Friday, March 14, 2008

Clunkpunk

I was perplexed by the New York Times's choice to run the "Internet is running out of space" article on the front page yesterday--the report they're citing is months old, and there are so many hedges to the provocative lead question that it's hard to say what the real story is. I mean, it seems like Robert Metcalfe, who famously predicted in 1995 that the Internet would collapse under too much information in 1996, gets the last word: The Internet is resilient. Add to that: technological innovation and media worry-mongering may occur at similar speeds... But maybe I'm oversimplifying with this skepticism, too.

The commenters' responses on Gawker made me laugh: "never forget Y2K," which reminded me that the first time I heard about Y2K was in the middle of a computer literacy exam administered at my high school. It was a weird experience because it was administered by the computer literacy teacher, who had been the typing teacher many, many years before. Mrs. Butterfield-Barney's job had changed along with the times, but it meant that her classes were composed of bits and pieces of many different forms of technological literacy: typing when I was in middle school, learning reference citations, mastering Hypercard, and so on until we had to do some very basic web page design at the end of high school. The final computer literacy exam was to write the first page of an essay about Y2K--but the content, in true Marshall McLuhan fashion, didn't matter as much as the form, which had to have pristine citation of Internet sources. For some reason, I hadn't ever heard the term before, so I did a web search on the topic of the essay as I was writing it. That mishmash of technological literacy--as well as the ghostly, nostalgic persistence of forms of obsolescent technology--has fascinated me ever since.

My favorite comment on the Gawker post is one about William Gibson that's in poor taste, I guess, but it reminds me that what I love about Gibson and cyberpunk in general are those moves back and forth between old and new technologies, especially when they're rendered in the future. Or especially in the past, hence my obsession with steampunk. My second-favorite Gibson novel (after Pattern Recognition) is The Difference Engine, which he co-wrote with Bruce Sterling. The novel is set in an alternate Victorian past when Charles Babbage's difference and analytical engines are functional. What I love about the book is the hyper-foregrounding of Victorian technolgies; that descriptive move that fits in well, obviously, in imagining future mediation technologies in cyberpunk, and I love love love the way they make the convention work in rendering an alternate past. Here are two illustrative passages from The Difference Engine:
To Mallory's left, a spanking new steam-gurney clanged in the gurney's prow, people scattering sulkily before the vehicle's advance. Above them, passengers lounged in velevet coach-seats, the folding spark-shield accordioned back to admit the sun. A grinning old swell in kid gloves sipped champagne with a pair of young misses, either daughters or mistresses. The gurney's door gleamed with a coat-of-arms, cog-wheel azure and crossed hammer argent. Some Rad's emblem unknown to Mallory, who knew the arms of every savant Lord--though he was weak on the capitalists.

He took the thing for a boat in the first instant of his surprise, its scarlet hull absurdly suspended between a pair of great wheels. Driving-wheels, he saw, stepping closer; the burnished piston-brasses vanished into smoothly flared openings in the insubstantial-looking shell or hull. Not a boat; it resembled a giant teardrop, or a giant tadpole. A third wheel, quite small and vaguely conical, was swivel-mounted at the end of the long-tapered tail. He made out the name painted in black and gilt across the bulbous prow, beneath a curved expanse of delicately leaded glass; Zephyr.

I saw a guy reading Spook Country on the subway a few weeks ago, so I tapped him on the shoulder and exclaimed, "Don't you love that book?" He was listening to his iPod, but he took out his earbuds and explained that it was one of the first Gibson books he had read in English, rather than in his native Polish. "You like cyberpunk?" he asked. "You like... Neal Stephenson?" He had read the Baroque Trilogy in Polish. I told him I had trouble getting through it in English, but I'm going to try again because I liked Cryptonomicon so much. Then I told him about steampunk, spelled it out because he didn't believe that such a genre existed, and gave him the URL for BoingBoing so he could see all of the amazing steampunk art they display on the site.

Wired magazine did a great cover story a few months ago about the cultural effects of Blade Runner and how retro-futuristic noir works as a genre in its sets of forward and backward referents. I may wait until IFC shows Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind, but I was interested in Dennis Lim's Times article about viewing that movie through the lens of current fascinations with a mishmash of technologies (see also: the YouTube videos of low-tech Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the amazing version of 24 set in the late 1990s, when Jack Bauer has to use dial-up for his data-mining; Jason Kottke's site also paid particular attention to this issue). I thought Anthony Lane got it partially wrong in his review of the movie in the New Yorker:
The rule seems to be that whenever he directs other people’s scripts—as he did with “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” written by Charlie Kaufman—he is able to negotiate a truce, or even a merger, between the logical and the fantastic, whereas when he writes his own material, as in “The Science of Sleep” and “Be Kind Rewind,” anything that smacks of common sense is rejected as a gross inconvenience. To take the most basic of objections: how many video-only stores do you know? It would hardly have stretched the budget to set the action in the late nineteen-eighties, when video was rampant; in fact, the new movie has the flimsiness of a comedy from that era (remember the robot in “Short Circuit,” touched off by a lightning strike?), and half of the films that Mike and Jerry seek to revitalize are of similar vintage. If you can think of nothing more hilarious than Jack Black strapping on used auto parts and pretending to be Robocop, then here is the movie you want.

The outcome is a strangely sundered one, torn between the claims of nostalgia and a desperate bid to seduce the YouTube generation. There are thousands of people doing what Mike and Jerry do, but few of them would even know what a video was, preferring to shoot on digital and post their spoofs online. This user-generated content, as it is called, marks either a long-overdue democratization of the arts or, if you prefer, a mass proliferation of the mediocre, and Gondry had the opportunity to rise above it by crafting a thoroughly professional fable about amateurs. He blew his chance, and most of “Be Kind Rewind” feels as silly and undisciplined as the mini-movies cooked up by its hapless heroes. These, incidentally, we are invited to view in their entirety by visiting the movie’s Web site. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

Given that nod to current trends, the film’s finale comes across as a willful throwback. One evening, Mike and Jerry’s last production is shown to the community: projected onto a screen, it grows visible through the window, and everyone throngs in the street to watch, perched on stoops like kids in an Andy Hardy picture. The moment is pinched, I suspect, from a scene in “Cinema Paradiso,” when Philippe Noiret projected an old movie onto a wall of a town square, but that was a miraculous visitation in a place adrift from the wide world, and it was beautifully spliced into the sentimental efficiency of the whole story. Twenty-first-century New Jersey, though, is another matter, and if Gondry really thinks that he can will his movie, not to mention his audience, back into a state of innocence, he’s kidding himself.

I'm in agreement with Lane about the intolerable whimsy of the movies Gondry writes himself, but I wonder if the question changes when you shift the terms around a little bit. Instead of "isn't Gondry naive for making on film what others do on YouTube?" and "isn't Gondry naive for staging a nostalgic version of the old form of public space for viewing movies when the Internet changes the way we think of public space?" you could ask, "what happens when you set older forms of technology into future visions--what's the appeal of the clunky format such as the video or the drive-in beyond mere nostalgia? Does it de-naturalize, in some ways, the ways we think about mediation and technology?" I'm not sure that Michel Gondry has a vision that's coherent enough to make an argument like the one Lane says he's making. Be Kind Rewind's attention to various obsolescent forms of the videotape, the robot from Short Circuit , and the nod to the simultaneous presence of future and past technology of proton packs and 1959 Cadillacs in Ghostbusters seem to be representative of some worry about/interest in what happens when these future and present technologies mix. I think I have more faith in the interesting gaps that Be Kind Rewind presents than in its actual execution--but maybe that's OK.

Indeed, it makes me think there should be some form of -punk writing and art that based around a fascination with recently obsolescent technologies--if there isn't already, and I suppose those YouTube videos would be good examples of it. I see the possibilities for clunkpunk most clearly in two movies from last year: Breach, starring Chris Cooper as spy Robert Hanssen, and The Hoax, starring Richard Gere as fake-Howard Hughes biographer Clifford Irving. Both of them are great to watch for the foregrounding of recently obsolescent clunky information technologies! (I know that's not going to go on a review blurb for either movie, but work with me here.)

The key moments of suspense in Breach are all set up around trading videocassettes, searching through a briefcase to find a computer disk of information, making drop-offs of important data in public places, and so on. There's even a great scene of Hanssen hectoring a woman at the FBI about getting rid of old computers (right? it's been a while since I've seen it). Because it's set at the end of an era and Hansen is shown to be a throwback threat, the movie is a reminder of how Cold War-era spy movies are set up around transfers of physical objects of secret information (disks, folders, print-outs). The Bourne movies are some of the first to actually show the possibilities of information moving outside of the object realm.

Likewise, The Hoax is a love letter to 1970s technology as the means to create inauthentic documents: reel-to-reel tape recorders, post-dated checks, passports forged with typewriters, entire false as-told-to autobiographies forged on typewriters, folders of clips about Howard Hughes, mysterious manuscripts which have to be photocopied quickly and then returned to their oblivious owner, voices disguised over old telephones, and other clunky fakes are all over the place in the movie. There's even a spectacular helicopter stunt which hinges around a pencil-drawn map with a transcription error. I'm interested in how these movies, along with Be Kind Rewind, use obsolescent technology as a way of representing worries about how writing and mediation technology as the means to create fakes, hoaxes, and swindles. Why is there this connection? Is it similar to the ways that the eighteenth-century Gothic novel deals with mysterious manuscripts in worrying about how to represent the real when everything is mediated in new forms such as the novel and the newspaper--that's a post for a different time, I guess.

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Blogger Levi Stahl on Sat Mar 15, 10:45:00 AM:
What a great post--lots of interesting avenues of thought here!

Thinking on changing technology and creativity reminds me of a moment back in college when I had what I thought at the time was a stunning revelation: that cell phones would make mystery and suspense novels nearly impossible. How worried could a reader be about a character who carried a constant lifeline? Of course I was wrong--writers adapted, just as they adapted to fingerprinting and Cesare Lombroso and polygraphs and psychology.

And I'm fascinated by what you've pointed out: that sometimes it's not the new tech that is imbued with worry, but the uneasy relationship that it creates with the old tech--as if we're worried that our very knowledge and skill, which we've been proud of, is no longer capable of holding its value
in this too-quickly changing world? You may be the one who finally convinces me to try William Gibson!
 
Anonymous Anonymous on Sat Mar 15, 12:32:00 PM:
I have long thought that old technologies become the stuff of horror movies -- there were a couple of movies from a few years ago (one starring Colin Farrell) featuring pay phone booths as terror-traps. Mary Shelley's monster made up out of corpses would be a key textual example of this kind of Gothic recycling.