photograph of a red and green panel

So new media means: “we know what this is all about because we’re the ones who gave it a name.” Like giving things a name means you know what to expect because you defined it; you—even though it existed before you named it—come to imagine you gave it birth, permission to live, granted it a licence to exist in your world view through this media naming ceremony. Hence the power of the journalist, the critic, the commentator; the professional spectators of life, particularly the creative lives of others. The power to name, and with it the power to issue decrees as to when the name shall no longer be used.

New media. What was so new that we had to tell ourselves it was so? Writing? Reading? Visual images? The microchip? Links between words? Connections between different pieces of information? No. We’ve just found new forms for old media, and novelty is not innovation. Companies that only a few years ago were spewing forth CDs full of nothing exceptional now rush to spew out web sites offering us even more of a similar kind of nothing, because they’re more interested in not missing out than they are in the message. Or more interested in the very visible message than in providing any real content.

But it’s not all bad. If you’re interested in saying what you want to say, digital media offer a good way to say it. So here, in true hyper-media style, is where I depart from the thread, and skip from one thing to another <link> assembling folders filled with paper versions of my ideas and keying in strings of characters that are prefixed by a <tag> and terminated with a </tag>. Ideas about geometry, emotion, consciousness and number. Consciousness and number connect because consciousness itself is essentially expressed by the number two—for consciousness there has to be self and other, self and not-self, inside and outside. And two is, of course, the number of binary logic—of on/off. With the numbers 0 and 1 you can count to infinity. You can tell a pixel to appear in a colour in a place on a screen or not. You can tell a line to curve in a certain way or not. You can create a virtual world. You can tell your modem to connect to a network that spans the planet, and take your place in a culture of people connected behind solitary glass screens—a world that is not the world but a narrow slice taken from the generations of the electronic age (the digital age is more recent). <link> It’s a slice from a cake with particular ingredients. Most of the ingredients are white, educated suburbanites between the ages of 21 and 55. It contains fewer female ingredients than it does male, although this is changing fast and in the US, women on the net will soon outnumber men. In the UK, most ingredients are single, while in the US they’re married. And they’re all pretty well off. That’s exactly the kind of slice for which commercial interests fall over each other. So why would anyone else want to communicate with it? Because we recognise the possibilities of the medium? Or maybe because we just want to use it so urgently that we don’t care who we reach as long as they receive our stuff. One day (we justify to ourselves) maybe all homes will have the necessary equipment. But what about people who don’t live in homes? Or who don’t care for communication at any more than the one electronic remove of the telephone? How can we reach them? Someone is always going to be left out or—from the arrogance of a digital perspective, stranded in meatspace—left behind in an analogue world (unless <link> the world itself is —like the genetic code—digital).

Or “in the future” might we find ourselves choosing from several different realities, with digital reality being just one of the alternatives? The meaning of the word “tangible”—and with it our definition of the material world—might no longer be divided between “real” and virtual” (as if the digital world was “almost” real). Instead we could find ourselves accepting virtual dimensions as material realities our bodies haven’t yet adapted to. It all started with the idea of a computer “desktop”. Now we witness the struggle to create electronic spaces based on three-dimensional, tangible objects, to make them look and (very soon) feel “real”, to help our bewildered real-space senses over the chasm between the world our bodies have known for four million years and the world we have just created in the last decade or so. To fool ourselves into accepting the unfamiliar elements of the new reality we have created. One writer said the test of a good computer game, like a good nightmare, is “does your heart beat, does your adrenaline flow?” If it does, it’s good, he said. But does your body know, as the adrenaline flows, that it’s not a “real” situation? What’s real? If your body is telling you it’s real or it’s dangerous, then as far as your body is concerned, it’s real. You’ve succeeded in persuading your body to produce real adrenaline, even though the actual situation—sitting in front of an input device—isn’t a physical threat. Like a dream, it has the power to move us just the same as the state we call reality. And that’s a kind of measure of any reality, proof that something is being received as real, even if it has no material existence but requires a digital interface to be received by our physical senses. Like music, like a film, like a book, like radio and TV, like all the old media; all different ways of imitating or evoking a “real world”, suspending disbelief, enticing us into accepting it as real enough to affect us as if it were real.

Some applications of any media—old or new—we call “art”, often to set it apart from actual reality. But is it still valid to regard the creation of a virtual reality as part of a separate digital world running parallel to the material one, if it is perceived as a reality because it has the power to move us “as if”—and sometimes more than—the real world? If our view of the real world is an assemblage of personal responses where there are as many views of the real world as there are people, how do we know what the real world is, and who is going to say “this is it! This is the definitive version!”?

Or is it more honest to acknowledge that the entire range of digital and electronic realities still fall within the spectrum of our sensory responses and not outside, and are therefore part of the “real world” simply by virtue of their sensory accessibility? Some people can see infra-red or hear the same sounds as a dog, but not many; and even these abilities extend only a fraction beyond the usual human spectrum. Without computer interfaces, CD players or radio and TV, we would presume—from the evidence of our ancient and limited senses—that the information they carried didn’t exist. But even with a friendly human interface we only manage to bring this information into our everyday world. We don’t yet move beyond this familiar conditioning environment to perceive those bytes, bits and invisible waves directly. How much more do we miss? Don’t those realms for which there is no human sensory interface, those vast undiscovered continents that lie beyond all possible routes of access to the usual five senses; where shamans, trippers, yogis and ghosts are reckoned to tread amongst all the other skeletons in the closet of rationality, don’t they possess the real claim to the realm of alternative reality?

Various cultures are bound together by consensual agreements by which they have arrived at differing models of the world, and of what they consider valid components of those realities. They often marginalise and even criminalise other views or, at best, adopt a foreigner’s curiosity towards them. Throughout history, various cultures have at some point imagined themselves to have a monopoly on reality, on the view of things “as they really are” and the more convinced they are of their view, the more they feel they have a right to persuade others that it is so, through violence or worse—with the insidious cultural tools of electronic media. So we see silicone babes opening Pizza Huts in Malaysia. Why? because they peddle a view of the real world that suits the minds behind the transnational business culture, whose success depends upon propogating a specific world-view. To ensure the survival of this view, they set out to convince other cultures of their rightness, implying that this version of reality is somehow superior. By replacing elements of the downgraded indigenous culture with implants from their own they add to the numbers of believers, and there is not only strength but power in numbers because we live in a world where outsiders are usually kept outside, even if their ideas are valuable, because insiders need to agree with each other to feel secure. So the value of a TV programme is measured by the number of people watching it. By forgetting that this prevailing ideal is based on financial concerns, it has become a commonplace of popular opinion: a programme is good if more people watch it. So other values are subordinated to the drive to gain the widest appeal, even though millions of people once agreed with each other that the earth was flat. That women healers were in league with the devil. That children needed beating to break their spirit. That hell and heaven were places with fixed infernal and celestial URLs. That non-whites had inferior brains. At the time their opinions were good, if ratings count for anything.

So we have a view of the world, a reality, based on numbers—on quantity, not quality. Far from the simplicity of 0 and 1, we measure in thousands and millions, elevating the sheer weight of indolent acceptance as a measure of culture. This is how the national lottery became entertainment. But those in history, and those—as yet unrecognised—in the present, who have succeeded—or might succeed—in changing our reality, in forcing us to make a leap in our perception, in our world view, have never been in the majority. And quite often, they have—like many minorities—been persecuted for it, by upsetting what people “know to be true”, for threatening to redesign the blueprint, forcing the great lumbering beast of consensus back to the drawing board when it has forgotten how to draw. That’s why the real breakthroughs are likely to occur outside the consensus, just as the one extra point of a heptagon cannot be contained by the circle that bounds the hexagon—that single point has, somewhere, to break out of the circle defined by those six tidy corners described so almost exactly by the radius.

Some outsiders are tolerated within their own lifetime and, in retrospect, come to be admired or even loved by insiders because (as in ancient counting systems where 1, 2 and 3 all share similar symbols across cultures, but the rest are just what Lao Tzu called “the ten thousand things”) any surviving majority instinctively realises that it needs the building blocks of 1, 2 and 3 to exist in the first place, and it sees in the outsider evidence of its own origins. In order to grow and escape stagnation, a majority needs new ideas like the big egg needs the tiny sperm and new developments need an originating point, a seed, from which they can grow. That one point is like a single number—one—just one more than already exists. That one, by virtue of it upsetting the pattern, is different. But, as the pattern changes to accommodate this extra number into the consensual view, it is absorbed into the ten thousand things and, before long, there is a need for a “new” one. As in (to take a trivial example) “X is the new Y”.

So what’s really new? Something seen without prejudice or expectation, untainted by names, agreement, measurement or comparison with a known past or projected future; something or someone seen as never before seen, even if it is already a part of some existing reality. New is always relative, because there is nothing new, just infinite recombinations—new to us—of the same universal substance from which everything is formed. But still, even if you have seen something a thousand times before, you’ve never really seen it if you already have a picture in your mind before you look. Because the idea only gets in the way of the thing, or the person, or the feeling, or the thought. So new means recognising that everything we experience has never happened before—it just seems that way because we constantly collapse into the urge to compare experience with what we already know because it’s less scary that way. We fool ourselves into thinking it’s familiar and if it isn’t, try to understand it by comparison with what we already know. We're human, biological and mortal. That’s why animals take plenty of time to stake out and mark their territory, and why fearful people take fewer risks. And why some people fence themselves in from a changing world that, the harder they hold to what they know, intimidates them all the more with its difference and disinterest.

Stripping away our ideas about the world and seeing it as it really is means two things:

  1. that we are actually unprepared for anything, and any map we use to guide us can only be updated retrospectively;
  2. if we accept the possibility of experiencing life as something continually unfamiliar, by ceasing to expect we gain the possibility of reducing anxiety about outcomes.

And that’s an exhilharating prospect, because anxiety is transformed into excitement about unfamiliar experiences. The word new might then be reinvested with meaning.

Written with a tinge of bitterness in a visionary moment sometime way back in the last millennium.