The Internet of Electron Microscopes

This is a guest post by Chenoe Hart

After you have stared at your computer screen for a while, it’s recommended that you give your eyes a break to refocus on a more distant outside view. In past years when our monitors looked more like boxes than tablets, you might have already been looking into such a space. The perception of digital content on the screens of CRT displays was inextricably accompanied by the additional perspective lines of the monitor enclosure extending behind it. Expanses of beige plastic stretching past the foreground of your observation might make the eyes operate in a slightly different manner compared to our modern condition of viewing flat panels whose minimal depth renders them closer to two-dimensional apparitions. We always knew that the internet was an ephemeral entity presented in translation from abstract code into pixels on our screen, but our immediate sensory feedback perceived it to be the front of a three-dimensional box possessing further physical extension.

Construction photograph of the interior of the Statue of Liberty, from the U.S. Library of Congress.

Many of the words we commonly used to describe the early emerging internet reference an implicit dimensionality: “cyberspace” was non-ironically used as a descriptive term, we explored it those spaces through “web portals,” and the act of “surfing” the web implied negotiating the surface of a physical mass which contained further inaccessible fathoms underneath. The “-tron” suffix marketing the electron gun technology used in those CRTs became the name of a film in which our computers contained an alternate universe of extending light grids. Before “the cloud” gained popularity as an ephemeral metaphor abstracting away the details of how we store our data in other people’s computers, The Matrix rendered the physicality of the internet as a dark enclosed underworld of forbidden knowledge.

The process of accessing virtual spaces used to demand a ritual. Performing it required you to first commit yourself to isolation, with no one from the outside world able to reach you once your phone line became occupied by your dial-up connection. Next followed a period of sitting and waiting while you listened to unearthly moans emanating from somewhere inside your computer. The sounds were incomprehensible, but appeared in an organized pattern which suggested apparent meaning, incantations in another language you couldn’t understand.

Other parts of your computer made noises as well; the chirping of your mechanical hard drive was reassuring so long as it remained consistent. The sharp hiss before the monitor tube warmed up, its picture wavering into place. The longer you kept it running, the more it crackled after you turned it off. Over time you might notice where it had attracted dust, a visible trace of the billions of invisible negative charges its electron gun had ejected towards your body. Access to the digital world happened through engagement with a tangible thing that produced emissions in our external surroundings – sound, heat, and static – and occupied enough physical space to take over its own dedicated corner of your home. As a child I couldn’t help but feel curious about how mysterious and impenetrable those blinking pieces of equipment seemed to be. The warning labels I subsequently read on the back of the CRT monitor, promising risks of death, electrocution and implosion if opened to reveal the source of its noises inside, left me feeling a vague sense of unease each subsequent time I stared before its glow.

Some of Hollywood’s horror movie directors would seem to have agreed. In the footsteps of countless ghost stories evoking uncertainty with an unexplained moment where the lights flicker inside a room, viewers know that something is wrong with the television in The Ring (2002) when it spontaneously turns itself on. As a rainy location is depicted on-screen, liquid seeping out from the back of the television suggests that whatever is inside its cabinet might be a physical continuation of the world visible through its front opening. A ghostly child drips real water onto the floorboards as she crawls out the implicit fourth wall of the screen, her body covered in the visual aura of the tube’s flickering glow which her movement carries out into its surroundings. She projects simultaneous cues of belonging to both physical space and the digital realm we have taught ourselves to assume isn’t real, recalling the apocryphal early film history legend of the Lumière Brothers showing footage of an arriving train to viewers who ran away under the uneducated assumption that it posed a physical threat. The 21st-century protagonist witnessing this phenomenon accidentally shatters a shelf of glassware in his own panic, confirming viewers’ assumptions of what would happen if the space within the glass tube gave way to the surrounding atmospheric pressures of our inhabitable world.

A similar progression of violations against our faith in predictable expectations for how our technologies should operate occurred in the 1982 film Poltergeist, where the exaggerated domestic tranquility of a family sleeping while the U.S. national anthem plays on their television abruptly cuts to static along with a thunderous sound and the awakening of their daughter. Bright sparks flash on the screen in accordance with how we might imagine a television to malfunction within our accepted understanding of physics. That illusion is shattered after the “magic smoke” one might subsequently expect to see emerging from failing electronics takes on the literally supernatural form of a ghostly hand, which reaches out of the screen to physically touch the child. The same specter seen on TV is later confronted inside a closet, connecting the space inside the television to a common smoky network operating within the home’s walls.

Where cultural commentators have imagined televisions taking over the symbolic role of the fireplace at the center of family living rooms for at least as long as TV stations have broadcast footage of a burning hearth each winter, earlier attempts to introduce TVs into the home made that metaphysical substitution more immediate. New houses at Levittown sold with televisions already built into their walls suggested they could become as much of a static integrated fixture within the construction of a building as the fireplaces they retained on another nearby wall. The material surrounding the front face of Levittown’s original TV units shared a common geometry and wood grain with the conventional wall boards surrounding it. As with Levittown’s other experimental introductions of mass-production into the building process, this inclusion suggested a potential alternate future scenario in which the role of the architect might become synonymous with that of the industrial designer.

Televisions sold directly to consumers in the 1940s were designed with a similar intent of matching their domestic surroundings. Bulky wooden enclosures bore recognizable similarity to the “cabinets” they were described (as with earlier consumer radios) as resembling. The picture tube might appear behind a folding door, its controls inside a pull-out drawer. Smaller 1950s TV sets were placed on streamlined legs, and by the 1970s the legacy of televisions as furniture was reduced to vestigial strips of fake wooden trim.

The spatial impact of that evolution from architectural forms to discrete consumer objects can be seen in a 2003 series of photographs by the artist Barbara Gallucci, documenting how Levittown’s future generations remodeled the wall spaces once taken up by their embedded televisions after they had become obsolete. One resident replaced it with cupboard doors hiding a modern television, while in other photos boxy contemporary A/V equipment is cluttered in front of a filled-in wall. The TV set looms as a discrete object where it was once part of a context. Levittown’s historical conflation of cabinet and wall raises broader questions about how we might perceive the inner workings behind our screens. With the theatrical “fourth wall” of the television screen sharing physical proximity with the literal walls of the home itself, while broadcasting the same consumer culture initially used to advertise Levittown, it becomes harder to locate any precise boundaries where an implicit proscenium arch might be placed demarcating where the show ends and the reality of its audience begins.

Setting aside the architect’s professional standard of representing the space taken up by a television set only through the faint reference outlines of possible furniture layouts added in for marketing purposes, our understanding of the insides of both televisions and walls would be similarly defined by the limits of our casual perception: blank enclosures concealing inner plumbing we seldom contemplate the existence of until after something goes wrong. Architects themselves ignore it as well, leaving out the low-level construction details of what exists inside their walls until after their drawings have progressed to more finalized later stages of the design process. In the meantime, such areas of unknown or irrelevant technical territory would be uniformly shaded over in a drawing technique called poche.

What one chooses to hide beneath poche is strategic: a floor plan drawn for an engineer would likely conceal fewer of its ancillary functional spaces beneath poche than one created to present to a client or an outside audience. Nolli’s 1748 map of Rome blacked out everything except for areas of space accessible to the public, regardless of whether they existed inside or outside the obfuscated boundaries of individual buildings.

Nolli’s map illustrates how the concept of poche might operate on both a representational and an experiential level, only showing outlines of the walls a person walking through the city would be able to trace through firsthand observation. A floor plan drawn for a restaurant interior renovation might show the dining room but not the kitchen behind it. Poche can cover up both elements you don’t need to draw, and also those which you might not want other people to see.

The thicker the poche, the more it might conceal. Utilitarian bathroom and closet spaces are more likely to have their shapes distorted in response to the boundaries of larger neighboring rooms than the reverse. In the dark we are less likely to notice unruly nooks and angles. Their designs are optimized for efficiency. Assuming that their surrounding walls are all constructed at their minimum required depth, any possible options for smoothing their contours over – perhaps by squaring off awkward acute and obtuse angles, or thickening a wall to become flush with a protruding column – would waste space by making the design trade more of its open floor area for poche. The less surrounding poche a room has to define its specific form with, the more likely that the room itself is also operating as a part of that poche.

Poche can act as a geometric shock absorber, enabling the creation of discrete experiences on the other side of its dampening effect.

Sebastiano Serlio, House For a Rich Man, 1611

Sebastino Serlio’s experimental Mannerist drawings juxtaposed rooms of arbitrarily different shape from each other – circles, squares and ovals – within a common circulating medium of thick poche. Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language much later similarly prescribed constructing homes with “Thick Walls” (pattern 197 in his book) which their occupants could carve into to personalize their own individual spaces. Poche enables discontinuity in our perception of space, like a film abruptly cutting between scenes shot in different locations.

Poche can also embody its own form of information. The comparative thickness of the different expanses of poche demarcating a building’s walls can operate as a shorthand for differences in material construction.

Floor plan of the Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts, published in The American Architect and Building News, Volume X, 1881.

 

Once can recognize from glancing at the floor plan of an old house where a wall of thicker blackness is a brick chimney contrasting against thinner wood framing. Windows typically drawn at a level of partial abstraction still indicate the presence of their glass panes, raising the question of at which point that same convention might, at least on a level of consistent conceptual honesty, implore someone drawing a cutaway of Levittown to acknowledge the presence of another glass opening thickened to resist atmospheric pressure and framed to resemble a porthole into a new type of extended world.

Technical considerations related to the nature of those electronics could also sometimes exert their own inputs on the envelope of the poche surrounding them. Old CRT oscilloscopes required deeper enclosures to accommodate longer low-interference tubes, while 1950s ads boasted specifications of shortened tubes designed to make TV sets more portable. Some designers sought more deliberate disconnects between form and function, as Jonathan Olivares recounted while describing the approach of Richard Sapper:

“Sapper told two different stories about the shape of the ThinkPad. One is that he was inspired by the cigar box, the other by the bento box. In either case, a deceptively dark, plain exterior opens to a world of flavor.”

When switched off, the outline demarcating the edge of the screen of Sapper’s Brionvega ST 201 television (designed in collaboration with Marco Zanuso) becomes invisible behind a sheet of tinted acrylic extending flush to the edges of the device. The appliance becomes an opaque box with no immediately discernible front, sides, or apparent function. The manufacturer called it a “magic cube.” Familiar visual reference points for understanding the function of a device were effectively reduced into poche in order to evoke impressions of opacity and wonder.

Whatever lurked behind those screens was exorcised through an appropriately mystical 21st-century legend, at the hands of Steve Jobs ordering his engineers to submerge iPod prototypes underwater until their last remnant air bubbles of empty space were banished. The resulting trend of miniaturization has often further obfuscated our understanding of how our electronics work. Enclosures too shallow to accommodate the millimeters of travel depth which pressing physical button requires are increasingly substituting them for capacitive touch sensors. Pre-recorded keyboard clicks and camera shutter sounds replace the unavoidable exertions those functions once produced mechanically. The on-screen virtual dimensionality of glossy buttons casting internal shadows during the “Web 2.0” era has been reduced to “flat design” today.

The thin form factors of smartphones and modern laptops provide no more information about their inner workings than the deliberate mystery of Richard Sapper’s designs, but they also further eliminate any hints suggesting how we could wonder about them. No more tangible heft of the unknown looms just beyond your view; surface-mount engineering complexity fits in your hand as if it were magic. Refined and polished like jewelry, and with their initial on-screen interface rendered in textures of pixelated paper and wood, our smartphones have been designed to seamlessly integrate reference points from our familiar everyday surroundings. As our electronic devices evolve to take up less physical space, they are claiming an increasing presence in rooms not already arranged to accommodate them.

Emergent contemporary critiques of “digital dualism” suggest that both the increasing portability of our electronics and their use in a broader range of everyday activities (such as social networking) has made it harder to conceive of the digital world as inhabiting a separate conceptual dimension from our own. Wireless connectivity means that we no longer need to enter a specific category of physical spaces at specific moments in time in order to go “online.” Where some of our prior outdated images of those spaces–hackers lurking in dimly-lit surroundings, the stereotype of the pasty and physically unfit “nerd” as a spatial index of the isolated suburban bedrooms where “personal computers” might once primarily be found–suggest that they might have effectively operated as a cultural extension of the same poche granted to the insides of the electronics themselves, then all of our physical spaces may now be considered equivalently digital.

Our once-popular cultural conception of the potential dangers of computers linking us in communication with shadowy (in a previous era of greater expected anonymity) nefarious actors has, with a few exception like our exoticized speculation about overseas terrorists recruiting over the internet, eroded in response to the increasing suggestion that users on the other end of the connection are the same as us. We have lost the sense of poche once involved in never quite knowing you were talking to online. Generalized warnings about not believing information read on the internet exited the mainstream cultural zeitgeist around the same time that modern social media sites began projecting an image of increasing transparency. Everyone perceives the same standardized layout when navigating Facebook, while viewing content selected through algorithmic filtering to resemble what they have liked and shared before. The loss of friction and potential detours involved in navigating today’s web reduces the amount of poche available for constructing specifically defined online spaces.

A similar effect also seems to have happened offline. The headphones we ubiquitously wear while listening to MP3s introduced an additional layer of mediating personalized filtration between us and our surrounding environments, sonic poche enabling employers to demolish the literal walls of cubicles and private offices in favor of the trend of open floor layouts. Some of that shrinking poche has been displaced to alternate locations in other less visible parts of our physical world as we build increasing numbers of data centers to support our “cloud.” The critical mass of aggregate servers inside a data center produces external physical effects intensified by the very condition of their miniaturization; their density requires them to use loud cooling fans which the people maintaining them wear hearing protection around. Those cooling systems are further supported by the sweating A/C units which form an integral part of their surrounding buildings; the building becomes an augmentative prosthetic support for the computers, designed around their thermal impact on physical space.

While the hardware behind our screens has been shrinking to displace less cubic space overall, the two-dimensional area of newer LCD televisions and monitors is stretching to cover larger portions of our visual field. Gamers set up duplicate and ultrawide monitors to detect surprise enemies hiding in their peripheral vision. The maximum possible screen size has gone from that of a porthole to a stout, squarish 4:3 window opening like you might find on a historic building to a wider horizontal window offering a sweeping panoramic view, making every living room where one is installed a little more Corbusian.

As with the Modernist architecture its proportions evoke, that view is intended to merge the spaces on either side of it. The horizontal windows specifically prescribed in Le Corbusier’s architectural manifestos had the effect of visually connecting the indoors with the outside, suggesting a more seamless spatial transition between the two. In contrast to traditional architectural practices of deliberately framing the views a visitor encounters, as might happen while entering a grand historic home or looking down a Paris boulevard, views through a wider opening are oblique and indirect. The broader the field of view, the less specific control the architect is capable of exerting with regards to what you do or don’t see outside of it. The designer has less ability to frame the view or denote an edge to it, where walls might once have established an experiential form of poche beyond which the realm of deliberate artistic intentionality no longer existed.

The range of possible perspective angles from which one can look through a narrow window will be fewer than those from which you can still see some portions of a wider panoramic view. You can see out through a larger window opening from more different locations within its adjoining room, and those expanded choices of different potential angles from which to look through it will enable you to see a wider range of different possible views. The resulting effect of such a design, especially in conjunction with the corresponding open plan layouts which the steel construction required to achieve those wide openings also enables, is one of encouraging movement through the space.

One product developed in response to LCD screens of equivalent proportions, the Nintendo Wii, had a similar relationship with its surrounding physical space. Nintendo’s approach to advertising the system’s motion-tracking capabilities depicted it being played by collective groups of people in open-plan living rooms. The device’s potential for shared social use, on which its marketing strategy of appealing to more diverse users beyond traditional gamers hinged, implicitly suggested the presence of both a large enough display screen for easy group viewing (especially where it might be harder to retain focus on a smaller screen while moving) and the presence of adequate open space for multiple people to move around in.

The resulting effect is a more cinematic procession through space, in accordance with how the space of film would be defined in contrast to that of theater. Many early attempts at filmmaking assumed the spatial attributes of those two mediums would be the same: the camera was placed in a fixed position before an unchanging set, across which all of the action would unfold within the same one-sided field of view that an audience member would have had from a static seat. Filmmakers only became able to take advantage of the unique properties of their medium after adopting a more flexible interpretation of space than would have been possible in a traditional theater; they discovered the camera’s ability to enable new types of perspectives by moving it through space, and cutting between footage filmed from different positions. Later technological advances making cameras more portable, such as the steadicam, would enable filming from an even wider range of new perspectives.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that the shaky handheld camcorder techniques which eliminated a further layer of theatrical artifice from the footage of The Blair Witch Project, and which also helped reinforce that film story’s implicit existence in the same world as that of its viewers, appeared around the same time that the concept of a “reality show” became popular. Viral user-uploaded YouTube videos would follow a few years later. Where the television sets in George Orwell’s 1984 implied the presence of reciprocal viewership on the other side of their screens, with Big Brother watching the audience as they watched footage of him, the concept of participatory media authentically reflecting the lives of the same viewers its content is increasingly harvested from suggests a reciprocity of production. Under both conditions one’s awareness of the poche of intermediary technologies and institutions between the screen and the cameras filming its content is effectively flattened.

Today we are all carrying cameras with us everywhere. Now that the technology has been miniaturized enough to be included within our mobile phones, access to its capabilities no longer requires us to deliberately carry a separate object. We collect growing varieties of three-dimensional information about the physical environments around us through increasingly spontaneous methods, but all common means of viewing it currently available to general consumers are still constrained by comparatively greater degrees of friction. Virtual reality headsets introduce a more extreme manifestation of poche where they exclude all visual information about their surrounding physical context. The upcoming potential mass-market adoption of augmented reality on existing smartphones will create a flexible platform for experimenting with the technology’s potential, but the act of viewing content within a compact screen requires shifting focus to a closer field of view from that of your surroundings, inside a more intimate volume of personal rather than collective space. The technology operates in social rather than atmospheric resistance against its surroundings.

One opportunity to move beyond the self-contained and inaccessible nature of the tube as a conceptual reference point for our understanding of digital media might be to consider the metaphor of its functionally opposite counterpoint: the internet as an electron microscope comprehensively enclosing and scanning all of us inside of it.

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Ribbonfarm is a longform blog featuring a variety of themes and perspectives.

Comments

  1. Aptenodytes says:

    Your discussion of the history of televisions and architects’ attempts at continuity with past and how early views of the internet were colored by the lack of understanding reminds me of Rao’ s concept of the manufactured normalcy field and his early thoughts on how we might not get used to the accelerating effects of technology. How did we “get used” to it and how did the podge of tech companies play a role?

  2. Aptenodytes says:

    *poche

  3. On a side note: it’s spelt “poché”, (sounds like “pochay” in English) not “poche”.

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