Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Deep

Although we were in the very deepest of known depths, there was something not unpleasant about it. And, besides, we were beginning to get accustomed to this troglodyte life.

(Jules Verne, A Journey to the Interior of the Earth)

I saw this painting once in a friend’s studio, a tall and narrow wall-length canvas with a small, minutely painted pastoral landscape at the bottom underneath a narrow band of blue sky which soon turned to blackness the rest of way to the top. It was a vivid representation of just how much sky there is above our heads, how much space – a vast ecosystem that for the most part we do not inhabit, and that yet sustains us. When we were kids we used to do just the opposite: draw big houses and big trees and big people, and then scribble with our pencils a tiny strip of blue at the very top of the page to signify the sky. It was the world as seen from the surface, a world without depth.

But of course there are vast expanses below, as there are above. It’s just that we are less prone to conceptualise or visualise our lived environment along its vertical axis. Geological eras are often represented on a straight up-and-down line, but human history goes from left to right, in the direction of progress, that is to say forward. This also happens to be how a book works: it has a beginning and an end, and you read it from one to the other, for the most part and with the due exceptions. If Maryanne Wolf is correct then it is primarily in this form – within the horizontal linear paradigm of print literacy – that we exercise our deep reading, that is to say immerse ourselves in narratives and arguments with the necessary concentration and thus effectively ‘engage in [the] active construction of meaning’.

If there is a clash between these two geometries – the linear book, the deep reading – nobody seems to pay much attention to it. Certainly not Nicholas Carr, who has stretched Wolf’s argument in order to draw the conclusion that on the web, in this other space, lie the shallows, a region that we are condemned to wander in a permanent state of fretful inattention. One of the book’s cover designs provides a visual representation of the metaphor:

It’s an image that is consonant with a broader set of analogies concerning the internet, such as surfing and skimming, two of the most common descriptors of the way we approach textuality on the networks (that is to say, by staying as close as possible to the surface). And of course the association between information and the sea has long had a popular, bankable appeal. Remember Netscape?

I still find this splash screen nostalgically appealing – faster computers have made splash screens themselves obsolete – as I do the idea of navigating information. Charting a course and using the stars for guidance is a far richer and more romantic image than browsing, or the utterly prosaic act of opening a window. But to use seafaring as a guiding metaphor for our experience of the internet also allows to reconnect with the idea of depth.

Harry Clarke's 1919 illustration for Edgar Allan Poe's 'A Descent into the Maelström'

That old incarnation of Netscape was as web 1.0 as it gets. It was the early years of the mainstreaming of the internet, when most of us still spent most of our time online trying to get our heads around all that life-changing novelty, and adjusting to being suddenly able to access a baffling range of different kinds of knowledge. Also: it was still okay in those days to use a starry night sky as the background for your homepage. There were few conventions and fewer templates, and so clicking on a link still caused a certain frisson, for you could reasonably expect to be taken – very, very slowly – somewhere truly strange.

The thing about colossal squid is that they live at depths beyond our capacity for exploration. For all we know, the ones that drift up so far as to be caught in our nets may be the dwarfs of the species. And who can say what else lives down there, and how, in the near complete darkness and at freezing cold temperatures? They must be odd creatures indeed to even just match the colossal squid, whose metabolism is so slow that 30 grams of prey per day are said to be enough to support its 10-metre frame.

Now on the other hand the thing about web pages – and this was true even in those early days when loading 30 kilobytes of text took actual time – is that their dimensions are virtually limitless, but convention has settled into the vast majority of them having a portrait aspect, like book pages. This may strike as the obvious, natural choice, except computer screens are actually in landscape, and there is no compelling reason why texts couldn’t be displayed on a single continuous line. Indeed occasionally they were in the days of Netscape 2.0, although this was generally because the author of the page had stuffed up the coding. At any rate, fixing the margins at the sides and allowing the page to scroll downwards is how electronic texts worked well before the internet, and it has practical advantages – if you wished to print long single-line texts you’d need one of those old fashioned ticker-tape printers, which would be good for little else.

I digress: my point is that whilst a single page in a printed book is taller than it is wide, successive pages are bound side by side, and so the book is an object that proceeds on a horizontal line, whereas a web page – in which one might find the content of whole books, if not whole libraries – proceeds on a vertical line. For how long? Well, like I said, there is no theoretical limit, although there may well be practical ones. I have just tried composing a 20,000 line post that Blogger accepted without a hitch (warning: it’s a dreadful pun, I should be ashamed of myself). And again I’m sure there would be practical issues – such as, where would you store it? – but one could conceivably design a crawler that instead of indexing the content of web pages simply copied them all onto a master page that would thus reproduce in real time the Whole of the Internet, including past versions of every page as soon as it is updated and as many copies and translations of Borges’ 'The Library of Babel' as people see fit to upload.

And still people wouldn’t read it.

That’s the complaint, isn’t it? That people don’t read on the screen, that they skim, that they jump from link to link, that they stop to check their email. Cory Doctorow has called the internet an ‘ecosystem of interrupting technologies’. There is truth in that, as in the anecdotal and increasingly empirical evidence that young people who learned to read around the time that Netscape 2.0 was released have trouble dealing with dense written texts in print form.

The page reproduced above comes from the 4th-Century Codex Sinaiticus and is an example of scriptio continua, meaning that there is no separation between words, as was the common practice in ancient codices. Until at least the time of Saint Ambrose even the most highly educated people read aloud anyway, so the separations between the words would have been apprehended when one listened to oneself, as we do when we are in conversation, for words actually blend with one another in speech. Going back to the codex, I dare say that we would struggle to penetrate those walls of words, highly literate creatures that we are, and that in that density lay the roots of a culture that placed an inordinate importance in the value of each word, of each square inch of illuminated text (and of the precious paper on which it was written).

Nowadays the space between words, between concepts, is no longer a commodity. I would try your patience but waste nothing but electrons if I started leaving

big, abitrary gaps in the middle of sentences, or if I wrote
hastening the descent. And so the geometry of our texts is changing, and as the idea of bottomless pages and of the changed interplay between full and empty spaces becomes more ingrained we shall start to see some new possibilities, and begin to innovate our architectures of meaning. Perhaps even capture some of the strangeness that lurks in the darkest recesses of the abyss.

I suspected that web artists and illustrators might be at the forefront of this, and that if anybody had begun to exploit page depth as a native form of digital expression, it would be them. And so I asked Dylan Horrocks, and he asked his friends, and together they came up with some fine examples that I am going to leave you with. Beginning close to home with the always excellent Drawing Silence and his infinite canvases, continuing with raphaelB’s very funny and marvellously scrollable Il revient et il bave (good also for my collection of falls) and Jellyvampire’s artist’s plea, but most of all Scott McLeod, whose sublimely fluent use of the portrait aspect in Zot would be the kind of thing that would make me call off the search, were it not for the work that he has done in The Right Number.

In this three-part graphic novella (part three is as yet unpublished), McLeod has dispensed with scrolling altogether: depth is achieved instead by zooming into each panel to reveal the one that follows it, and so forth until completion. The idea, straight out of Giordano Bruno, is that each pixel can potentially expand into a whole world of narrative and meaning, and the effect – a little dizzying – is that of peering into cyberspace, the space behind, beneath the screen. It is also a text that forgets itself in the act of reading, as each panel recedes somewhere behind your retinas as the new one comes into view.

There is nothing in the anaemic 3D currently peddled in our cinemas that matches the sense in McLeod’s work that a conceptual, virtual space is being concretely represented before your eyes, and that you could physically reach inside the screen and manipulate it. And this too is a deep reading of sorts, one that engages with the spatial dimensions of our containers of text and is worthy of reflection. For if sustained attention, understanding and the ‘active engagement in the construction of meaning’ are to be found at all in the new medium, it will be through its native forms and in its natural language.

With many thanks to Dylan Horrocks and Greg Bennett, Dick Whyte, David Larsen, Paul Graveson, Morgan Davie and Shaun Craill for the expert advice.