I’m standing at night in a public square in Shibuya on my first visit to Tokyo. Down the Machine-straight streets off the corners of the square, as far as I can see, neon pulses in vertical collages, shooting animated afterimages off into the ambiguous sky. I think of the opening line of Neuromancer- The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. Perspective condenses the neon like sideways gravity. On the sides of buildings, diagonally right and left ten stories up, huge video screens paint the bare legs of hundred-foot women walking in slow motion, randomly jump-cutting to spinning logos and sleek speeding cars. Half a head taller in my heels than most of the Japanese who pack the square at midnight, I am seeing the place as one who looks into an aquarium at precisely the waterline; above, the photon storm of neon video light; below, people moving like fish, slowly, not looking up. I bob up and down, breaking and re breaking the surface tension of the human sea, savoring the instant metabolic transformations. But I am left wondering, why have these people made this space?- they’re not looking at it.
In Understanding Media, McLuhan offers a notion of media ‘temperature’ as a way to
characterize sensory, cognitive, and cultural effects. He seems to use ‘cool’ in two senses: cool media, which invite participation through low resolution and incompleteness; and the cooling down of one’s senses in response to hot media. He treats he former as a generally healthy state, but the latter can become kind of disease -numbness- that is a side-effect of the body’s strategy for surviving media assault.
On rereading MacLuhan after more than a decade, I wonder what he would say about the phenomena that we call interactive media today. One of the ways he distinguishes ‘hot’ media from ‘cool’ media is in the dimension of participation. High resolution media are
anti-participatory in that there is less for us to fill in. In the ‘80’s, interactivity has been hailed by many as the antidote to the numbing world of TV. But do interactive media necessarily enhance participation?
In Shinagawa we visit the bowling alley -two hundred lanes, each with a video monitor mounted overhead. As a woman approaches the line, the monitor displays her in a frontal long-shot. As she releases the ball, sensors alert the system to cut to a view of the pins. The ball makes contact and the video cuts again to a close-up reaction shot. The ‘interactive’ video processes the real-life interactivity out of the experience, like shining red light through a red filter.
Back in America, I turn these Tokyo non sequiturs over in my mind. When I return to Japan
a few months later, electrolust draws me back to the neon video square. The second
experience is deeper, more viscous -perhaps inner rehearsal has made me a better
night-diver. There is the same strange and instant exhilaration, but now I am feeling it in my skin rather than in my head. I am inside the experience. I do not have ideas . Fragmentary
messages drift by like flotsam in a phosphorescent sea. My senses are cetacean teeth, training out bits of pattern. I sample indiscriminately. What was once hot to the point of fusion is now the ultimate cool, seen and forgotten in the same instant because there is too much to see, too much to remember. Juxtapositions in the mysterious underwater mind make ephemeral poetry of what was once searing notice. I sweat and tingle, the exquisite feel of cooling off experienced as an inside-out creative act. This does not feel like
anesthesia. What has changed? Have I popped out the other side of McLuhan’s numbness?. When we cool down, might the onslaught be transformed into a new form of inviting ambiguity?. Or are we acting out a larger evolutionary pattern, emerging from and diving into stranger and stranger seas?.
Many recent writings about ‘virtual reality’ invoke Lewis Carroll’s looking glass as a way to describe the nature of the medium. I am reminded, like McLuhan, of Narcissus -the reflective surface traps up in an anesthetic trance. The deeper power of telepresence awaits below the waterline. One can imagine a transformation spawned by sensory immersion, like the Tokyo night, where the burning sky collapses in upon its content, driving meaning down into a realm that is entirely unsuspected, intimate, and vast.
Text originally published in ArtFutura's 1991 catalog.