A simile is a kind of metaphor. Rather than saying this noun “is” that noun, we say it is “like” that noun. We insert a little distance between the two things. The bleeding glacier in Antarctica is like a wound in the ice.
Our first instinct in viewing the photograph is to ask what it “really” is. That’s not really blood, what is it? I mean scientifically.
Taylor Glacier in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valley, in 1911, is in fact the run-off from a microbe-filled lake deep beneath the surface of the glacier. The run-off seeps out through a fissure in the glacier, and it is red not because the poor microbes are bleeding, but because it comes from a very iron-rich environment.
The power of the image is defused in its scientific explanation. It’s iron-rich microbe run-off. That’s not blood. The ice isn’t wounded; it isn’t bleeding.
Blood is a bodily fluid in animals that delivers necessary substances such as nutrients and oxygen to the cells and transports metabolic waste products away from those same cells.
The image is arresting, it’s like the ice is bleeding. Even in this remote place at the bottom of the world, the earth has suffered a wound and bleeds into the ocean. What does it mean that the earth shows the signs of a stigmata? Why does the earth bleed from this glacier of ice? Does the earth grimace in pain?
How would we view this image differently if it was created by the artist Andy Goldsworthy? Is it only through the medium of an artist’s work that it can be considered and read as a work of art? Today we say that an artist is a genius. “Genius or Genii” was once what we called the attendant spirit of a place. Imagine that this mass of ice, flow of microbes and change in temperature joined forces to create a work of art — an image that is meant to resonate and find a permanent home in your mind’s eye.
Non-Human High Fidelity: I Want to Take you Higher
Resolved: it’s an article of faith that higher resolutions are better. I want to take you higher. The way to get a higher resolution is to start with the density of pixels or the sampling rate. Sound and vision. The more information packed into each unit of measure, the higher the resolution of the image. Clarity and “realistic-ness” are the qualities we attribute to high resolution images. The image was so clear, it was just like the real thing. I couldn’t tell the difference. Was that live or a recording?
McLuhan talked about hot and cool media. Hot media is high definition in the sense that the viewer can’t get a word in edgewise. The media, and its content, is projected toward the senses filling up all the space, there is little or no room for the viewer to fill in the gaps. The interpretive faculties are overwhelmed and retreat. Cool media leaves spaces for the viewer to project herself into the stream. When the viewer fills in the gaps a different kind of richness, or density, is created. Each strategy absorbs the viewer in a different way.
“Big Data” is another form of high definition. More data points, bigger sample sizes bring more statistical clarity. Meta-figures emerge from Big Data that aren’t available from the perspective of the civilian on the ground. These meta-figures provide probabilities of future outcomes and are reliable to such an extent that corporate strategies are based on them. In the light of high def big data your future possibility space has become both visible and has had probabilities assigned to each vector.
There are two uncanny moments when it comes to the experience of high def. The first is the well-known idea of the uncanny valley. That’s the creepy feeling we get when a simulation of a person is just a little off, just short of perfection. We are both attracted and repelled, the experience is close enough to the real that we’d could be easily sucked in. But we’re creeped out by the idea of being sucked into a simulation — in the sense that it isn’t alive and real, but an illusion of life created out of dead matter.
The second uncanny moment is more subtle. When Steve Jobs was standing on stage selling the benefits of high-definition retina screens, he made the argument that these new screens matched the capability of the human eye to perceive visual data. For humans, the retina screen is the finest viewing experience available. This also happens with audio recordings. When designing codecs and compression strategies, the science of the human ear and the process of hearing is taken into account. The idea behind MP3 compression is to remove the sound that is unhearable by humans resulting in a smaller file size. What you don’t hear, you won’t miss.
This means that as we move toward higher and higher resolutions we reach the end of the capabilities of our perceptual apparatus. Our senses begin to fail us. We keep adding visual information to the picture, but the picture doesn’t change. All the instruments agree that the resolution is getting better. The unaided eye and ear face the uncanny moment when invisible change begins to occur. The picture gets better and better, but for whom is it getting better?
It’s in the world of recorded audio that we see the most passion when it comes to the ability to hear beyond the capacity of humans to hear. Audiophiles purchase stereo equipment and special recordings that reproduce both hearable and unhearable sound. It’s an invisible material difference that’s measurable, yet imperceptible. This non-human form of high-fidelity recording technology no longer uses humans as a reference point. Audiophiles claim that humans can hear the difference and to settle for less is a moral failing in the commercial market for audio recordings.
On the road to higher definition visuals, the state of the art appears to be High Frame Rate 3-D. Peter Jackson released a version of his film of “The Hobbit” in the highest-definition visual recording technology yet created. The purpose of this technology is to get even closer to reality — to show how it really is with seeing. At 48 frames per second, HFR is well within the upper bound of 55 fps for human seeing. So at this point, there is no unseeable information in the image.
In comparisons between the HFR 3D and standard 2D versions of the film we get an object lesson in McLuhan’s hot and cool media. Many viewers coming to the film for the first time had trouble following the details of the story in HFR 3D. Peter Jackson, who knows the story on a frame-by-frame basis, prefers to watch the HFR 3D version. Jackson believes the HFR 3D version provides a more “immersive” experience. For an average audience member, the HFR 3D version leaves no gaps. For the director there are plenty of gaps between what’s on the screen and how he imagined the film.
As our technologies are able to provide higher and higher resolution reproductions to our senses our own finitude is exposed. Historically resolution has been limited by cost. Higher resolution cost more and therefore wasn’t widely used. As cost becomes less of an issue, aesthetic judgement moves to the foreground. If you make your home movies in HFR 3D will that preserve a record of how it really was? Is it live or is it Memorex?
The headline reads: “Introducing the Knowledge Graph: things, not strings.” The implication being, “strings” are bad and limited and “things” are good and what you really wanted all along. After all people don’t want strings of arbitrary alpha-numeric characters in response to their queries, they want the things they’re looking for. And as the advertising message at the end of the introduction says, because you’re getting “things and not strings” on your search result pages, you can spend more time doing the things you love. Who wouldn’t want to do that? The end result of this technological improvement is that your life now contains “more time”— like a toothpaste tube that contains 20% more toothpaste; and that time is filled with love. One might even recast this new product as a machine for filling the world with love.
What Google seems to be introducing is a new user interface to a faceted search. Nothing more. Faceted search acknowledges that the “word” (a single string of characters) isn’t the atom of meaning. Instead it uses the “phrase” in the context of some domain of meaning—a word can be a valid token in multiple systems of meaning. These domains, or facets of meaning, are surfaced and prioritized in search results. So, in addition to Page-ranked links, we get a prioritized set of contexts in which a particular word or phrase is a valid operator. The advance is in creating an index of sub-domains of meaning through analyzing the structure of text as it’s used on the visible Network. There’s no question that faceted search is superior to classic Page-ranked search, however the language used to describe this new product innovation seems to suggest some kind of transcendent experience.
Here’s a description of the vision that drives innovation in the search product at Google:
We’ve always believed that the perfect search engine should understand exactly what you mean and give you back exactly what you want
- Amit Singhal, SVP, Engineering at Google
But when I hear this kind of talk from engineers, their words are drowned out by the characters from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass“:
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’
‘Would you tell me please,’ said Alice, ‘what that means?’
‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’
‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’
We can propose the idea that Google has a search engine that “understands exactly what you mean.” And by this what we mean is that your query corresponds to a sub-domain in the index of facets Google has previously collected. The “meaning” doesn’t lie in the “you” that has the query, but rather in the sets of sub-domains contained in Google’s index. When a word does a lot of work in multiple sub-domains of meaning, they pay extra in compute time.
The claim that Google makes is that they’ve gone from “strings” to “things.” But the sub-domains of meaning that Google is collecting are made up of computable sets of strings, not things. The leap that Google is actually trying to make is from “strings” to “words, phrases and contexts.” But the use of the word “thing” is very revealing. Words are not things, they are indexes. They point at things, suggest things, or function in a play of difference within a system of meaning. When we say that we’ve gone from “strings” to “things” we’re actually making a kind of miraculous claim. We’ve gone from “word” to “thing.” The most prominent example of this algorithm can be found in the King James Bible, we see it in John 1.14:
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
If we believe that Google’s knowledge graph provides “things” and not “strings,” we also believe something extraordinary about the power and capability of Google. Even if we take a step back and simply say that Google is merely indexing sub-domains—systems of meaning, we need to examine what this means. We could follow Wittgenstein and say that “meaning” can be described as a form of life. Therefore Google’s index produces a prioritized list of facets (forms of life) that connect to your form of life, given what they know about you. Popular forms of life that don’t currently connect to you serve as a method of discovery.
There are registers of meaning that Google’s approach will never capture. Their index will be filled with gaps and pools of darkness. In particular, only a very limited range of metaphor (cliches) will be caught in the net. Metaphor produces meaning through an algorithmic process (per @the_eco_thought, Tim Morton). Take a noun, take another noun from a different domain and place the word “is” between them. The coffee cup is a blue angel. The metaphor machine makes meaning. Not every metaphor is a good one, but it has some modicum of meaning and it does function as a metaphor.
Like the theoretical one hundred monkeys typing in front of a hundred typewriters for a hundred years, the metaphor machines are constantly operating and feeding the Network with new meaning. Darius Kazemi (@tinysubversions) has created a machine called “Metaphor a Minute” that does just this. You can follow it on Twitter at @metaphorminute. Of course, because of Twitter’s rate limits, there’s actually a new metaphor published every two minutes.
“Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”
After thinking through Google’s new service and the language they’ve used to describe it, we discover that they are using the word “things” metaphorically. At first, we may assume that when engineers are describing the function of their new software, they’re making literal statements about what the machine they’ve constructed is doing. Instead, they’ve taken a two nouns from different domains and inserted the word “is” between them. Ironically, their use of the word “things” is of the type that their new service could not understand it. The narrow band of search engine results that are produced by this system is also being metaphorically called “knowledge.” In order to see these new products clearly, we need to be able to differentiate the rhetoric of hyperbole from the literal functioning of the machine. It also helps to become acquainted how metaphors mean…
A Permanent Sense of Asymmetry: Watching the Non-Human Enter
Sitting in the audience at the California College of Arts, listening to Tim Morton’s talk “Enter the Non-Human,” I couldn’t help but think of a comment by Brian Eno. Eno had just finished producing the Talking Heads album “More Songs about Buildings and Food,” and he noted that the new album contained “more ideas per minute” than the first record. It’s my sense that the density of ideas in Morton’s talks is increasing as he pushes towards the “final” formulation of his book on Hyperobjects. As has been noted elsewhere, the ideas were streaming off the stage, washing over the audience. I experienced them like a Proustian sentence, holding an object out for our minds and then sketching it this way, then that way, then another, through a tumbling outpour of sub-clauses.
In the age of the Network, we often want things to be instantly consumable. If I don’t get it right off the bat, my attention moves to the next thing. The real-time stream and rest of the internet is just a click away. Morton traffics in philosophy, aesthetics and ecology; conversations on these topics aren’t easily digested. We have to chew on them a while. Sometimes we need to leave them and come back. Because of their difficulty, outside of the curriculum of an academic program, they tend to have limited circulation. This kind of learning is not achieved in a single transaction. The Book of Common Prayer suggests that as one encounters scripture, one must “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.” Poetry and philosophy require a similar process. Watching Morton give this talk in person, my understanding rested on having heard recordings of other versions of the Hyperobjects talk and read his papers and books. But even with this foundation, I felt compelled to come back to the talk as a recording.
Several days later as the recording unfurled through my earbuds, I noticed some interesting differences between the microphone’s experience of the talk and my own. Morton’s voice was much more dynamic and intimate on the recording, in the room it was compelling, but much softer. Perhaps this is due to the earbuds and the recorded audio seeming to manifest inside my head, rather than coming from an outside source. The microphone, sitting in Morton’s shirt pocket, interacted with the fabric containing it while he moved about the stage. In the moment, only the microphone was aware of these subtle sounds of textiles. During the Q&A session after the talk, strange mechanical sounds emanating from the space above the auditorium intruded into the conversation space providing an appropriately non-human perspective. The microphone recorded barely a trace of these intrusions. The recording is there on my iPhone, waiting for me to give it a play and allow these thoughts a chance to sink in further.
Something about this experience feels like a new form of pedagogy. Certainly it’s spilled over the walls of the Academy and on to the the Network, but it’s form is the biggest difference. The playing field has fundamentally changed when one can to listen to multiple versions of a lecture, can loop back through the recorded lecture and focus on particular parts, and read versions of the idea as downloadable papers. Certainly nothing like that ever occurred in my years in the academy. Like a hyperobject, the lecture on hyperobjects is massively distributed in time and space.
One of the laugh lines in Morton’s talk is “anything you can do I can do meta.” The idea behind this quip is to characterize the move to “undermine,” or in Graham Harman’s phrase, to “overmine” an opponent’s position. Either some atom is the basic building block to which all things can be reduced; or some system is the foundation from which all things extend. Generally what is taught in the Academy are the particulars around these atoms and systems. In his talk, Morton reviews the historical progression of these “particulars” in an effort to get to the present ecological moment. The strange thing about Morton’s talk is that he’s not trying to lay out a new complex conceptual framework that wraps up everything that precedes it. Instead he brings up a series of examples of the rift between appearance and essence—the remainder that each of these conceptual transactions always generates as it tries to snugly fit around the contours of the real. For students trained in memorizing and recapitulating particulars, the process of discarding conceptual frameworks to see more clearly must seem counter intuitive. In a line of thought that operates in a space without a center or edges, sometimes it’s difficult to know when it’s arrived at it’s topic. And further, once there, what is the listener meant to take away? What kind of transaction is this?
From my perspective, Morton’s set of examples melded with, and transformed threads from my other reading, in particular with David Graeber’s book “Debt.” One of Graeber’s profound observations is on the origin of the exact transaction from which both parties can walk away from free and clear. While it’s the dominant model now, from a historical and anthropological point of view, the desire for “exactness” comes from events in which some harm has occurred and fair reparations must be calculated. The more normal transaction would be to always have some remainder on one side or the other, an ongoing debt–the idea is that there would always be a continuation of the relationship. The desire to walk away from a transaction free and clear with no debts on either side is born from anger.
When trying to imagine a just society, it’s hard not to evoke images of balance and symmetry, of elegant geometries where everything balances out.
As Morton points out, in the age of ecology there is no clean transaction you can walk away from. The fact that everything is connected isn’t something you can turn off when it’s inconvenient. There’s always something still owed, a remaining debt. Morton describes this as the viscous quality of the hyperobject, the more you know about it the more it sticks to you. And as Graeber shows, capital fails to capture the full extent of a transaction because it doesn’t fully represent the object. In the social context of the transaction, there’s always a remainder, the market never fully clears. At the level of capital and pricing, the numbers always add up, but the object of the transaction is broadcasting on multiple frequencies. And if you hold the concept of capital in abeyance for just a moment, you’ll find there were many more parties to the transaction than you had assumed, and if you listen closely, you can hear that the non-human has continued its relationship with you.
After the talk I was standing on a street corner in the darkness of the early evening discussing object-oriented ontology and Shelley with Morton. He said he thought the Romantic poets were very modern, that their poetry could have been written today. While I understood what he was saying on a basic level, I could see there was much more to it that was invisible to me. I had the sense of Shelley as a large tree that had grown up inside of Morton over many seasons. While no stranger to poetry, I’d only come to Shelley and his compatriots recently. Within myself, Shelley was no more than a small sapling.
The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats though unseen among us; visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower;
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
It visits with inconstant glance
Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening,
Like clouds in starlight widely spread,
Like memory of music fled,
Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.
Spirit of BEAUTY, that dost consecrate
With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
Of human thought or form, where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?
Ask why the sunlight not for ever
Weaves rainbows o’er yon mountain-river,
Why aught should fail and fade that once is shown,
Why fear and dream and death and birth
Cast on the daylight of this earth
Such gloom, why man has such a scope
For love and hate, despondency and hope?
No voice from some sublimer world hath ever
To sage or poet these responses given:
Therefore the names of Demon, Ghost, and Heaven,
Remain the records of their vain endeavour:
Frail spells whose utter’d charm might not avail to sever,
From all we hear and all we see,
Doubt, chance and mutability.
Thy light alone like mist o’er mountains driven,
Or music by the night-wind sent
Through strings of some still instrument,
Or moonlight on a midnight stream,
Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream.
Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart
And come, for some uncertain moments lent.
Man were immortal and omnipotent,
Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art,
Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart.
Thou messenger of sympathies,
That wax and wane in lovers’ eyes;
Thou, that to human thought art nourishment,
Like darkness to a dying flame!
Depart not as thy shadow came,
Depart not—lest the grave should be,
Like life and fear, a dark reality.
While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
I call’d on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
I was not heard; I saw them not;
When musing deeply on the lot
Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
All vital things that wake to bring
News of birds and blossoming,
Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
I shriek’d, and clasp’d my hands in ecstasy!
I vow’d that I would dedicate my powers
To thee and thine: have I not kept the vow?
With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
I call the phantoms of a thousand hours
Each from his voiceless grave: they have in vision’d bowers
Of studious zeal or love’s delight
Outwatch’d with me the envious night:
They know that never joy illum’d my brow
Unlink’d with hope that thou wouldst free
This world from its dark slavery,
That thou, O awful LOVELINESS,
Wouldst give whate’er these words cannot express.
The day becomes more solemn and serene
When noon is past; there is a harmony
In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen,
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!
Thus let thy power, which like the truth
Of nature on my passive youth
Descended, to my onward life supply
Its calm, to one who worships thee,
And every form containing thee,
Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind
To fear himself, and love all human kind.
We want to call it identity, or even personal identity. It’s the sum total of the text, images and video you’ve published to the Network, the preferences you’ve expressed–and then it’s also the things others have said about you. This might include networked systems that validate that you’re a member in good standing; for instance a credit card company that gives you a good credit reference implies something about the low level of risk you might introduce if admitted to some other system.
Somewhere on the horizon of technology we dream of a meta-data system that can capture all of this personal information across multiple archives in real time and provide an instantaneous reckoning at the push of a button. The system will evaluate whether we are a reasonable risk in academia, employment, commerce, friendship and national security. It will reveal the proper incentives and punishments as inputs to models of game mechanics, potential value in return on investment and what targeted offers have the highest probability of success. At any given moment a complete accounting of personal identity can be given.
We can imagine a dystopian version of such a system creating invasive access to our lives, not just measuring, sampling and reporting, but enforcing a particular set of behaviors. Or perhaps, it’s a paternal libertarian system that merely nudges us toward a particular set of behaviors, but allows us the freedom to opt out. And in its utopian version, it is the ultimate servant providing us what we want, when we want it–often acting on our behalf before we’re even aware that we want it. A offer at the right time in the appropriate context isn’t an advertisement, it’s a solution.
Sometimes it seems like the old story of the two guys running from a bear. When one of them, stopping to put on tennis shoes, is told he can’t outrun a bear, he answers, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.”
Of course, the system doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to perform better than the existing method. If the targeting is 20% more effective than other methods, it will gain market share. It will also still be filled with error. Offers will still be off-target, and sometimes even offensive. These off-target offers are tagged as bugs and engineers set off to correct them. The solution seems to be adding more data to get an even sharper picture of the human interacting with the system. Adding more pixels creates a clearer picture at higher resolution, and the result should be a higher success rate in correct offer targeting.
The metaphysical assumption underlying this approach is that the absolute identity of a human, or anything, can be captured by analyzing a sufficiently large corpus of continuously updating data. While ‘more data’ may provide gains in success probability over ‘less data’, could some amount of data actually provide a perfect picture?
Here’s were my thinking about technology suddenly cross connects to a separate thread in philosophy. While reading Graham Harman’s “The Quadruple Object” certain themes of the work began to the technical project I’ve been sketching out.
Here’s Harman describing Husserl’s process of phenomenological analysis. In this example, Husserl collects data about a water tower:
Recall what happens in any phenomenological analysis. Perhaps Husserl circles a water tower at a distance of one hundred meters, at dusk, in a state of suicidal depression. As Husserl moves along his sad path while observing the tower, it constantly shows different profiles. In each moment he will experience new details, but without the tower becoming a new tower in each instant. Instead, the tower is a unified “intentional object” that remains the same despite being presented through a specific profile: an Abschattung or “adumbration,” as Husserl calls them. But these adumbrations are not the same thing as the intentional objects they manifest. If Husserl increases his circuit around the tower to three hundred meters at dawn in a mood of euphoria, it still seems to him like the same tower as yesterday evening. The object always remains the same despite numerous constant changes in its content.
For Husserl, through this swirl of manifold presentations of the object remains the same object. The technical big data project seems to imply that if we could just record a sufficiently large quantity of these impressions, we could create a high-definition image of the real object. Husserl, takes the opposite approach:
The object is not attained by adding up its possible appearances to us, but by subtracting these adumbrations. That dog on the horizon need not have its hind leg raised exactly as it now does, nor does it cease to be the same dog if it stops growling and wags its tail in a spirit of welcome. Intentional objects always appear in more specific fashion than necessary, frosted over with accidental identity for us. Here already we see Husserl’s departure from empiricism. Just as an apple is not the sum total of its reed, slippery, cold, hard, and sweet features in any given moment, it is also not the sum total of angles and distances from which it can be perceived. By contrast, Merleau-Ponty relapse into saying that the being of the house is “the house viewed from everywhere,” while even Heidegger has little sense of the difference between intentional objects and their qualities.
In its optimism, the big-data approach sides with Merleau-Ponty in this debate. The object is knowable, and through technical innovations, a sufficient number of profiles of the object can be collected to asymptotically approach a real high-definition picture. And once digitized, it’s even better than the real thing because it’s now computable.
It’s difficult to imagine a Husserlian technology that, rather than collecting profiles and reducing them to a single image, strips away the profiles to get to the thing itself. The metaphysics embedded in the technology big data can only move in one direction. It’s like the story of Nasrudin, who one night loses his keys in a ditch next to the road. He looks for them under the streetlight, because that’s where the light is.
Recording large numbers of profiles is half of the equation, the other half is the reduction of the data for a convergence on a set of probabilities. Exploring the margins of this second movement, we find that some objects are not reducible. The quantum object that is both true and false is not reducible to truth or falsity. The dada object that contains a function and its opposite embodies a contradiction. And what of the human being who is both conscious and unconscious? The irreducible is a spanner in the works of the big data machine.
When we define identity to exclude these irreducible moments, we return to kind of conformity that produces a repressed reservoir of unconscious desire. The exhaust from the engines of the big data machine congeals into H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu floating in an unseen dimension. The freaks must put their flags away, turn down the music and stand aside; identity is for the suits.
When is it that the pattern is recognized? Was it at that first moment, the moment when the first element emerged from future possibility into present possibility? How might I recognize this element all on its own—without the links that make it part of the larger pattern?
Perhaps it’s the pattern that must first make its impression, such that the newly appearing element has a sensible place to stand. Having the pattern in mind, I wait for the last element to find its place and complete the pattern in its wholeness.
But having seen a pattern only once, I can’t yet say that it’s a pattern. It’s only having seen the pattern at least a second time, that I can look back in retrospect and say, this first instance was the earliest example of the pattern. That’s where it all started.
If we’re looking for the moment the pattern—as pattern, emerges, it’s never with its first appearance, but at a minimum with its second. A third appearance might supply some needed confirmation, a signal that it’s really a pattern and not merely a set of twins.
The time of pattern recognition seems to be backward looking, out toward the horizon of memory. These floating historical elements are gathered up and crystalized into a pattern, a new object for the present moment. And, of course, the pattern itself may become a part of another pattern, and so on.
Once we have the pattern in hand, can we project a future time of patterns? Could a single new event trigger the recognition of a pattern? To create certainty, the event would have to travel with an attached message that said, “save me, I’m always part of this pattern you’re interested in. I have a purpose (telos) that may not be apparent by just looking at me, but this message you’re reading vouches for my higher purpose. I am a part of a significant pattern. Recognize me.” What do we do to the thing when we pre-pattern its existence? In some ways, isn’t this the only way we can possibly recognize anything? A thing that wasn’t part of a pre-existing pattern might simply appear as noise to us.
Rather than demanding certainty, we might assign probabilities. A newly arrived element might have a calculated probability that it belongs to a certain pattern. We might provisionally treat it as though it does, until sufficient evidence accumulates. When the confirming evidence presents itself, we bring out the rubber stamp and certify that it’s a member of some particular pattern. Or perhaps we determine that it’s actually a member of a different pattern, or no recognizable pattern, and so we treat it accordingly.
As we think of the time of the pattern, we also might consider the time of the element. Is the element, once lodged firmly into a pattern, permanently defined by the pattern? Does the pattern exhaust all of the possibility of the element? Could the element change in such a way that it was no longer part of a particular pattern that had claimed it? Is a pattern a fixed constellation, or are the elements brimming with energy and possibility? Could they, at any moment, break off and find another pattern of which to be a part? Could the pattern itself suddenly change its requirements, excluding some heretofore members in good standing, and including others formerly considered outsiders?
We’ve been thinking of patterns as something a human recognizes in the stream of events surrounding it. What happens when the work of recognition is displaced to a machine built to recognize patterns and then take certain actions upon their identification? I might dream up a list of patterns and stuff them in the top of the machine, and then tell the machine very specifically what I’d like to have happen each time a pattern is recognized. The machine automatically churns through large quantities of material and digs up elements that fit into one of the specified patterns.
Imagine that we tell the machine to simply observe the flow of events around us and to detect emergent patterns. In this example, the machine isn’t working with patterns we consciously select, but instead with patterns we actually enact. Certainly this would provide us with a more real set of patterns, and it would save us the trouble of dreaming up patterns and feeding them into the machine. The patterns and their recognition would be entirely automated. This would allow anyone owning such a machine to simply turn it on and let the benefits of automatic pattern recognition accumulate over time.
One can image additional modules for the machine. There may be patterns I enact that I have no awareness of. Some of these patterns may be having a negative effect on my overall well being. A special sub-system that identified these patterns and integrated them back into my conscious awareness might be called psychiatric plugin. Or perhaps, I’m enacting a pattern that could be used to identify me as a target for certain kinds of advertising offers. The cost of the machine could be subsidized by auctioning these pattern matches to the highest bidder. There might be a module that pays me when I enact a certain set of patterns. Of course, the machine couldn’t reveal the substance of the patterns to me as this might encourage me to pretend to enact rather than really enact. We might call this a Skinner-box module.
If there’s an economics to information flow, it’s based on the production and consumption of patterns of bits. It might not even matter what the pattern consists of, if the cost of the transaction wrapper is sufficiently small, any pattern can serve as an economic vehicle. And once this has occurred, the value of the pattern is separated from its economy. All patterns, regardless of value, can have an economy in this model.
Philip Roth, writing some time ago about the state of literature behind the Iron Curtain, noted that when nothing is allowed, everything becomes important. And conversely, when everything is allowed, nothing is important. Having established that you can buy or sell anything, we find ourselves standing around without a measuring stick, asking whether it’s any good or not.
Abraham Maslow is perhaps better known for the Hierarchy of Needs. When we think about human motivation—what a person might want or do in any given situation—we run the scenario through the Hierarchy of Needs to gauge its relative importance. But Maslow developed another analytical tool that’s also in widespread use. It’s called Maslow’s Law of the Instrument and has to do with over-reliance on a familiar tool.
In conversations about business or technical strategy, it will often emerge in the following formulation:
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
Once this incantation is uttered, all around the table nod in agreement. The tool has defined the solution instead of going to the extra effort of finding for the right tool for the job. The job is calling out for the right tool, and you’ve only brought a hammer to the table.
One might imagine that jobs and tools had been split in half by Zeus, and each wandered the earth looking for its perfect other half. Tools, it seems, operate under a well-understood set of modes and rules. If those rules-of-use don’t match up with the job, then the tool is imposing an alien structure on to a job. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve occasionally used a wrench as a hammer to good effect.
When we employ the tactic of the Law of the Instrument, we silence the instrument in favor of the job. The job dictates the dialogue and determines the rules of engagement. Yet when used thoughtlessly, the tactic itself becomes an instrument subject to the Law of the Instrument. Tools, and hammers in particular, often have more to say than our rules of thumb would suggest. For instance there’s a common joke among carpenters:
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a thumb.
When Nietzsche talks about philosophizing with a hammer, he isn’t thinking about nails. He uses the hammer to test idols by tapping them lightly with a hammer, he sounds them out. The hammer is used to determine whether the idols are hollow or intact.
In the Law of the Instrument, it’s not the hammer that creates the limitations. It’s the familiarity, the habit of using a hammer in a particular way. If we approach the hammer with a beginner’s mind and allow its strangeness to surface, we may find our toolbox populated with a whole new set of instruments:
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a mole popping out of one of an immense field of holes.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a rock to be broken on a chain gang.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a carnival game where you have to prove your strength by making a bell ring.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like something to be heated to a red hot temperature and fashioned on an anvil.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a sculpture waiting to be released from a hunk of marble.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem inspires you to hammer out justice, hammer out freedom, hammer out love between your brothers and your sisters all over this land.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a coconut that has yet to give up its meat and milk.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like rice on its way to becoming mochi.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks as though it could be solved by the god of thunder.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem can be solved by tossing the hammer farther than the other guy.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a low-budget, British horror movie.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like one of eighty eight strings on a piano.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like it needs its reflexes tested.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem sounds as though it’s related to the parts of the ear.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like you can’t touch it.
This is a meander, rather than a construction. If it were a house, it would probably fall down. No foundation, no plumbing, no two-by-fours holding up the walls. Just a set of connections, some things that grouped themselves together around an image.
It started with Jon Udell’s essay, published on May 17, 2011, called “Awakened Grains of Sand.” I didn’t read the essay until much later. I’d marked it in an RSS reader, and then sent it to my Text DVR, Instapaper, to read at a later date. In the essay, Udell makes another attempt to explain what he calls “web thinking.” By coming back to this subject again and again, he teases out new threads, new aspects of the real shape of what we call the virtual. His work with calendars, analog and digital, pinpoints a space where a potential connection is missed. Generally speaking, different kinds calendars can’t seem to talk to each other.
It was Udell’s use of ‘grains of sand’ as a metaphor that caught my attention.
In a recent talk I failed (spectacularly) to convey the point I’m about to make, so I’ll try it again and more carefully here. We can make about as many 14-character tags as there are grains of sand on Earth. True, a lot of those won’t be nice mnemonic names like WestStDamKeene, instead they’ll look like good strong unguessable passwords. But there are still unimaginably many mnemonic names to be found in this vast namespace. Each of those can serve as a virtual bucket that we can use to make and share collections of arbitrarily many web resources.
The implications take a while to sink in. Grains of sand are inert physical objects. They just lie around; we can’t do much with them. But names can be activated. I can create a 14-character name today — actually I just did: WestStDamKeene — that won’t be found if you search for it today on Google or Bing. But soon you will be able to find at least one hit for the term. At first the essay I’m now typing will be the only hit from among the 30 billion indexed by Google and 11 billion indexed by Bing. But if others use the same term in documents they post to the web, then those documents will join this one to form a WestStDamKeene cluster.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.
A Dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A Horse misus’d upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fiber from the Brain does tear.
Blake starts with the tiny inert physical object and from it he conjures the whole universe. Udell’s grains of sand have the potential to combine into legible sequences and encode some specific meaning, or refer to an assembly of services. Blake uses parts to stand in for wholes, a rhetorical figure known as synecdoche. An augury is a sign or an omen.
The poet Robert W. Service, known as the Bard of the Yukon, also makes use of the ‘grain of sand.’ While he’s best remembered for “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” in a poem written in the 1950s, he travels the dangerous territory first marked out by Giordano Bruno. If Blake sees the world in a grain of sand, Service notices that the beach is filled with sand. Each grain might be a world, a constellation, a universe. A million grains of sand quickly makes the leap to infinity.
A Grain of Sand
Robert W. Service
If starry space no limit knows
And sun succeeds to sun,
There is no reason to suppose
Our earth the only one.
‘Mid countless constellations cast
A million worlds may be,
With each a God to bless or blast
And steer to destiny.
Just think! A million gods or so
To guide each vital stream,
With over all to boss the show
A Deity supreme.
Such magnitudes oppress my mind;
From cosmic space it swings;
So ultimately glad to find
Relief in little things.
For look! Within my hollow hand,
While round the earth careens,
I hold a single grain of sand
And wonder what it means.
Ah! If I had the eyes to see,
And brain to understand,
I think Life’s mystery might be
Solved in this grain of sand.
Today we speak easily about the possibility of multiple universes, for Giordano Bruno, those thoughts ended in imprisonment and eventually execution. On February 17, 1600, Bruno was burned at the stake for his explorations into the expanses of infinity:
Whatever is an element of the infinite must be infinite also; hence both Earths and Suns are infinite in number. But the infinity of the former, is not greater than of the latter; nor where all are inhabited, are the inhabitants in greater proportion to the infinite than the stars themselves.
Blake sees the world in a grain of sand, Bruno says that whatever is an element of the infinite must be infinite also. For Saussure, the arbitrary nature of the phoneme means that a signifier has no necessary link to the signified. Udell can chain together a sequence of grains of sand and point them at any object, or collection of objects, in the universe. The sleeping and withdrawn grains of sand are awakened when this link is made.
After finishing Udell’s essay, I was also taken with its resonances to my post: Going Orbital: Content and its Discontents. Where Udell tries to explain ‘web thinking,’ I try to examine the differences between the practice of the analog and the digital. It’s a strange land where a thing is a copy at its origin; and by moving it from here to there another copy is created. Even the act of reading it creates another copy. These things have no fixed position, and appear to exist simultaneously in multiple locations—a kind of every day non-locality.
In thinking about this leap from the analog to the digital, Udell considers the example of calendar entries. But another example of this figure pulled itself into this constellation of thoughts. In Ian Bogost’s book, Unit Operations, An Approach to Videogame Criticisim, he recounts some of the early history of computers and computation:
Among the first true high-speed electronic digital computers, ENIAC’s main disadvantage was a considerable one: it contained programmatic instructions in separate segments of the machine. These segments needed to be properly plugged together to route information flow for any given task. Since the connections had to be realigned for each new computation, programming ENIAC required considerable physical effort and maintenance. Noting its limitations, in 1945 ENIAC engineer and renowned mathematician John von Neumann suggested that computers should have a simply physical structure and yet be able to perform any kind of computation through programmable control alone rather than physical alteration of the computer itself. …Stored-programming makes units of each program reusable and executable based on programmatic need rather than physical arrangement. Von Neuman, Eckert, Mauchley, and Goldstine designed a control instruction called the conditional control transfer to achieve these goals. The conditional control transfer allowed programs to execute instructions in any order, not merely in the linear flow in which the program was written.
In this figure, the move from the analog to the digital takes the form of moving from a physical model of computing to a logical model. Here too, we need to take a leap in our understanding of location and how a thing occupies space. The world can be loaded into a grain of sand, and the grains of sand rearranged in arbitrary patterns.
“Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools!”
— Marshall McLuhan
While it’s bound to continue on, the latest stop in this chain of thought is with Apple’s iCloud and the end of the file system. The desktop and file folder metaphor breaks down once you find yourself trying to keep things in sync across multiple devices. Source and version control software isn’t a part of the common tool set. This is part of the ‘web thinking’ that Udell has had such difficulty in getting across. Part of the problem is the metaphors we have at our disposal. A metaphor is literally “to carry over.” A broken metaphor no longer carries over, the sense leaks out as it crosses the chasm.
It’ll be interesting to find out whether this transformation can take place without explanation, outside of language. If whatever you’re working on, or listening to, just shows up where ever you need it. That could be enough, understanding it may be beside the point. Does magic need an explanation? The work of synchronization and versions isn’t something you do, it’s just the way certain kinds of digital things behave. If it catches on, we’ll start wondering why all digital things don’t behave that way.
Even though there’s only a slight movement in this direction, it’s worth pulling on the threads to see what it’s made of. The release of “Readability“ was the latest event to bring this set of issues to mind. If you’re not familiar with Readability, it’s a program that takes long text documents on the web, strips them out of their context, and instantaneously formats them into a layout designed for easier reading. To some extent Flipboard, and the host of current text DVRs, are working in the same area. In fact, Readability has formed an alliance with InstaPaper to bring simple readable layouts to DVR-ed text.
These services beg two questions. The first: why is it necessary to strip and reformat pages in order to read them? The answer seems to be that contemporary design for commercial web sites has resulted in a painful reading experience. With the heavy emphasis on corporate branding and the high density of flashing and buzzing display advertisements competing for our attention, it has become difficult to focus on the text.
Eye-tracking studies show that the modern consumer of web-based text is expert at focusing on the text, creating a form of tunnel vision by blurring everything that doesn’t seem related. Surely there must be a cost to this kind of reading, a constant throbbing pain shunted to the background each time a text is attempted. And each time the user manages to blur out a particularly abrasive ad, a newer, more abrasive ad is designed to ‘cut through the clutter.’
In some ways the Readability model doesn’t interfere with the online publication’s business model. The publication is looking for unique page views, and these are largely accomplished by attracting clicks through provocative headlines broadcast through social media channels. Reading the text is besides the point. In another way it does interfere, the distraction that Readability removes is central to the publication’s business model, its advertising inventory.
The Text DVR model, if it can gain critical mass, will have an analytics model similar to link shorteners like Bit.ly. Data about saved texts becomes valuable in and of itself. Valuable to readers looking for other interesting texts, valuable to writers of texts looking for readers. Anonymous streams of what readers are saving now, and lists of the most saved and read items become content for the application itself. The central index of the Text DVR provides the possibility of discovery, the development of affinity groups, and a social channel for commentary on items deemed worthy of saving.
In the case of the HTML frame, the site is being presented as it is, without alteration. The “same origin policy“ ensures that no tampering can occur. With Readability, what the reader deems as the value of the page is extracted from its point of origin and poured into a new design. I’ve yet to hear any howls of outrage or charges of theft. Readability does, after all, directly compensate the author of the text. So who has the authority, and at what point is it okay, to take some ‘content’ from the web and remix it so that it works better for the user? And why has the burden of designing for readability been displaced onto the reader?
As a related phenomena, it’s interesting to note the number of writing tools designed to minimize distraction. Scrivener’s full screen mode, OmmWriter, WriteRoom and others offer authors the kind of pure writing space not seen since the typewriter, or the paper notebook.
What would you think of a service that could make television programs available about 20 or 30 minutes after the initial live broadcast started? Normally there wouldn’t be a benefit to a delay. However, this service automatically deletes all the advertising from a program and removes all the in-program promo bugs at the bottom of the screen. The service would provide a cleanly designed and easily readable revised television schedule of programs for your convenience, and all this for a small monthly fee plus the purchase of small device to attach to your television. The editing process would happen on a local device after the broadcast signal had been received in the home. It’s the kind of thing you could do yourself, if you wanted to spend the time. This new service just automates the process for a small fee. And while you wouldn’t be able to interact on social channels about the show in real time — you would be able to interact with all the other users of the service in slightly delayed time.
The issues raised return us to the questions asked after the launch of Google’s SideWiki product and Phil Windley’s declaration of a right to a purpose-driven web.
I claim the right to mash-up, remix, annotate, augment, and otherwise modify Web content for my purposes in my browser using any tool I choose and I extend to everyone else that same privilege.
While the volume of the debate faded to barely audible levels, the issues seem unresolved. As with many things like this, you may have a personal non-commercial right to remix anything that crosses your screen. However, once you start sharing it with your Twitter and Facebook friends and it goes viral—is it still personal?
When you do this kind of remix and relay in a commercial and systematic way, you run smack into the hot news doctrine. And, as soon as this kind of systematic remixing was possible, it occurred. In the early days of the wire services, the Hearst corporation would hijack foreign wire copy from competing newspapers, change a word here or there and call it its own. Last year, a company called Fly-on-the-Wall was sued for doing a similar thing by passing along investment bank research in near real time. How do we judge a commercial tool that makes personal remixing possible for millions of people? Does that rise to the level of ‘systematic?’
At the bottom of all this is the malleability of text. In the days of ink on paper, a remix would require a pair of scissors and a pot of glue. In the digital era, text seems to have no form. The closest we get to pure text is with a code editor like Vi or eMacs, or when we view source on a web page to see the mark up and scripts that cause the page to render in a particular way. But if we think about it, whenever we see text it is always already formatted; it cannot be experienced in a formless state. And text, at least on the web, can be extracted, deformatted and reformatted in an instant.
One of the cause celebres of the Web Standards Movement was the separation of formal and semantic mark up in the HTML document. Through this kind of separation, the “sense”? of the document could be given expression through an infinite number of pure style sheets. The CSS Zen Garden is a wonderful example of this kind of approach. A single semantically segmented document is given radically different design treatments through the addition of varying sets of cascading style sheet instructions. This bright future filled with an infinite variety of compelling design has failed to materialize. Instead, the reader resorts to negating the local design in favor of something that’s more neutral and readable.
The design of the form of web-based text currently has a negative value that can be brought up to zero with some user-based tools. What is it about digital text that creates this strange relationship with its form? As digital text courses through the circulatory system of the Network, for the most part it leaves its form behind. It travels as ASCII, a minimal form/text fusion with high liquidity, a kind of hard currency of the Network. Text and form seem to travel on two separate tracks. It seems as though form can be added at the last minute with no loss of meaning. However, in order to maintain its meaning, the text must retain its sequence of letters, spaces, punctuation and paragraphs. A William Burroughs style cut up of the text produces a different text and a different meaning.
In the provinces of writing where text and form are fused in non-standard ways, the digital text has blind spots. Poetry, for instance, has many different ideas of the line; where it should begin on a page, and where it should end. Imagine a digital transmission of the poems of e.e. cummings or Michael McClure. In these instances can the form of the words really be discounted down to zero? Isn’t a significant amount of meaning lost in the transmission? From this perspective we see the modern digital transmission as the descendant of the telegraph and the wire service story. It’s built for a narrow range of textual expression.
While time and context shifting will continue their relentless optimization of our free time, we need to take notice when something important gets left behind. I try to imagine a text on the web that was so beautifully designed, that to read it outside its native form would be to lose something essential. Like listening to a symphony on a cheap transistor radio, the notes are there, but the quality and size of the sound is lost in translation. We’re looking for the vertical color of text, the timbre of the words, the palpable feel that a specific presentation brings to a reading experience. The business models of the big web publishing platforms tend to work against readability and the reader. They’re designed for the clicker—the fingertip, not the eye. If things keep going in this direction, the new era of user-centered design may happen on the user’s side of the glass.
From Beckett to Handke: Mulling Over The Last Tape
What seemed like an unlikely scenario will probably become quite commonplace. An elderly man, all alone, replays pieces of the recorded stream of his life. Revisiting moments of triumph and regret. Looking intently at the high points, trying to breathe a bit of that air once more.
(briskly). Ah! (He bends over ledger, turns the pages, finds the entry he wants, reads.) Box . . . thrree . . . spool . . . five. (he raises his head and stares front. With relish.) Spool! (pause.) Spooool! (happy smile. Pause. He bends over table, starts peering and poking at the boxes.) Box . . . thrree . . . three . . . four . . . two . . . (with surprise) nine! good God! . . . seven . . . ah! the little rascal! (He takes up the box, peers at it.) Box thrree. (He lays it on table, opens it and peers at spools inside.) Spool . . . (he peers at the ledger) . . . five . . . (he peers at spools) . . . five . . . five . . . ah! the little scoundrel! (He takes out a spool, peers at it.) Spool five. (He lays it on table, closes box three, puts it back with the others, takes up the spool.) Box three, spool five. (He bends over the machine, looks up. With relish.) Spooool! (happy smile. He bends, loads spool on machine, rubs his hands.) Ah! (He peers at ledger, reads entry at foot of page.) Mother at rest at last . . . Hm . . . The black ball . . . (He raises his head, stares blankly front. Puzzled.) Black ball? . . . (He peers again at ledger, reads.) The dark nurse . . . (He raises his head, broods, peers again at ledger, reads.) Slight improvement in bowel condition . . . Hm . . . Memorable . . . what? (He peers closer.) Equinox, memorable equinox. (He raises his head, stares blankly front. Puzzled.) Memorable equinox? . . . (Pause. He shrugs his head shoulders, peers again at ledger, reads.) Farewell to–(he turns the page)–love.
He raises his head, broods, bends over machine, switches on and assumes listening posture, i.e. leaning foreward, elbows on table, hand cupping ear towards machine, face front.
The character, of course, is Krapp, from the play by Samuel Beckett, called Krapp’s Last Tape. He’s recorded the narrative stream of his life on to spools of tape, categorized them with labels, and now they reside in stacks of boxes. Krapp sits alone at his desk, surrounded by darkness. It’s here that he performs the vaudeville routine of surveying the streams of narrative that made up his life.
The great intellectual triumph of Krapp’s magnum opus seems to pale in comparison with his one chance at happiness— that afternoon, with her, on the upper lake, in the punt, pushing out into the stream and drifting…
Spiritually a year of profound gloom and indulgence until that memorable night in March at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision, at last. This fancy is what I have cheifly to record this evening, againt the day when my work will be done and perhaps no place left in my memory, warm or cold, for the miracle that . . . (hesitates) . . . for the fire that set it alight. What I suddenly saw then was this, that the beleif I had been going on all my life, namely–(Krapp switches off impatiently, winds tape foreward, switches on again)–great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighhouse and thw wind-gauge spinning like a propellor, clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality–(Krapp curses, switches off, winds tape foreward, switches on again)–unshatterable association until my dissolution of storm and night with the light of the understanding and the fire–(Krapp curses loader, switches off, winds tape foreward, switches on again)–my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.
Alone in the dark, we hunch over our devices, replaying pieces of the stream— we may come to think that that’s how it was; that the recording represents all the possibilities that were present in those moments that expired oh so long ago.
Peter Handke, in his play, Till Day You Do Part Or A Question Of Light, gives voice to the object of Krapp’s affection. Handke calls it, not so much an answer, but “an echo, rather. An echo, now distant in both place and time, now quite close to Mr. Krapp, the solitary hero of Samuel B’s play. An echo, now weak and contradictory, distorted, now loud, amplified, enlarged.” In this long monologue, we hear the story of “her.”
And, of course, her perspective gives us a new view of these crossing streams of memory:
My act now. Your act’s over, Herr Krapp, Monsieur Krapp, Mister Krapp. Acted out under a false name in a language that wasn’t yours. Well acted, of course, I give you that, with your affectation of a has-been, disillusioned clown. What was the point of dressing up in those oversized shoes?
Handke gives us a new sense of two streams mingling, and eventually parting.
Only once, back then, now in the flags—at last, no more talk of jokes. And so the two of stayed together, inseparable. Back then, in the boat, you finally let me be, let me have my share of the night, let me have my centre. Till death us do part? No, till day us do part. The day that will part us—never will it come. Never will day break in such a way within me and between us. By leaving me in my dark night, you were a good man for me, the unknown woman, just as a woman once said in a Western, ‘A good man made me his wife, and I’m proud of that.’ A good man? For me, at least. For the dark, gloom-ridden person was, perhaps is me, me, the woman here. My act now? No, in my night I never needed to act. You, you’re the master actor, world champion at broad-daylight acting. No one can compete with you in that, no one, never. But I can be your audience. ‘I can put up with being ignored,’ another woman once said to another man. Accordingly I join you in my signless night, stammer vaguely to myself and at the same time I feel the urge to sing my stammering, the refrain to the song you’re humming of the shadow creeping down our mountains, of the azure sky growing dull, of the noise ebbing from the countryside around us, of our sleep in the coming peace.
Mulling over the Last Tape, looking back from what one knows is the end of the stream— the last entry. As Beckett wrote: the end is in the beginning, and yet you go on. Sometimes we tend to think of these streams as endless, overflowing their banks, flooding us with more than we can ever take in. But there is an end to the game that we play, just as there was a moment where we first stepped into the stream.
Handke does us the service of putting another voice into the frame. And where the technology of the digital stream so often seems to resound with the voice of the masculine engineer, here we have a female voice taking and holding the stage.
‘Echo’, if I remember rightly, is also the name of a person in Greek mythology, a minor goddess or a nymph (of which it says in the dictionary: ‘a lower-ranked goddess inhabiting the underwood’) but definitely a woman, the voice of a woman.