As Netarterians know, I retain a special fondness for the humble medium of analog broadcast radio, no matter how often it may be dragged into the mud puddles of reactionary blather. I also retain a particular fondness for those precious few stubbornly creative radiomakers who, against all odds, continue to explore the strange poetics of radio space through performance and (re)composition.
Enter the brilliant, soulful soundings of Anna Friz, most recently casting forth her vivid, gentle yet deeply provocative Radiotelegraph, in transmissive concert with Jeff Kolar’s indispensable Radius platform :
DP What was the genesis of your residency at the Skaftfell Center in Iceland; how did you conceive the idea for this broadcast? Can you briefly describe the telegraphic history, dating to 1906?
Anna Friz I applied for the Skaftfell residency in the summer of 2012, knowing only that I needed a break from urban life in the south, and that I had more methodological than thematic concerns in mind. Specifically, I was interested to deepen a creative engagement with place, to see how new work could spring from cultivating daily practices or habits, and to stay away from all talk of deliverables and known outcomes. This broadcast germinated very gradually in the months leading up to my arrival in Iceland: I was invited by Jeff Kolar at Radius to make a new work, and it seemed that would be a perfect fit to my time in a little art shack on the east coast of Iceland. This summer I picked up an ARRL (American Radio Relay League) 1957 training manual for “Learning the Radiotelegraph Code”, and determined one of my new habits would be to work on verbal morse code. A little more research revealed that Seyðisfjörður was the site of the first trans-oceanic telegraph cable connection between Iceland and Europe in 1906. The line was then expanded across Iceland to 14,000 telephone poles, so telegraph and telephone were carried in tandem across the island, voice and morse. The call letters were TFY (TF for Iceland, Y for Seyðisfjörður). There is an excellent Technical Museum of East Iceland here in town, which has functional models of the telegraph machines used for years at the station. As in many places, telegraph operations offered opportunities for women to work as well, and the job of operator held some prestige as an essential service requiring rigorous training.
DP What are the sources for the actual coded text?
AF The text refers to the daily loss of light after the solstice, and is a little inspired by reading translations of Icelandic sagas, where a lot of collective action, for good or for ill, takes place after nightfall. I was also aware of the text needing to speak to two very different geographic circumstances, that of this northern village on the edge of the Arctic Circle and the huge metropolis of Chicago further south, but for it not to be a warning. The beacon tells that long nights are coming, but we will not be alone. It’s the basic promise and premise of a signal, however faulty, asking and declaring: who’s there? I am here.
DP Here, and yet not here; and that ambiguity is something you have embraced throughout much of your work. Even when the voice is “real”, there is a fictive vibe in the air, and that’s where the play begins.
AF Yes, from early pieces about the ‘little people in the radio’ to more recent radio plays, I tend to make a familiar voice ambiguous by blurring the circumstances of its origin and placement. Here by doing verbal morse code I hope to blur the roles of operator and machine, while I’ve tried to introduce a more organic sensibility into the landscape of signals and oscillators in which I’ve set the morse code beacon. How far is far away, in space and time? The lovely thing about radio is that a voice can be so present and so unknown at the same time.
DP From a performance perspective, how did you train/shape your voice to emulate the telegraph so persuasively, in rhythms and pulsed consistency– what were those rehearsals like? I love how you manage to capture both the “personality” of the machine while also retaining a strong sense of your own voice, your own persona.
AF I have previously made work around the subject of the first wireless transmissions of the human voice by Reginald Fessenden (“Somewhere a voice is calling”, created with Peter Courtemanche aka Absolute Value of Noise, 2006-7), and part of that process included voicing a sloppy little bit of spoken morse code. I’ve always wanted to revisit verbal morse code, and coming here to Iceland I had some ambitious idea of becoming fluent in morse in two months. Turns out radiotelegraph operators trained longer and harder than that, so my ambitions were quickly replaced with respect for the signal operators of yore. Instead of fluency I focused on training my voice for morse delivery–developing a vocal ‘fist’ as it were. The goal is not to think of the individual letters so much as syllables and words. Beginning with the letters E (dit) and T (dah), practically every character is composed through combining other characters, so each character must have its own rhythm to be decipherable, and spaces between characters and words must be regular. All of this quickly turns into musical practice. The handbook recommended a metronome, but I just practiced combinations while out picking blueberries on the hillside.
Most importantly, I didn’t want my voice to turn into a machine, nor the telegraphy to be entirely usurped by the poetics of the voice. I recorded myself in a small empty room in order to harness the ambient reverb in service of making my ‘dits’ more precise, and my ‘dahs’ more smooth. You can hear the lightbulb popping the cold, my intake of breath, the room cutting in and out. The code is being generated some place by someone, it just can’t be seen.
DP You reference the use of “electronics and radio signals” – can you say a bit more about those sources, and how you selected them? At times, I imagine I hear mournful cetaceans in the mix — airborn whales, or? How much of the sound bed is composed, and how much randomly generated through the process itself?
AF I do have an ongoing intention of making whale radio, so I’m pleased you mentioned cetaceans. The fjord here in Seyðisfjörður is narrow and deep, framed on each side by imposing if minimalist mountains. Wind and weather blow down the pass and out into the fjord, a small river flows past my window overlooking a massive hillside. These give the impression of both ceaseless movement and of timelessness. It’s easy to imagine a slower, deeper pace of communication as undertaken by giants mammalian or mountainous.
The electronic passages were created on my Tetrax, a cottage-built and very tactile electronic instrument designed by Ciat-Lonbarde in Baltimore. I created two parts on separate mornings in response to the landscape and the feeling here. The shortwave signals were recorded my first week here in a windstorm. The little bit of harmonica arrived last, once the voice parts were bedded down in their environment of composed and accidental signals. All of the parts were made separately from one another, and were placed together with very little adjustment at the end.
On air, broadcast on small transmitters, the composition is always nestled in a certain amount of ambient radio noise, little whispers and distortions. I know this environment well after years of experiments, so I try to keep things a little sparse to better work within these in situ circumstances.
DP Iceland is a highly aural/oral culture where specific spaces are very “vocal”, resonant with spirited vibes: in this piece, there is almost the sense of you mediating (as electropsychic medium?) the landscape, above all where the land meets the water.
AF The landscape is very resonant here, as the hills have their own particular acoustic properties underfoot as well as producing powerful echos around the fjord. As local rumour has it, there are a few special stones here that move across the fjord of their own volition, and emanate fields of influences on the town. There is an ineffable this-worldly magic about the place, which I was consciously heeding and improvising with.
DP The “twitchiness” of telegraphy survives inside the medium of radio, and is part of what makes radio so “hot”; the “itchy finger” that can pull the trigger or tickle the ribs. So much of your work has the very rare quality of both pulses, giving a sense that is both slightly ominous or even threatening, yet retaining a lovely almost delicate sense of vulnerability and humor.
AF Media can be actants in all sorts of events–quotidian, extraordinary, poetic, militaristic, sadistic. For radio this history is close to the skin, and morse code is a particularly fascinating example of just that. I always think of the mad mix of timpanists learning to imitate the style and ‘fist’ of enemy radiotelegraph operators during WWII after the Allies had cracked the Axis Enigma code, and so on. Music and murder, all in one. The last telegram was sent in India this year, so perhaps its a fitting time to continue to employ morse code to such gentle purposes.
DP I am intrigued by your notion of radio history as close to the skin — can you say about that, and about the very carnal/corporeal nature of your radio poetics?
AF An ongoing point of interest and expression for me has been embodied intelligence, whether that be in the qualities of voice or gesture, or in the materiality of (often low fidelity) media such as radio stations detuned, or worn records, or walkie talkies exceeding the capacity of their small speakers. I’m surely influenced by my youthful feminist education, which resisted the notion of a mind/body split while validating the intelligence and practices of lived, embodied experience. I understand things and people to operate in a continuum in Hertzian space: radios themselves, like most simple electronics, are highly responsive to physical circumstances such as position, proximity, and atmosphere; bodies also. This sensitivity to fields of influence make radio and bodies delightful and corruptible.
DP As far as you know, was there a live audience for the broadcast in Iceland? What sort of response did you get? Feedback? And in Chicago? How has this residency changed or deepened your understanding of broadcast, and of the radiophonic voice?
AF I’m not sure who else is listening, aside from friends who contacted me. No real way to know. Sometimes it’s enough that people in an area know that there is intermittent pirate activity, as it makes them listen to the radio at other points with more curiosity, with the expectation that they could be surprised. My goal in Iceland was to find and nourish daily practice, so more than anything, undertaking the daily transmission at sundown has been a contemplative activity for me, to be aware of the fast fade of daylight here (losing 8 minutes a day); to sit still and notice the change in light each day, the enormous variations in ambience, mood, and weather. For instance, tonight is the final cast, and the entire sky is orange, brilliantly lit as the sunset behind the mountains ignites thin low clouds. It’s otherworldly, like the town is an outpost on another planet. The beacon sends back to busier climes, lone voice but not lonely.
#PRISOM – created by Dreaming Methods and Mez Breeze – is a synthetic reality game and social commentary on concepts concerning privacy, surveillance, and the underlying ethical associations of civil liberty encroachment. In order to navigate around the #PRISOM environment successfully, a user will be expected to engage with objects, scenarios and text engineered specifically to question culpability in relation to sacrificing individuated privacy for new modes of augmented communication. #PRISOM is designed to make users ponder the increasing global adoption of PRISM-surveillance like technology including CCTV interventions, sousveillance propaganda imagery and Drone menaces, where your every move may be consistently, and comprehensively, monitored.
#PRISOM made its début at (and was funded by) the MARart4 Transreal Topologies Exhibition as part of ISMAR2013, the International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality in conjunction with South Australia University’s Wearable Computer Lab.
Whatever else it is, tragedy is a dramatic form, a type of drama for the stage or film or TV etc. Certain dramatic works of art are tragedies. Tragedy has been regarded as the pinnacle of dramatic art for about 2,500 years in the western world. It’s typically dated back to the Oresteia by Aeschylus. There has been fascinating conjecture about the origins of Greek tragic drama in, it’s thought, religious ritual.
Tragedy is not philosophy, but the phrase ‘tragic vision’ is associated with the form. Just what that is varies considerably. Tragedy isn’t inevitably as Aristotle says it is in The Poetics, of course. But a or the ‘tragic vision’ has typically been associated with our most profound dramatic art, our most probing drama into, well, the meaning of life.
Tragedy often involves a victory of the spirit in the face of great worldly loss. People endure, in tragedy. Usually they go down. It’s the end for them. A couple of the things long associated with the tragic vision are ‘anagnorisis’ or ‘recognition’. The vanilla meaning is the key moment in the play of insight usually by the protagonist into the situation. Another is ‘catharsis’. It can and has been interpreted to be many things, but it’s usually associated with the purging and purification of pity and terror/fear in the audience, ie, the drama leads them to catharsis, to an appreciation of the tragic vision of the drama or the fate of the hero/heroine. It’s sometimes associated with insight into ‘the human condition’ or something sufficiently vague. I expect that it often evades some formulas while partially satisfying others. Our own experience is often like that whether it’s cathartic or otherwise.
I expect that the writers of Breaking Bad have been more than a little aware of tragedy in the writing. How could they not? It’s basically the faith of most dramatic artists. They believe in people, typically, and they believe in their art and the art of tragedy as the great expression of their faith in the value of life and the capacity of people to, well, be heroic even as they go down. Not necessarily as martyrs but perhaps true to their own priorities and values about what’s important in this life.
In any case, the key insight or recognition in Breaking Bad is when Walt finally admits to himself and Skyler that he did it for himself. It’s a moment of insight into himself and his own life. And his life with Skyler and the family. He is finally revealed to himself and also open to his wife to whom he has been lying since the series began. That seems like a significant victory, in the drama. He can finally admit to her and to himself what he has been hiding all his life.
And the catharsis, well, that’s ongoing, isn’t it. It’s when it all comes together for you, whenever that is.
Breaking Bad is a kind of contemporary western. In various ways. Of course there’s the New Mexico landscape. Breaking Bad uses that landscape cinematographically to romance the story. The romance of the western. Great open spaces. Freedom. Lots of heat and danger, risk.
If you’d wondered ‘why all those car ads?’ especially in the finale but also lots of them throughout the series, consider this. Cowboys got their hosses. Cars, in Breaking Bad, do all the work of hosses in westerns. That’s why the car advertisers eat it up. For instance, when Walt’s black Chrysler SRT8 takes a bullet in “Ozymandias”, he doesn’t just lose a car. He’s on the way down after that. That black car symbolized the power of the evil drug kingpin he had become.
But there are other more interesting elements of the western in Breaking Bad. Westerns give their heroes and villains special powers. Sort of like super heroes but not quite. Sort of like the powers of fighters in kung fu movies who fly and so on. But not quite. Western heroes can kill a lot of bad guys in a shootout and/or they have great marksmanship or they are as tough as a grizzly bear or whatever.
Walter White can kill everyone with science, cleverness, and lots of guts. Gus Fring kills all of Don Eladio’s henchmen with a bottle of booze and a lot of guts. Walt blows up Tuco’s lair with fulminated mercury and a lot of guts. These are all improbable events. But the improbability is masked with science, realism, and good storytelling. We *want* Gus to win against overwhelming odds when he kills Don Eladio and all. We suspend our disbelief cuz we want exactly that outcome.
Emily Nussbaum, in the New Yorker, objects to the improbability in the finale (spoiler alert) of Uncle Jack giving a damn that Walt says Jack is partners with Jesse. Very true. It does seem out of character. But we also want him to go get Jesse. Our objection to the improbability and out of characterness of his action is mollified by our desire to get Jesse involved in the finale.
Westerns are rarely strictly realistic. BB also is sort of like a comic book at times.
Like in “Face Off” when Gus gets killed. He walks out of the room that has just exploded like nothing happened, straightens his tie–and then we see half his face has been blown off. He looks like something out of a comic book or a slasher movie, at that point. Then he falls down and dies. The unrealistic nature of it jars a little bit with Breaking Bad’s realism, but our objection is offset by the frisson of the emergence of the death head and devil from the villainous Gus Fring. He is suddenly what he is. He has hidden in plain sight for so long.
Suspension of disbelief is all about suspending our disbelief cuz we want to. Not cuz we’re asked to.
Apologies for the long absence. In the interim, I got married to the lovely Natalie Funk. And bought a condo in Metrotown in Vancouver. And have been teaching mobile app development. And will soon be teaching mobile web development and motion graphics at the Emily Carr U of Art and Design. It’s been a time of a lot of change and, additionally, a lot of retooling. I’ve been learning mobile development this and mobile development that. Lots of new tricks for this old dog.
I put a couple of things together last week that I’d like to show you. I published seven visual poems by Joe Keppler back in 2008. I always liked them and thought them special, but since I published them, I’ve given them deeper thought–and wrote something that gets at what, to me, is so remarkable about these poems.
I also recoded Joe’s visual poems into HTML that displays well on mobile devices. I’ve been reading about “responsive web design” recently in preparation for teaching a course on mobile web development. Basically, “responsive web design” is about making web pages that work well on really a very wide range of display devices from big TVs down to smartphones. Joe’s poems were excellent practice in responsive design because they are varying degrees of simple but take up the whole page. Recoding these pages into contemporary HTML has helped me a great deal with my understanding of contemporary web design.
#Carnivast is a new work of electronic literature by Mez Breeze and Andy Campbell which explores code poetry as a series of interactive 3D sculptures/landscapes.
Available for Android phones and tablets from the Google Play store
And for Windows Desktop from Dreaming Methods
With both protagonists of the story dead, only 90 seconds of (un)consciousness remain. Dark, immersive and fleetingly short-lived, Zone is situated within the most vivid 3D world we’ve realised so far, lingering hauntingly between literature and game, and pushing visual language to the limits.
Silence Radio is a project sponsored by l’Atelier de création sonore radiophonique , a Brussels-based independent public-funded organization founded in 1996. ACSR’s main purpose is to help beginning producers and artists with their first projects in the realms of creative radio and audio. ACSR is also responsible for a festival named Radiophonic, whose last edition was in 2007, yet with a welcome resurrection promised for November 2013.
To the attention of Netarterians: the extraordinary work of Karinne Keithley Syers, an artist-philosopher in the very best of senses; that is, one who uses all her senses.
While doing a bit of ruminative slogging through the dense sediments of the web several years ago, during one of those many times when I had the impression that creative brain activity on the planet earth had ceased, I encountered Keithley Syer’s Basement Tapes of the Mole Cabal. After listening to the entire series I still wanted more, but the basement went dark.
Perhaps a wired bird reached her ear with my request, for it seems Ms. Keithley Syers has recently renewed her mole cabal excavations, available for a very modest fee:
For an illuminating interview with Ms. Keithley Syers, carry on to Desperado Philosophy for Severe Harmony.
These were created on invitation to make a work related to self-portraiture for Scenes of Selves, Occasions for Ruses, a group exhibition at the Surrey Art Gallery. The curator saw an earlier dbCinema piece I did called The Club that incinemates the faces of my favorite North American politicians, business men, and psychopaths. He asked me to do related work with photos of myself rather than Jeffrey Dahmer, Paul Wolfowitz, Russell Williams, George Bush, and the rest of that psychotic, murderous crew. Which seemed like a remarkably strong opportunity to at least make an idiot of myself.
Let me show you the ‘trailers’ to the two resulting videos. What I’d like to show you are slideshows made of screenshots from the two videos. The videos are made of dbCinemations/collages of 53 images of me from the day I was born to my current grizzled state at 53 years of age. The Surrey show will run from September 15 (the opening is from 7:30-9:30pm), 2012 till December 16, 2012. The show was curated by Jordan Strom.
The first trailer is at http://vispo.com/dbcinema/selfportrait2/ index.htm?n=1 . The video of which these screenshots are composed used two dbCinema brushes. One of the brushes ‘paints’ a letter from my name each frame. The other brush paints a circle each frame. Each of the brushes (usually) paints a different photo. So we see two simultaneous photos of me being drawn. The man and the baby. Etc. A brush paints a given photo for several seconds and then paints a different photo. The slideshow is composed of 47 still images.
The second trailer is at http://vispo.com/dbcinema/selfportrait3/ index.htm?n=1 . The video used one dbCinema brush: a Flash brush. In other words, the brush was a SWF turned into a mask. The shape of the brush was a curving, undulating, rotating, translated line. Each frame of the video, dbCinema rendered one brush stroke, one rendering of the brush image; the curving line’s paint was sampled from photos of me. The brush would sample from a photo for several seconds before moving on to another photo. What we’re looking at here is not the video but 17 screenshots from the video.
In the main, the man does not cohere. No coherent person emerges from this process of forcibly joining / collaging / synthesizing / remixing these 53 photos of me. It doesn’t magically tell me who I have always been. Or does it? Or if not, what does it suggest? You could say “If you don’t know who you’ve always been, no piece of art is going to clue you in.” Well I do kinda know. On the other hand, I do seem to tell myself a lot of stories.
It seems what the self-portrait does for me mainly is to problematize the notion of the existence of a person whom I have always been. The images in the video are messy. Like birth mess. Perhaps that’s part of our discomfort in life. We’re always in the midst of our own birth mess. And death stink. As Bob Dylan once observed, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”
On this, the John Cage Centennial, I offer Netarterians Leave it or Double it, a bit of radiophonic fungus produced on invitation from Transmission Arts, with its premier broadcast on WGXC a few days ago.
In fruiting the fungus, all I knew from the outset was that I would aim for a duration of 33:33, and that I would use translated excerpts from the Turin newspaper La Stampa as source material – reviews regarding the 1959 appearance of a young American composer named John Cage on a very popular Italian television quiz show, Lascia o Raddoppia. I was careful not to practice or rehearse the texts in any way, but to confront them in a single take, with no way to correct mushroom pronunciation mistakes.
My most extended personal conversation with Cage transpired in 1989 at an unlikely location: Skywalker Ranch. I noticed that Cage was not eating the catered food; he had his own little dish of brown rice and mushrooms. This led to a fantastic comic conversation about mushrooms, and I have since come to believe that his foraging expertise and his fascination for these strange organisms offer fresh ways to understand Cage’s philosophy of composition.
The performance he gave at Skywalker (How to Get Started) used the decompositional process of voicing a passage, then playing a recording back into the room while voicing a second section, and so on, gradually creating a rich fungal compost of words, ideas, and decay. The Skywalker auditorium was thus gradually transformed into a mush-room. This would be my structure as well, though performed in private, only made public through the radio broadcast. Each little mention in La Stampa receives its own generation, regardless of length.
Additional tracks are improvisations played by me on bowed cigar box guitar, plucked psaltery and gently thrummed turntable. I kept post-performance shaping to a minimum, and let myself be guided if not by the I Ching than by the whispers of Hermes, and by the forager’s disposition, so present in the art of John Cage.
Dreaming Methods Labs http://labs.dreamingmethods.com/ features 6 leading-edge digital fiction works developed using a spectrum of technologies and in collaboration with some fantastic writers/artists including Kate Pullinger, Chris Joseph, Jim Andrews, Judi Alston, Martyn Bedford, Lynda Williams, Matt Wright, Jacob Welby and Mez Breeze. The site also offers completely free source code for developing your own digital fiction works and links to highly recommended resources across the web.
Dreaming Methods Labs presents ‘R’ – an experimental digital fiction project created using WebGL – an open source 3D technology.
‘R’ follows the story of a young man who has had the same recurring dream since childhood. The narrative alternates between glimpses of his current everyday life and short recollections of conversations and incidents from when he was a boy. A 2000-word short story accompanies the work, published on Figment.com.
The project was co-written by Jacob Welby and uses visuals from Jim Andrews’ Aleph Null. It’s currently best viewed in Google Chrome.
Alternative Flash version
I used Camtasia 8 to create this video. I’ve used the voice-over capabilities of Camtasia before to create videos that talk about what’s on the screen, but this is the first time I’ve been able to use the webcam with it. Still a few bugs, though, it seems: at times the video is quite asynchronous between voice and video.
Still, you get the idea. I’m a big fan of Joe Keenan’s MOMENT and am glad I finally did a video on it.
I first came across a sampling of Sharon Charde’s poetry completely by chance, while browsing through a local women’s magazine. I was instantly struck by the disarming directness and documentary detail in poems that dared to articulate the unspeakable loss of her son Geoffrey while a student abroad, under circumstances that remained obscure, with no known witnesses. At the bottom of the page, there was mention of a forthcoming reading at a library nearby, which I attended. As Sharon read, I was once again moved by the calm precision she was able to bring to the most terrible scenes, and by the rich polyphonies that gave subtle dimension to such a raw wound:
- That evening confirmed my sense that her poems, written across three decades, comprised an important body of writing that deserved a wider audience. Fortunately, Sharon agreed to the idea of a BBC radio adaptation, and generously provided me with Geoffrey’s own journals, photographs and documents, as well as many supplementary stories and recollections, some of which I then incorporated into the script. Since her writings obliterate the idea that grief unfolds in tidy linear stages, I became increasingly committed to the fundamental truthfulness of an unresolved narrative structure, where the traumatic moment of the fall remains vivid, through to the very last sound.
We considered many actresses to give voice to the play, though my first choice was always Anne Undeland, who brings an open spirit of brave simplicity and deep insight to everything she does. I knew that Anne had recently performed a one woman show based on the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and she has worked with me on a number of other radio plays, including The Loneliest Road. As it happens, she also lived in Rome during the 1980s, and knew the Trastevere neighborhood where Geoffrey had lived, which helped bring the story fully into the present.
For music and sound design, I had in mind the image of a precious Roman mosaic that I had let slip from my hands, and thus it was left for me to piece it together again. There would be jagged edges to be sure – imperfections – and sometimes the edges might cut fingers. To achieve this acoustically, I improvised to recordings of Anne’s voicings on mandolin, bowed psaltery and a cigar box guitar, and then added a variety of sounds to the mix, including the snapping of twigs and the crushing of dry leaves.
I knew Geoffrey liked Simon & Garfunkle, and that he had used a quote from the song “Old Friends” in his High School yearbook. Though I never actually play the song, those chords and rhythms were certainly on my mind as I slowly assembled the final montage.
Dreaming Methods has launched a new website design and increased the size of the majority of its digital fiction projects to better fit modern screen resolutions. The redesign includes links to on-going projects such as Inanimate Alice and the New Media Writing Prize (which will shortly be revealing its 2012 submission guidelines and a new site) as well as over 30 individual projects spanning back to 1999.
New projects will be appearing shortly.
- The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul. Margaret, in Richard III
In a brief statement first published on Edge in March, 2005, dramatist Richard Foreman released an impassioned cri de coeur into the flow:
The notion that hyperconnectivity creates a diminished subjectivity and reduces the depth of individual intellectual experience has been taken up by several others, most notably by Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows, in which he persuasively outlines how web-based discourse and enquiry impacts our neurobiology: flattening cognition and emotions, thereby hollowing out our capacity for moral judgement and empathy. In what for me is the most significant passage in the book, Carr references the important work of Antonio Damasio, whose experiments suggest that such judgements and evaluations are inherently slow. As Carr writes:
In one recent experiment, Damasio and his colleagues had subjects listen to stories describing people experiencing physical or psychological pain. The subjects were then put into a magnetic resonance imaging machine and their brains were scanned as they were asked to remember the stories. The experiment revealed that while the human brain reacts very quickly to demonstrations of physical pain – when you see someone injured, the primitive pain centers in your brain activate almost instantaneously – the more sophisticated mental processes of empathizing with psychological suffering unfolds much more slowly. It takes time, the researchers discovered, for the brain “to transcend immediate involvement of the body” and begin to understand and to feel “the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation”.
In Too Big To Know, David Weinberger argues that our traditional conceptions of authoritative knowledge, and of Foreman’s complex inner density, all derive from qualities and limitations intrinsic to the printed page and book, and that as we pass into “the expertise of clouds”, the nature and structure of knowledge production fundamentally changes. Thus we must rethink our understanding of intelligence within the context of networks, “where the smartest person in the room is the room.”
I have no argument with Weinberger, as far as he goes. Indeed, his skillful discussion of how networks dissolve traditional power structures within academia and bureaucracies strikes me as accurate and illuminating. Yet strong as he is when discussing the impact of the web on scientific knowledge in particular, he evades the deeper dimensions of Carr’s critique, particularly regarding the “nobler instincts” of moral consciousness.
The worm of conscience needs a rich and dense soil to sustain its penetrations; the lifelong self-examination that is essential to our humanity. What sort of soil does webbed intelligence offer to the worm? Is the network Too Big To Gnaw? Weinberger’s final chapter focuses on those qualities that make for good netizens, urging us to open access; provide hooks; link everything; include everyone; teach everyone. Laudable as such normative behaviors may be, what about those pesky ancient questions of virtue, justice and wisdom; the conduct of a good life, and the character of a civilization? Or perhaps the new structure of knowledge production is “too smart” for such old fashioned aspirations?
Towards the end of his book, Nicholas Carr writes:
What matters in the end is not our becoming but what we become. In the 1950s, Martin Heidegger observed that the looming “tide of technological revolution” could “so captivate, bewitch, dazzle, and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be accepted and practiced as the only way of thinking.” Our ability to engage in “meditative thinking,” which he saw as the very essence of our hunanity, might become a victim of headlong progress. The tumultuous advance of technology could, like the arrival of the locomotive at the Concord station, drown out the refined perceptions, thoughts, and emotions that arise only through contemplation and reflection. The “frenziedness of technology,” Heidegger wrote, threatens to “entrench itself everywhere”.
It may be that we are now entering the final stage of that entrenchment. We are welcoming the frenziedness into our souls.
Returning briefly to Foreman and his theater: Over the years, I have had several occasions to witness the feverish lumberjacking taking place inside the darkened chambers of Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric theater. Several of the devices used by Foreman to clear cut the dead wood of previous achievements from our assembled sensoria, including rapid and sudden changes in the intensity and volume of light and sound, all too closely resemble the sort of brutal wood chipping of existential platforms developed by the CIA (among others) within the Total Theater of “no touch” psychological torture.
On each occasion of my own attendance, I left Foreman’s theater of sensual and cognitive disorientation feeling exhausted, rather than illuminated; pacified, rather than provoked; flattened, rather than engaged. Come to think of it, I left his theater as less of a person, and more of a pancake. Could it be that the Ontological-Hysteric theater anticipated and represented for its audience Heidegger’s frenziedness of technology, the final stage of which Foreman now decries? The gods pound on our heads, and play with us all.