I have something of a conservative bent. That is to say, when enthusiasts of new technologies happen in near proximity to me, I tend to remind them that Aristotle wrote the first book on social media (Rhetoric), and that the way to design effective tools is to shape them in such a way that continued use of them over the years will form habits that eventually stabilize into a virtuous being. Which is sometimes received for what it is – a recognition that human beings are the primary users of technology, new or old, and that as such the ancients have things to teach us. More often, though, it is received as a cranky rebuke that things were better in the (really) old days, and that them kids with their apps n’ their social networky thingamajiggies are up to no good. Conversations tend to end at this point.
To say that there’s a tendency in the current zeitgeist to endorse the new and discard the old is something of a truism. iPhones come with version numbers, and the higher this number is, the better the phone is. It is almost an exercise in technical indulgence to go into the details of what differs between the versions. The conclusion is foregone, the point prefabricated. The notion of eternal progress is inherent to the project of modernity, and the further along we move into the future, the more progress has been made. Today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be even grander.
When I picked up Zielinski’s Deep time of the Media (2006), I was not sure what I expected. The promise of returning to thinkers of old in order to shed new light on the present allured, and the book delivers on this promise, but it is not what the book is about. Merely digging up old thoughts for their own sake is not the point, nor is it a simple retrofitting the ancients into our modern chain of being. It is not, as the foreword points out, a work of “anticipatory history”, of dissecting the past in order to see how it contributed to the present moment. It is something else.
The quickest way to summarize the book is to state what it does. What is does is that it describes, in passionate detail, a series of media theorists of old, their lives, thoughts, circumstances. It then sums up. Not the theories, the progression from then to now, the contributions, the grand scheme of things. But the passions, enthusiasms, interests, obsessions. It is not an archeology of things as much as it is an archeology of sentiments.
The present has a way of making itself seem predetermined. The letter always arrives, as it were. The things around us seem like the obvious things to be among, by virtue of us having seen how they got here (and more often than not being the reason for them being here). Regret as we might the lost opportunities of yore, those very same opportunities fade from memory as those things that came to pass ossify into what always was. The past accumulates into the present, and turns into inevitability. VHS always won over Betamax.
What Zielinski endeavors to ask is not along the lines of “what if Betamax won over VHS?”, but rather something along the lines of “what if we had the chance to alter the thinking that went into the design of these technologies, and could nudge things in a better direction?”. What if things could be different?
It’s tempting to think that this nudge would take the form of technological improvements. Using our future knowledge to imbue the iPhone 2 with the technical capabilities of the iPhone 3. Subtle adjustments to boost the speed of progress ever so slightly. But that would be difference of a too banal a kind. Zielinski wants us to ponder the kinds of nudges that would alter the relationship between human and machine, between subjects – interfaces, in the broadest possible sense.
This faces us squarely with the brutal directness of media: what does it mean to interact with it? What happens to us when we adapt our beings to it? What do we have to do to make its contents available to us, and what does this doing do to us? What if we were to do it differently? What if we were to be different?
It might be argued that Zielinski takes a rather roundabout approach in getting to these questions. Pondering late medieval magicians, the ways electricity literally electrified the galvanized enthusiasts at the time of its novelty, or the role of excessive documentation used in late 19th century Italian criminology – this is by no means the direct route to any particular conclusion at all. But taken as a whole, as an aggregate, each part serve to underline that thinking about media used to be different, and that we, too, can think differently about the media landscape we find ourselves in. The time taken to ponder and – more importantly – appreciate the different historical sentiments is (to further invoke McLuhan) the message. Again, the sentiments, not the technical details, has center stage.
In a move from the past to the present, Zielinski ends this book by turning to artists and kairos poetry. Kairos is the technical term for the perfect moment to act, and kairos poetry is thus a poetry of being in (or, indeed, creating) these moments. Times where the present is slightly less predetermined than it usually seems, and when the future is fuller of possibilities than usual. The perfect moment does not belong in a golden age long past, only salvageable by means of painstaking archeological excavations of obscure manuscripts and inventions. The perfect moment is whenever you align and design for it to happen.
It’s not so much carpe diem as wrangling the full technical media capabilities of the present into submission and forcing it to do something worth remembering. With/in your own reflective terms and interfaces.
There is still time.