Sunday, June 8, 2008

something happened on the way to heaven (6/6)

You guys remember that song? The video had an adorably mischevious dog stealing something from the band throughout their recording take--I think it was a terrier or a floppy benji type mutt. Whatever. It was Phil Collins, and when Phil Collins was on mainstream MTV, these were dark days for the empire. Remember when there was only one MTV? Pepperidge Farm does.

Anyway, this post kind of riffs on, or at least was triggered by, the following column by William Safire, a guy who writes about, among other things, language on a regular basis for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. You don't have to read the column (which this time was about emoticons, or at least ostensibly) to understand what I'm talking about, but it's smart, entertaining, and brief, which is a combination you don't always see and so should relish:

I was on the laptop, Olivia's oh so cute little Apple ibook G4, a juggernaut of tiny white plastic, and I went out back to sit on the back patio table (we actually have some semblance of a backyard in our Bklyn apt.), and I went on Facebook, the unmyspace. The antichristspace? Anyway, I'm sure you're all on it, too, because we are all cheaters in our hearts, and so may or may not know that it's based mostly on opensource applications, and so people can make up little widgets and thingies that you can embed in your profile and will tell you your horoscope and let you think Ron Paul is the new messiah or turn you into a vampire so you can bite people and turn them into vampires. I had recently discovered not only that I could embed Pandora radio, which I freaking love ( you're into music in a breadthy depthy kind of way, it's fer you), but this thing called the Virtual Bookshelf.

Now, this bookshelf is really cool for me. I can put, pictorially, the covers of all the books I can remember reading, along with my rating (and a review, if I want to go to the trouble), the book(s) I'm currently reading, and the books I want to read, in neat little rows that show up on my profile and that other users can explore. This, combined with Pandora's use of visual imagery to reveal my favorite artists, who I'm currently listening to when I log on and "tune in" to my particular radio stations that I've created, gives a concise, visually appealing (aka pretty) and fairly nuanced (you can look at my ratings, or my reviews if you choose to, or with Pandora you can look at how I built my stations, which artists or songs I used to create them), user driven way of seeing what I read and listen to.

The important thing to me about this, what led to a revelation, was twofold. The main thing that popped out and left me gaping was that this language of communication is symbolic, but not through language. That is, this is a better, at least I think, way to use the medium of social networking online to reveal and share with other people than description through words. I can't really "describe" in a way that isn't annoying and long and drawn out and gives you a headache the shades of different preference I have toward Gloria Naylor's versus Toni Morrison, or how I organize Hank Williams with Bob Dylan with KRS-One as great songwriters. The language of words and sentences and all that isn't associative in this way, it doesn't organize in that way, in this case to reveal one's personal echoes of taste, or it at least can't do it in a way that the computer online can convey as well as this.

Let me back up. When I say "the Woods and Prairie," which is the name of one of my stations, I can give you a description of that station, which I briefly do. This description, however, will fall FAR short of explaining the platform of my station, because you won't know which artists I used to build it, or which artists based on those artists Pandora has "selected" for me in guessing I might like (another verb would be "figure out"--Pandora attempts to figure out what you will like based on what you already do). likewise, I can't list all the books in the "books" section of myspace or facebook all the books i read, or my reactions to them. Arguably I can't do that in the VirtualBookshelf, either, without considerable time and effort on my part on the front end and considerable time and effort expended on yours, but what I CAN do is communicate very quickly and in a very accessible and, again, /pretty/ (pretty is important--shiny book covers come through the light screen better than words like this) manner what I'm into bookwise and what I wanna get into. I can, in effect, and plan to--on Facebook at least--completely eliminate the books, movies, music, activities, etc. textual descriptions in favor of these applications, because they make more sense within the given medium of creating a facebook profile. (You listening, myspace developers? Get on that shit!)

Which brings me to another point, or two observations at least. First, I realize the irony that I'm communicating about a better form of communication than words through sentences created electronically and posted on a web log. Yeah, I know. Duh, right? So it should be obvious that I'm not pronouncing the written word dead, a la Egon in Ghostbusters. But be honest: if I could make perfect little stand-in glyphs, little bouncy symbols, that got across these ideas on the screen; if I could "program" with algorithms and code an argument, or my observations of crazy people in new york, or how to cook a bunny and crack a coconut, it'd be better, at least in this format--admit it: you'd prefer the bouncy bunny to hop in the stewpot with virtua-flames and bell peppers getting sliced by an animated knife and getting tossed in with measurefied olive oil tablespoons all pictorially displayed. It's WAY better than scrolling down, and rubbing your eyes after my second long winded paragraph, and your silent internal but distracting thoughts that I just get to the point and be plain in my language, Geeezus.

I sure would prefer that. Wouldn't you prefer that? Writing is cumbersome, laborious, and, often, for me, lugubrious. I lumber along in my doofis way trying to get my doofis ideas down so I can share them with invisible and mostly imaginary audience members out in the enormous amount of empty ether world of cyberspace. And this only makes sense: computers are created by programmers, or at least their operating systems and the applications we access via the internet are, so why wouldn't a mode of expression based on the model of computer programming be a better way of communicating ON a computer? The symbolic virtua-language of embedded applications, the virtual bookshelf, all that shit--it all works from the programmer metaphor, in the sense that you put in a bunch of code (the application itself is a symbolic visual rendering of a whole bunch of code, a whole bunch of specialized language, that's been set to GO using electricity through 1/0 binary holes) and then BOOM! The code that is your personal preference, your identity through music, books, movies, etc. pops out after you hit your version of GO, the Submit button, in a visually appealing, streamlined, embedded form, with all the assocations and nuance and complexities worked right into it. (one indirect piece of evidence I would inject humbly for your consideration in this aside is something else that I noticed while editing my Virtual Bookshelf and having my revelation that frustrated the living hell out of me--namely, that monitors don't work in the natural light of the sun. It's too bright. A computer is an indoor device. It is best viewed under flourescent light. If that isn't proof that the logic, mindset, and environment of the programmer makes itself manifest in the machine programmed, I don't know what does.) This new programmer symbolic virtua-language is not linear in quite the same way as words and sentences are, and so demands a different kind of thinking to access and create and work within it. It works from the bubble bursts and webbings of, well, the web, and hyperlinks, and creating what constitutes more or less a virtual associative apparatus of who you are.

But there are limits, of course. The medium is limited in scope (for now at least) to the online and hardware/software world. We haven't QUITE learned how to translate the mentality or mindset or metaphor or whatever you wanna call it, the approach, of computer programming and web navigation to other, non-computing oriented parts of our lives. Or at least I haven't seen it yet, though I suspect globalization doesn't happen in quite the same way without the internet hitting America so hard when it did all those years ago. For now, though, the word is a universal remonster, a massive swiss army knife, a skeleton key for getting, approximately, what I'm thinking, feeling, seeing, smelling, hearing, touching, and tasting to you in a mutually understood way. Words are quick and dirty, and every now and then, in that magical super-real unreal superbrilliant sparkledust moment of magic wand waving, the words go past their meaning and I tickle your heart, and you're right there with me when I give a strung out waif in a pink bubbledown vest my dinner leftovers, you can the hunger and hear and animalism in her eyes when I hand it to her, followed exactly and immediately by gratitude, and you can be there with me beyond space and time when I find out how she scarfed it all down while whispering praise jesus, your heart thumping in anticipation of the news, your face flush with the receiving of it, and you will exhale, too, in relief when it's all over.

But only if I do it just right, and only until we find some way to scrap these words in favor of a better instrument. Let it come, I say: let print be print and virtual be virtual and let us make each other real through both.

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