Persistence of Vision
It was 1969. Researchers from UCLA successfully sent two letters over ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet. The computer on the receiving end at Stanford crashed before the complete word, “LOG”—short for “LOGIN”—could be transmitted. A subsequent attempt was successful in establishing the first network.
Since then, we spend almost half of our day basking in the glow of some display hoping to absorb information as fast as possible. Twitching every time an icon lights up, our new pastime seems to be schizophrenia. The 19th century English theologian, John Henry Newman, lamented at the excesses of the periodicals of his day, likening their demands as “a rod of a cruel slavery”1 used against writers and intellectuals. Imagine the Englishman’s reaction today when we have reduced periodicity into the instant.
Our obsession with speed has never really been about speed, itself, but the promises that such velocity would bring. F.T. Marinetti claimed that the Futurists would “see the first angels fly!”2 Apart from that human dream that Man would rival God, speed meant convenience, comfort, and grace. For generations, faster ships, trains, planes, and cars were staples in visions of the future. Even UFOs were faster sixty years ago.3 But by the time the Internet established itself and ARPANET was decommissioned in 1990, instant became real.
We have entered a state where we have moved so quickly that individual movements blur into one—a perpetual persistence of vision. Now, we no longer dream of faster locomotion but faster food deliveries. As contrarian Peter Thiel remarks, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” We observe and command through the screen: our gaze and actions disconnected between two worlds. And if, in a moment of lucidity, we realized this disconnect and disembodiment, our solution was to poke a virtual hole in them. We surely must have noticed the screen’s ubiquitous accompaniment, the camera, puncturing the frames of our screens. It is the only means of projecting ourselves to the other side.
In all of this, we are reminded of Ancient Egyptian tombs separating life and the afterlife. Built for eternity, these fortresses of stone were deliberately pierced with an opening for the benefit of the entombed. Without a body, the soul of the deceased could freely pass into the world through this aperture to observe rites conducted in their honor. For those trapped on this side of the divide, the other was a land of wonder that could only be gazed and gaped at. When Howard Carter made that famous breach in the upper left corner of Tutankhamen’s tomb, Lord Carnarvon asked him whether he saw anything through that tiny aperture. “Yes,” Carter replied, “it is wonderful.”4
Perhaps this is the appropriate response to a present condition defined by rapid flows of information captured and controlled through our halting mastery of cameras and screens. The virtual beckons…
“Is wonder the time that is always covered over by the present? The bridge, the stasis, the moment of in-stance? Where I am no longer in the past and not yet in the future. The point of passage between two closed worlds, two definite universes, two space-times or two others determined by their identities, two epochs, two others.”5
1— John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1893), xxi.
2— F.T. Marinetti, “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism,” trans. Joshua C. Taylor in Theories of Modern Art, ed. Herschel B. Chipp (Berkley: University of California Press, 1968), 284.
3— Martin S. Kottmeyer, “Why have UFOs changed speed over the years?” The Philosophers’ Magazine, July 16, 2010, accessed September 11, 2010, http://www.philosophypress.co.uk/?p=1380.
4— Howard Carter, November 26, 1922, Diary, from Griffith Institute, Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation. http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/gri/tut-files/Carter_261122.html (March 18, 2011).
5— Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill (New York: Continuum, 2005), 64.