Associative diagrams, data, space, and play find common expression in user interface design, videogames, and urban planning in contemporary culture—all those floating 3D displays in movies, the gamification of mundane daily tasks, how stores look more and more like the touch screens that are replacing them.
Bruce Sterling talks of “Atemporality.” Atemporality is the feeling you get when you experience the old and the new forced into a singular moment. Like a 3D printout of an object designed in the 13th century. Or a Babbage difference engine made with the latest materials and computer-controlled design and manufacturing techniques. These are impossible objects in the truest sense that they stand outside time. Outside of history. They are a-temporal. It’s a feeling you get when you look to the West these days, particularly San Francisco, and particularly around the edges of that city. It’s in places like the Musée Méchanique where very early 20th-century coin-operated entertainment machines sit happily next to quite recent arcade computer-games.
The collapsing of old and new find expression in notions such as the Terrative. This neologism is the hybrid of territory and narrative and has emerged from the world of locative media. This is media that self-consciously and deliberately takes into account where the user is as it presents audiovisual and computer-generated content to them. Often locative m edia is combined with augmented reality. So place and story meet real and virtual.
Many contemporary films and videogames show scientists and specialists manipulating data in 3D as holographic fields of information. Floating, glowing holograms of the solar system, say as in Promethius. The terrains of Pandora in AVATAR, displayed for military and scientist alike. The head-up display is a product of the military fighter cockpit, and is installed in many recent model cars and passenger aircraft such as the Boeing 787. It combines the real world with information about that world simultaneously.
Augmented reality apps abound for the tsunami of Chinese-made touchscreen devices; sensor-studded, Wi-Fi enabled, the modern data user is attuned to her environment much like a pilot, or a sci-fi movie or game character. After thirty years of AR in pop culture, from ROBOCOP to TERMINATOR to HALO to the windows-within-windows of every GUI you ever used. It’s commonplace now to say that your games console can see you. Patents are fought over for who can profit from devices that identity if “too many” people are in the room to view a movie for the rental price. As Guy Debord once famously argued “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people mediated by images.” Today the spectacle sends sensor data into your living room and bills you for the privilege.
This ironic conflation of real and unreal, dynamic and static is at the epicenter of our current kind of modernity.Pinball machines are flat surfaces on which balls move that the player keeps in motion by way of flippers. The playfield is the area that pinball-machine designers call that flat surface. Most videogames have the equivalent of this playfield.
Urban design has long since taken its best ideas from the controlling impulse behind theme parks, with their dominant points of attraction (usually tall dominant structures distributed around the park), and paths to channel people to and from these nodal points. The management of time and space reaches no better apotheosis than at the Disney parks, where the science of extracting time and attention from people has reached a fine art. Gamifying the playfield of life is a neat extension of the theme-park pinball approach to city planning and urban development. Everywhere we go in contemporary cities involves passing through a nodal point of some kind where data is transferred. The New Aesthetic Archive is a great compendium of this type of material in Tumblr form.
Think of the symbol used in orthogonal 3D programs—it looks like a three-pointed 3D weathervane. Point your first finger forward, your thumb up, and your ring finger to the left. Here you have a right-handed approximation of the same symbol. The X, Y, and Z axes of the Euclidean space. A universe made up of primitives: spheres, cones, cubes, cylinders. N ow this world is spread before us, and texture mapped and rendered in real time. It is festooned with colored overlays. And all the code that can be written is dancing behind it to make the physics happen. The skybox above shows a late afternoon. The long shadows, but a figment of the level-designer’s imagination. Those floating health and status bars above showing how much energy is left. They remind us, that our game world is much like the real one.
David Cox is a writer and teacher based in San Francisco. His films include PUPPENHEAD, OTHERZONE, and TATLIN. His books include Sign Wars: the Culture Jammers Strike Back, published via LedaTape.