A retrospective on one of my favorite pieces of Journalism ever created: I now turn your attention to an article that I read some 30 years ago or so…oh the memories.
A DIGITAL RITE OF PASSAGE words and pictures by Michael Green
When Gutenberg invented moveable type, he found strong resistance to it among the current publishing experts — medieval monks and transcribing the Bible. It seemed that what the monks most objected to was that his innovation removed the cursive strokes that connected letters within one word, breaking up the calligraphy and also separating writing from illustration. What Michael Green has done is to pioneer the returb to a unified graphic in which the artist creates both the typography and the illustration. The meditating Macintosh is the pen for this electronic calligraphy. It promises a change in publication design. — Kevin Kelly
I HAVE LONG SUBSCRIBED TO THE THEORY THAT SILICON CHIPS ARE IN FACT A CULTURAL VIRUS JOSTLING WITH US FOR CONTROL OF THE PLANET.
The argument is easily deduced from a textbook medical description of viruses:
Viruses are semi-living, extremely simple (compared to organic) structures which have no mechanisms for reproduction. They accomplish this essential task by invading living cells and “conning” the host organism into doing the replication for them. In the process, the host cells often get out of whack (sick) or start multiplying wildly themselves (cancer).
Now, run that by again, substituting silicon chip for virus, humankind for cells.
See how nicely it all works out?
ON THE OTHER HAND, is it possible that computers are, as Marshall McCluhan claimed, an “extension of our central nervous system?” Has evolution “shifted from biology to technology?” By all accounts, an extremely intimate relationship can occur between man and chip. Is it just another modern dementia? Or is there some truth to be found in the visionary claims of these hackers, info freaks, telecommunicators, et al? Are the rest of us missing something important?
Trouble is, any first-hand investigative plunge into serious computer consciousness requires a kind of sustained mental commitment most of us aren’t about to whip up. Learn Pascal? Source code? I was curious — but not that curious.
Sci-Fi conspiracies aside, the drudgery of re-editing my last book was imspiration a-plenty to look for a word processor. I decided on the Macintosh — its sharp graphics might add some polish to a new project I had just begun.
You can almost feel how the picture is just a delicate lace of charged particles dancing to your every move. Subtle! Delicious!
Working with a Mac is mostly done with ICONS-symbols that activate its functions. Like Chinese writing or heiroglyphics, they’re not phonetic, but point directly to what they stand for. Like them, icons slip right past the left-brain interpreter and interact immediately with intuitive right brain comprehension.
Thus, effortlessly, I entered the garden of digital delights. Somehow, with the Mac, the process of laying down forms, shifting them around erasing, restoring, … was characterized by an electric feeling of lightness. The real genuis of this medium, I discovered, is not in the actual drawing of images but in the manipulation of them. Devotees of word processing already know how the power of unimpeded word rearrangement can boost many people onto a new level of personal expression. Same here: imagewriting.
Creative communion with a microchip. A fascinating experience! It had me firmly hooked. Quite an embrassment for a former tipi dweller.
With the addition of a home video image digitizer, the LaserWriter, and a page composition program called PageMaker, the system was complete. I was able to snatch any image the eye could see, stick it onto the screen, customize it, compress it down into elegant detail (or blow it up into forceful graphics) … then flow text in and around the over the images. Add headlines. Captions. Pure play, and neat as a pin. I was now author, artist, photographer, typographer, art director, paster-upper, printer. I was empowered! … A new Guttenberg sailing forth from his electronic cottage onto the frothy curl of the third wave.
NOW THE BAD HEWS
SOONER OR LATER ANYONE DOING CREATIVE WORK WITH A COMPUTER WILL ENCOUNTER A RELENTLESS PULL BACK TOWARDS THE OBSESSIVE PERFECTION OF THE
Step by step the most light-hearted & creative exploration deftly turns into grimm red-eyed obsession: Silicon madness strikes again!
But couldn’t this constricted state be seen just as easily as the crucial test of an Electronic Age RITE OF PASSAGE?
The narrow focus of computer rapture is obviously the catch. As in all addictions, one particular bandwidth of human experience is isolated that blown up until it fills the entire screen. (A process often accompanied by intriguing new theologies.) But some things never change. Our great wisdom traditions (like Zen) rarely make a flap about fascinating experience, “artistic” or otherwise. Certainly no more than about, say, peeling onions. One can (A) Get swept up in events as Drama, or (B) Upgrade: look at any event as just another onion to peel: do it well, put it down, move on. The second path, in computer jargon, is driven by a more stream-lined source code.
A deeper level of meaning which resides in everything.
Everything is perceived…
A simple shift in our attention brings this machinery of awareness into the foreground.
Consciousness is as obvious as the ocean is (or isn’t) to a fish. The kind of perception that can see the ocean is an alert, aware and utterly receptive perception.
It is the quiet essence of patience.
When we reach the point that it’s OK even if nothing happens, then we Come Home.
Metaphysics aside there are some other questions raised:
WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT, ANYWAY?
YET ANOTHER TORRENT?
By extending the semi-miraculous power of the silicon chip into graphic design and page composition, the personal computer industry is handing over to us thge keys to the design studio, the type house and the print shop. “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” Indeed. Visionary considerations aside, the immediate result of this Desktop Publishing revolutionl will be business as usual: newsletters, spec sheets and junk mail, etc. — yet another torrent of printed matter pouring into an already info-sodden world — only cheaper, quicker and slicker. Now anybody can frame any thought, great or small, as first class Official Writ.
Of course more interesting applications will arise. An enterprising student could make a term paper look like a corporate annual report. Or how about a love letter done up as an ad in Time?
Well…that’s what I think of. Hybridization: Official Writ meeting the Fringe. Indeed, because it is so flexible and easy to use, this equipment is a natural for marginal types-people with their words and images intertwined: Mystics, inventors, subatomic scientists, small magazine publishers and the like. Nobody has to be a technoid or an artist — just willing and a bit able.
Out of my encounter with this high technology came a book about the encounter: ZEN & THE ART OF THE MACINTOSH. As a counterpoint to the narrative, I explored the possibilities of electronic page composition as art form. (“…A classic example of what’s escaping from Pandora’s desktop,” announced the editor of a corporate oriented publishing magazine.) Most of the graphics here came from ZEN. Think of them as evidence of a new process of communication, a hieroglyphic language evolving naturally out of a new tool.
SO WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO GET INTO THE CLUB? The Macintosh, of course. Street price, for the Plus: $1400. Give it another megabyte of memory, say $500. You can scrounge a Laser-Writer for $4000. It lays down an astonishing 300 dots of the inch. (Check out this type with a magnifying glass.) For creating drawings and graphics the best program now is FullPaint. (But a snazzer SuperPaint has already appeared on the horizon.) or typesetting and page composition, PageMaker is the standard. (But check out the cheaper competition, they’re catching up.) A Koala McVision video digitizer is the system’s all-seeing eye. Anything you can point a home video camera at gets sucked onto your cathode ray canvas, there to be done with as you will.
Cutting the gap between idea and execution is essential to the flow of this particular creative process, and a hard disk is what gets you to speed. With one you can stash hundreds of images and then call them up in seconds. I have a tough SuperMac Data Frame 20.
Shop around. The computer business is competitive and unstable. Bad for them, good for us. Prices are dropping all the time, discounts abound. Right now, you should be able to put this complete publishing system together for about 8000 bucks. Ouch. But then, think of all the wonderful things you could do with it.
PHOTO: Author and faithful assistant strike a digitally retouched pose outside their studio. The entire publishing system — editorial and design departments, type house and print shop — fits handily inside the tiny building, transforming it into a bona fide Electronic Cottage.
BUT THEN AGAIN, CENTER IS STILL IN ANOTHER DIRECTION
Green, Michael. “Zen and the art of the Macintosh; a digital rite of passage.” Whole Earth Review (1986): 73+.