The Modern Rabbit Hole

Virginia Heffernan in the NYT Magazine over the weekend: "Movies and music engage and enlighten me, but they don’t steal my mind... For that I increasingly turn to screens — handheld, laptop, desktop, television...

 

...where immersive intrigue is available to all, in a dazzling array of forms from elegant, minimalist video to anarchic message boards that are crammed with weirdly spelled words and crazy-person emoticons.

 

Every visitor to the Internet, or even user of e-mail, is greeted by insidious questions, seductive links and tantalizing chances to click. These rabbit holes — the kind Alice fell down, the kind that tempt Neo in “The Matrix” — provide microportals into what can only be described as new worlds. There’s a blog, Stolen Vermeer, where you can trade tips with people searching for the Vermeer boosted during the $300 million art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in 1990; Flickr pages where you can scrutinize and discuss photos of what people around the world are wearing today; and a vast message board, prisontalk.com, where in addition to advice for the incarcerated and those who love them you can find poetry and letters by people currently in prison.

 

Say I get e-mail that mentions Nasdijj. Is that an amp manufacturer, I hazily wonder, picturing a logo? Two minutes later I’ve read the Wikipedia entry, and I’m onto source material. Turns out he’s one of those fraud memoirists whom everyone adored until they found out he wasn’t who he claimed to be.

 

Evidently, the disgraced author of “The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams” has turned to video, which YouTube doesn’t label as fact or fiction. Nasdijj must find that freeing. I’m watching his trippy antiwar art, and then more of his films, including a hymn to the writer Francine Prose. Then I’m reading sample pages of a novel by Prose on Amazon and ordering it to see what Nasdijj likes about her...

 

We Internet users are told, as novel readers and moviegoers and television-watchers used to be told, that our pastime is obscurely dangerous. Immersion in art, away from the tasks of daily life, always strikes someone as unhealthful.

 

This time around, in the digital age, the hazard of full engagement with words, music and images is called “identity theft.” Still, what about the idea of surrendering your actual identity — your name, rank and serial number in the real world — to a wonderland of play in mysterious realms? That also sounds like being absorbed, immersed and transported. It sounds like the kind of engagement with art that we fantasize about when we buy everything from books to cable packages to satellite radio to flat-screen TVs to iPod docks. It sounds great."

 

Nice to read a treatment of this that doesn't resort to the same literalist, luddite cliches about how virtual life is just a dumbed down facsimile of the real thing. I remember my college English professor explaining why he didn't let his kids watch TV, because video was such an inferior medium to text. I acknowledge that there's a lot of video dreck out there, but the medium shouldn't be confused with the message. There's plenty of text dreck as well.

 

The internet is opening up whole new modes of expression, fusing text with audio and video (including animation, CG, live action, and otherwise) in new an exciting ways. The disseminated means of production and distribution removes the incentive for creative voices to aim for the lowest common denominator, so we're seeing new voices that haven't had a chance to be heard before. It's an exciting time, and it's nice to see a perspective in the mainstream press that welcomes it as opposed to focusing on the down side.

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