Bill Viola’s “Condominiums in Dataspace” is very McLuhanesque, and that makes this week’s reading a good transition from our discussion of medium as message. Viola’s description of traditional media as “additive” and linear (sound familiar?) shows his awareness of their effects on our cognition. Several passages in this essay invoke the McLuhan notions that 1). we’re incapable of fully appreciating the media milieu we’re swimming in, and 2). that we often misuse new media for the sake of recreating the old. But rather than “doing today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools,” as McLuhan would have it, Viola’s assertion works in reverse: He argues that we’re doing yesterday’s jobs with the tools of today. In our ignorance of their true meaning and power, Viola says, we fall prey to using new media for old purposes using “the same old linear logic system in a new bottle.”
Viola also channels Ted Nelson in his warnings to those “boring and incompetent teachers” not to bypass “the primary medium, not only of their own fields, but of the entire culture as well.” Again, all this reinforcing this idea of media literacy and awareness a la McLuhan.
Like all the other authors we’ve read for this class, Viola is ahead of the game in recognizing the computer’s potential to express and represent human cognition. Like our minds, “Data space is fluid and temporal,” he writes, and as we move into the digital world, we are actually “moving into idea space here, into the world of thoughts and images as they exist in the brain … .” The upshot is that “With the integration of images and video into the domain of computer logic, we are beginning the task of mapping the conceptual structures of our brain onto the technology.” Wait: A part of ourselves being externalized in technological form? Where have I heard that before?
Like Bush, Englebart, and Nelson, Viola seems to embrace the notion that a hypertextual environment is a perfect companion to learning, where the learner is free to start at any point–even free to work from the end back to the beginning to achieve understanding. Or, at least that’s what I thought of when I read this passage: “Our cultural concept of education and knowledge is based upon the idea of building something up from a ground, from zero … It is additive. If we approach this process from the other direction, considering it to be backwards, or subtractive, all sorts of things start to happen.” How that actually looks in practice is another matter, but I’m reminded of the Memex and the Xanadu Project, among other things as I read this.