There are too many lights. Thank God cabs come when I call. This building is crowned atop the first floor with blue, backlit panels, one after another and it stretches for nearly a block. I have no idea what occupies the building, or how tall it is, because I can’t stop staring at those fucking blue lights. Thank God cabs come when I call. I can handle it when one of the rivers is within my eyeline, because if it all gets to be too much I know I can just dive in and cool the heat growing on the back of my neck, across my shoulders. This, though…
I remember a video of people standing in St. Peter’s Square, inside the Vatican, on Easter Sunday. There are tourists and boys wearing surplices, the white smocks worn by alter-boys, and one boy is holding an iPhone aloft, watching a giant pink unicorn float in space above the Basilica, entirely esoteric outside his little bit of metal and glass.
“The screen mimics the sky, not the earth. It bombards the eye with light instead of waiting to repay the gift of vision. It is not simultaneously restful and lively, like a field full of flowers, or the face of a thinking human being, or a well-made typographic page. And we read the screen the way we read the sky: in quick sweeps, guessing at the weather from the changing shapes of clouds, or like astronomers, in magnified small bits, examining details. We look to it for clues and revelations more than wisdom…”
— Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style (from here)
Now there’s a site that aggregates the color of the New York sky and presents it to you in tidy hexadecimal blocks, five minutes at a time. I can handle that. It’s nothing the eye can’t see, but it whispers a little story to you, soto voce from behind technology that isn’t anything particularly new and in some ways is very, very old. Call it “conceptual poetry,” same as Kenneth Goldsmith did transcribing weather reports from 1010 WINS that spring when the Iraq War began.
A friend asked of a piece I wrote some time back, whether he should read it as fiction or non-fiction. I still don’t have a good answer for him. It’s mostly true, after all. Call it “augmented reality.” So much about a story comes from, for instance, the point at which you choose to end it.
The first time I ever actually saw augmented reality, I was living in Albany, NY. My friend loaded LAYAR onto his phone and we walked around our neighborhood, watching real estate data instantiate alongside buildings. We were surprised at how much our shabby rowhouse was worth, how little the Dominican market, a block up. No wireframes hanging in the sky, nobody around to build such things, only a database with a story we already knew; that, some decade earlier, the city fathers tried and failed to gentrify our part of the city. Tax breaks were granted for filling formerly gutted houses and replacing rotten wood stoops with poured concrete ones, zoning laws were tweaked so that a bar could occupy the first floor of a little, stand-alone house a few doors down. Property values rose, but not far enough. Thus college students and those of us too poor to move uptown into suburban style homes, or downtown to proper apartments, were left in rental units among a formerly self-contained community. You’ve likely never been to Albany, but you could know the same story, seeing those numbers the right way.
Or maybe not. That’s certainly not what LAYAR was designed for.
“Reality is augmented when it feels different, not when it looks different.” That’s Kevin Slavin, from a talk at Mobile Monday Amsterdam. I heard about it on Twitter as it was happening, people I respect praising it and summarizing it in their way, but it was weeks before that video turned up. Among other things, he told a ghost story, in service of reminding us that mimetic augmented reality can quickly lead to “the uncanny valley.” (You should really watch the video.)
But it should be noted: uncanny, here, comes down to us from the German Unheimliche, Freud’s idea of something being simultaneously foreign and familiar, like staring at a suddenly unrecognizable word on a page (like “word,” “w-o-r-d,” “whirr-duh,” etc.) Uncanny things, like broken things, can become present-at-hand, Heidegger’s vorhanden, objects of inquiry. Usually, the world flows smoothly, so much that you never really notice it till something breaks, or appears, or sets you reeling. You are DEEPLY in the world and you never realize how strange it is that there’s a little, walled city within the borders of Rome that’s the seat of a fifteen hundred year old religion practiced by a sizable percentage of the world’s population, all grand and gilded and there’s a man telling you a story about bodily resurrection on a projection screen. You never realize it, even when you’re standing in it, perhaps, till you see a shaky pink unicorn floating amidst its architecture. “Reality is plenty” as Slavin says, but we can’t access most of it most of the time. It must be so.
Instead, I overheat and “lose the thread” of whatever story it is I’m trying to tell myself, the one that will move my feet through midtown Manhattan. I feel terribly provincial. I’m writing all this in the context of reading a link off Slavin’s tumblr, an analysis of Benjamin’s “Der Erzähler” and William Gibson’s interview with The Paris Review. Benjamin says we’re losing “the story.” Gibson says we have to lose it, first, to find it.
Addendum: Also on his Tumblr, Kevin Slavin is raising money for a “contingent fund” to save his alma mater, Cooper Union. Opaque financial decisions by its administration have put the uniquely meritocratic college (it offers a full, free-ride scholarship to every admitted student and has been doing so for a century) on the edge of either shutting down or reversing its unique tuition policy.
If you happen to be an alumnus of Cooper Union, if you care about skyrocketing student debt and preserving the kind of place that offers free education, or you just REALLY liked my post, please consider donating.
William Ball is a writer who doesn’t live in Brooklyn. He writes poetry and smut when he isn’t writing essays. He likes to talk about Wittgenstein. You can find him on Tumblr and Twitter and variously around the Northeast.