Very short of time today but can’t resist drawing attention to Google’s campfire movie for the new OpenSocial project – the long-awaited open source answer to Facebook. It certainly has jumped straight into the Google Notebook I keep for metaphors of nature and cyberspace, especially since it doesn’t even need any physical space whatsoever – it exists entirely in the ether, untethered even by a server: "With the Google Gadget Editor and a simple key/value API, you can build a complete social app with no server at all." Just look at those flickering flames and that cute log!
Blind Light is the name of Antony Gormley‘s current exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London, and it’s also the title of the individual exhibit which is attracting much attention this year, an invitation to "lose yourself in light and vapour in this cloud-filled glass room that is cold, wet and disorientating".
I removed my spectacles and hooked them into the top of my shirt, then walked into the mist. Immediately my nose started running copiously and then something sharp in the air caught at my throat and made me cough. I hesitated, wondering whether the atmosphere was toxic in some way they hadn’t warned us about. I could hear other people coughing elsewhere in the mist too, but it must only have been the shock of the difference in density, because breathing was immediately easy again and I was able to continue my exploration. My skin quickly became coated with moisture and I wondered whether my clothes would be wet afterwards (they weren’t).
I’ve been in fog similar to this before, but only when driving, never when walking. And usually in Britain, although there was one memorable moment when, driving north of Los Angeles (I think it was on Interstate 14 near Red Rock Canyon but that may be misremembering), I passed through a series of canyons burning with sunshine with the exception of one which was full of white fog, suddenly reducing visibility to just a few yards. In the box of fog which is Blind Light, I was reminded of that cloud-filled canyon when I realised I could see nothing below my knees but thick white vapour. I held out my hand in front of me, and it was perfectly visible, but when I looked down, nothing. Then the mists shifted and my feet drifted momentarily into view before disappearing again in a swirl of white.
What does this have to do with nature and cyberspace? Quite simply because the space I was most reminded of when I was in Blind Light was the Coat Closet at LambdaMOO. Log on as a guest and that’s where you’ll find yourself – in a dark, cramped space. It appears to be very crowded in here; you keep bumping into what feels like coats, boots, and other people. But then as I thought about it further I remembered also that I myself built a foggy room in LambdaMOO – or rather, a foggy field, as part of a space called
_^^~^___ the fields—_____~~^_^-~~ ____^^___~~~~~~
The sky is an English grey, as if the mists of Autumn are held fast in a canopy above our heads; a canopy which at any moment might fall and surround us, billowing out to hide the stream and the trees and the tractor and the wheeling birds… until we are left alone and silent in a muffling quilt of cloud.
So Blind Light recalled my early days at LambdaMOO when every visit felt like wandering through fog yet knowing that hundreds of people were close by – you just couldn’t see them. At the exhibition, however, there was one big drawback, and that was the voices, calls and laughter of other visitors, which made it impossible to focus. I know many will dislike this idea, but I think Gormley should impose a rule of silence on people entering the exhibit. Without that, it’s not much more than a fairground ride.
It turns out that survival role-model Bear Grylls isn’t quite so much of a wilderness guy as he makes out. According to an article in The Sunday Times – TV ‘survival king’ stayed in hotels – he enjoyed the pleasures of civilisation a little more frequently than might have been expected during the making of his TV series Born Survivor, where we see him devouring a wide variety of raw and live food – see the stomach-churning video on the Sky site – and doing other Tough Man things. Must have been tortuous, especially if, for example, he had just enjoyed a tasty boxed lunch from his hotel, the Bass Lake Pines Resort in the Sierra Nevada.
So why do we watch so many TV programmes about nature red in tooth and claw and why do we want to believe them? Why are we fascinated by people like Bear Grylls, with his ridiculous name and his faux wildness? Or, for that matter, Grey Owl, aka Archie Belaney, the Englishman with the capacity for deep deep fantasy who I wrote about in Hello World and who, I suspect, enthralled my grandparents at a talk he gave in Leicester in 1930s as well as the young Richard and David Attenborough, also in the audience that night.
But I digress. There are many reasons why we fall for this, and I’m exploring them in my research, but right now what I’m wondering about is the connection between this phenomenon and social networking sites like Facebook. Think about it. Time was when watching TV and reading books were considered anti-social, but recently the isolation of solo consumption has taken a new turn – now it gives us respite from the endless pressures of social networking. At home, by ourselves or with our intimate friends and family, we watch Bear Grylls make his way in the wilderness alone, and we are there with him, or we even become him, our imaginations plugged into his – or at least, into his producer’s. But log on to a site like Facebook and you’re thrust into a noisy city.
I’ve only been on Facebook a few weeks and as an old-time online community person I’ve been hugely impressed by the sophisticated functionality which informs me about everything that everyone I know is doing. Indeed, it can only be a matter of time before I will be informed, real time, of the exact moment when anyone takes a pee. Well, I’m quite sociable myself sometimes, and I like to be in contact with people I know, but I don’t want to be Zombie, or Compare People, or create a map of my best friends as opposed to those friends I presumably care less about. Every time I access someone else’s feature I do not want to be offered the opportunity of installing it for myself. It’s all too much, just too too much.
Bear Grylls and his enterprising TV crew at least offer me the fantasy of solitude, and that’s starting to feel preferable to the fantasy of civilisation that I’m getting on Facebook. So how can I survive in the seething naked jungle which is Facebook? Excuse me while I bite the head off this Zombie.