I have owned and used computers since 1983, and yet it is only in recent weeks that I feel I may have something in common with anyone to whom publications such as Computer Age are targeted. That is, for the past quarter of a century, staring at a blinking cursor as I have, it is only a byproduct of Time's sense of humor, a result of the Chronosphere's wry irony, that a simian dinosaur such as myself should even have such phrases as Internet Protocol in his vocabulary, or that my most frequent mail, both ingoing and outgoing, is electronic, often addressed to someone named baudgirl.In the 1970s, in the wake of bestsellers such as Alvin Toffler's Future Shock, came many imitators. Among them was a book titled The Private Future; and while I've forgotten its author, I remember its premise as well as its cover very well. The cover captured the premise neatly: an illustration of a family living room with two parents, two children, and a dog, each of them seated at a different electronic device, their backs to each other, some of them helmeted, others "jacked" into a board with electrodes, telephone plugs, and suction cups, while transparent, gravity-defying display screens seemed to hang just over their heads. The dog was electronically confined in some kind of virtual doghouse. The idea, of course, was that the family living room would, in the near future, become, instead of just a chapel for the television, a recreation/information center where the already alienated family could become even more thoroughly detached from each other while remaining in the same room. The book was pretty much an elaboration of Toffler's observations about the ineluctable Electronic Cottage that was coming our way and, of course, did.
On a recent Friday night I had an experience that almost perfectly recapitulated the circumstances of that cover illustration, minus the dog. I was in my son's apartment in San Marcos, and he was, as always, playing a video game, something called Maple Story, which has the wonkiest, hypermaniacally deranged background music ever conceived, a sort of wholesome family animated sit-com theme taken to obsessive-compulsive electronic extremes. Some eight feet away from my son, their backs to each other, as on the cover of The Private Future, was my son's friend Curtis, who was playing the same game. Each of them was represented on the screen by some adorable yet sinister anime winged thing. Other creatures, hopping, materializing, or dematerializing on their screens, were other players from remote locations such as Louisville, Kentucky, and Liege, Belgium. I was stretched out on a futon about equidistant from each of them and reading a novel called The Triumph of the Sun, about the siege of Khartoum in 1888.
Over a dinner of hot dogs, I called the lads' attention to this tableau as being, shortly before they were born, futuristic. "You two are together on a cybernetic playground along with that guy in Belgium and the girl in Kentucky. A virtual playground made up of phosphor dot images, bytes, and kilobytes of information as well as the imagination of the conceivers of the game and the consensual complicity of your imaginations and of those thousands of miles away."
"Yeah, except you were just reading."
"Hey, like a time traveler from the Gutenberg era."
"That's good, but to describe it differently..." And here I tried to paraphrase Isaac Asimov, who once described reading a novel in a similar way. Asimov presents the "idea of book" (my quotes, not his) as a rectangular cassette. From here on, the metaphor, tortured as it may be, is mine. This cassette is coded to interface with your cornea and retinal patterns and functions as it discharges data at a rate determined by eye muscle, pupil, etc. The data is linked electronically through neurons and synapse connectors and transformed by passing through memory receptors and imagination function gates in the brain. On a kind of virtual screen are then displayed images, dialogue, movement, and action, while emotion is engaged; often, depending on the contents of the cassette, some of the highest and most refined ideas of mankind are decoded from what appear, at first glance, to be hen scratchings on the surface of individual plates called pages, the only moving parts in the cassette.
"Yeah, but you were just reading," my son reiterated.
"Yes, you got me."
It would be clear idiocy to attempt to persuade, even imply, that the book is as mighty as the computer. Certainly in this room. Tough crowd. I had a weak argument. If my profession was a kind of last-ditch holdout from the Gutenberg era with ambitions to be the equivalent of, say, a Dickens -- an extremely fine example of art and commerce but essentially, like many of his imitators, a pulp writer providing a kind of art for the newly literate masses of the Industrial Revolution -- I was born into the wrong corner of history or it was playing a joke on me.
The true inheritors of this new medium in the postelectronic revolution, the voices and heirs to the Internet throne who will provide for the newly computer-literate masses, are like this fellow, who posted recently on the message/comments page.
The Populist WebLit Future:
Posted by Concern4 the youths on 04/3/07 @ 12:25 a.m.
I attended a club...its a 18 & over club. (amagine that) You have your military, your gang bangers, Ghetto Girls, pimps and thugs. Their was so many fights @ that club, It was Like mini IRAC WAR., GUN FIRE bouncing off traffic signs. I saw the sdpd running in circle not knowing which way to go who to help who to protect these salvages made an ass out of our officers of the law I didnot stick around to see who was arrested but from what I did see, No one was arrested. As the week gone by I felt that this place should be closed DOWN. For one I know a club can only hold so many people, and they be over the capasity limit, its like a fire hazard. I know they do it for the $$$$MONEY$$$$ they don't care about someones safety that enters that club, If they did they would not put 18yrsold w/ people over 30yr (all ages) I hope you close it down, go on down and check it out