no doubt return to for a fifth reading later this year.
I wanted to write some of this stuff down, but most of the thoughts I had were too fleeting – too partially formed to capture in text, which eventually got me thinking about the speed at which human beings are able to communicate – to capture their thoughts, concretise them and disseminate them.
In order to publish this weblog, first I need to do some thinking (though the majority of it happens as I type – ‘how can I know what I think if I don’t write it down?’), then I need to translate those thoughts into semantic and grammatical structures according to the rules of the English language as spoken in New Zealand. As I do this, I’m also coping with haptic memories that allow me to four-finger type without too much visual reference to the keyboard. As fast as digital communication is, at present, it’s still far from instantaneous. From my brain to your eyes – or even just from my brain to my screen – there’s a definite time lag.
Here’s where Jaron Lanier comes in. He was the pioneer of Virtual Reality. He coined the term, in fact. He also coined a term I’m more interested in: post-symbolic communication. His idea – somewhat cyber-utopian, but interesting nonetheless – was that digital technologies (and particularly VR technologies) would lead us to a form of human communication that was instantaneous and direct. Telepathy, in a sense, because information, or rather meaning, would travel from mind to mind without all that tedious mucking around having to mediate it all with artificial symbols like words, sounds and pictures.
Now, I make the distinction here between information and meaning, and I do so deliberately. It’s a sticking point with me, because it’s one that’s so often overlooked. You could have access to all the information in the world, but unless you can derive meaning, it’s all useless. I’ve often said I’m waiting out the Information Age in the hopes of a meaning age… and though of course I’m joking, there’s a serious aspect to that. If Lanier’s dream is realised, that’s exactly what we’ll start to see.
Meaning is collaborative. You can’t create meaning in the same way as you can create an artefact like text. Meaning is something that is agreed upon, or built up between the sender and recipient of a message. A work of art, for instance, exists as a work of art, but is imbued with meaning when interpreted by an observer. It can, of course, be packed with intended (potential) meaning, but there is no actual meaning until it is ‘read’ and interpreted by an ‘other’ – someone with their own preconceptions, baggage and frames of reference… which brings me back around to Umberto Eco, and his book ‘The Open Work’, which discusses exactly this concept.
In a post-symbolic environment, I could easily examine that intellectual sidestreet without fear of losing the audience or having to worry too much about demonstrating how that all fits in. Here, it won’t work, so back to Lanier.
Post-symbolic communication – as far-fetched as it sounds – seems to be a necessary target for the further development through and past digital communication, simply because of the historic social and communicative path we’re traversing backwards – and have been since the height of the print era. Digital communication, in the grand scheme of things, is a retrograde step – but a necessary and progressive one. I’ll explain.
Briefly, human communication has traversed a path from its early origins in thought and gesture, to the acoustic, to the pictographic, to the scribal, and to movable type (the mechanisation of communication) – and now we’re headed back down the path we came, but with the advantage of the knowledge that we picked up along the way.
There are examples all around that suggest that these early days of digital communication have landed us once more back at the beginning of the acoustic environment. The return trip has been somewhat jumbled, with leftover artefacts from previous modes interrupting along the way, but this reverse progression (driving into the rear-view mirror?) has been the overall trend.
Along the way back, we’ve witnessed fax machines and radio, text messaging on cellphones (TXT-SPK recalling the vowelless words of Hebraic scriptures), handwriting recoginition on palm pilots, voicemail, and so on. The only place left to go from this sensory surrounding – the neo-acoustic environment of the digital realm – is into the gesture and thought-based interaction promised by VR and its post-symbolic evangelist, Lanier.
However – and here’s a radical thought – digital communication is primarily acoustic in nature. It is non-linear, surrounding and interactive. It is also unsuited to the complexity of pure thought and its reliance on intuitive leaps, organic connections and the unfathomed backstage areas of the unconscious.
Consisting as it does of the restricitions of approximations in mathematical ones and zeroes, the digital ground seems to be a stepping stone rather than a destination in the narrative history of communication. It is, in fact, the natural precursor of analogue computing.
Digital data consists of positions; analogue data of flows. A graph, for instance, is represented in the digital realm as a succession of points along a curve. No matter how many points you use to describe that curve, it will only ever be an approximation. An analogue computer (or an analogue modeller, perhaps, since ‘computer’ seems to be the wrong term) will not resort to approximation, but have at its disposal the infinite number of point positions along that line, because it does not recognise those points, but the line itself.
Human thought is an analogue phenomenon, just as sound and vision are analogue phenomena. It cannot be perfectly rendered through digital means – only approximated to a greater or lesser degree. Post-symbolic communication will necessarily be post-digital as well.
So I’m left with the inexpressibility of my free associations until such time as digital communication is superceded, the information age comes to an end, and the meaning revolution is upon us. Until then, I’ll order my thoughts more or less according to the extant rules of communication under the digital ground, with strong hangovers from the print age, suffer the lag that forces me to structure my ramblings into some vaguely coherent online form via this keyboard, and sit poised at the edge of the new acoustic mode, awaiting the great leap backwards.
Soundtrack: Various Artists – Playground Vol. 4: Loco Grooves from the Sunny Side, mixed and compiled by Madrid de los Austrias (Ecco Chamber, Vienna)