II. Around 1984
Information theory as it was codified following the Second World War was primarily an academic phenomenon. Though several of its most important proponents, such as Norbert Wiener, eventually achieved popular status and notoriety for their work, and though computing machines (or "giant mechanical brains," as they were sometimes called) enjoyed a public vogue, the scholarly process involved in studying this foundational era of information theory could only properly begin with attention to the institutional micro-histories comprised of its primary documents: the proceedings of the Macy conferences (which have since been edited and published by the Macy Foundation); the papers and correspondence of key figures like John von Neuman; and careful readings of the fieldís seminal books and monographs, such as Wienerís Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948), Shannon and Warren Weaverís The Mathamatical Theory of Communication (1948), and Donald Mackayís various attempts to refute Shannonís foundational premise that information could be defined independently of meaning (eventually collected in a 1969 volume entitled Information, Mechanism, and Meaning). But the kind of information theory I am concerned with here and now, in our present day, does not manifest itself in the compressed and condensed form afforded by conference proceedings and other channels of scholarly communication. The primary locus of information circa 1998 is without question the popular media: film, television, publishing and advertising, and of course, the new digital and online media. The aesthetic of Wired, for example, (or that of lesser-known but more artistically innovative publications such as RayGun or The Face) is also the mixed-media aesthetic of MTV, which first went on the air in 1981 with a pop jingle by the Buggles that is itself a condensed lesson in comparative media: "Video Killed the Radio Star." Throughout the eighties, music videos were important showcases for computer-generated animation and effects, perhaps most notably in work by Peter Gabriel and Todd Rundgren. Yet MTV cannot be understood apart from the much broader late twentieth century phenomenon the literary critic Larry McCaffery has dubbed Avant Pop, which circumscribes the increasingly commonplace fusion of popular media imagery to the collage techniques of the modern and postmodern avant garde -- a fusion that is often practically accomplished by means of digital tools and technologies, as in the network television series Max Headroom or the campaigns of the underground musicians, culture jammers, and media pranksters documented in Craig Baldwinís film Sonic Outlaws (which centers around issues of intellectual property and visual and audio sampling in this age of digital post-production).  Everything, in short, is, as hypertext guru Ted Nelson is sometimes wont to say, deeply interwtingled.
Consider the example of William Gibsonís 1984 novel Neuromancer, which gives us what is surely the most famous prose evocation of cyberspace:
The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games, early graphics programs and military experiments with cranial jacks. [. . .] Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding . . . (55)
This sparse description (which, it may be of interest to note, is presented not in Gibsonís authorial voice but rather as the narration of an anonymous content-provider), has been frequently quoted, often as the de facto definition of "cyberspace" rather than the articulated fiction that it is. Though Sandy Stone is surely right to say that in the broadest sense Gibsonís concept of cyberspace was "pulled from the kinds of electronic networking he saw already in use all around him" -- varieties of networked experience that would also become the backdrop for Donna Harawayís "Manifesto for Cyborgs," first published only one year later and probably still the single most influential social-materialist critique of information technology we have -- there were also more clearly defined points of departure for Gibsonís writing (33). The arcade games mentioned in his first sentence (above), for example, were also the explicit inspiration for the computer graphics and virtual landscapes portrayed in the popular Walt Disney film Tron, released two years prior to Neuromancerís publication. Tronís special effects and animation, highly innovative for their day, are strikingly similar to the cyberspaces described by Gibson, as evidenced in the following segment from Tronís screenplay: "We seem at first to be in the Electronic World still, flying over a vast circuit board lit by countless dots of light. . . . As we fly over the grid, descending, the image comes into clearer focus, and we realize that this is not a circuit board, but rather an actual landscape, a suburban grid at twilight." Whether or not Gibson was directly influenced by Tronís imagery is difficult to know. In interviews, he cites not the movie but rather his own experiences in video arcades for the inspiration behind his version of cyberspace.  But we are left with the fact that two of the most popular science fiction narratives of their day both adopted all but identical aesthetic conventions to evoke the otherwise enigmatic idea of an abstract electronic setting -- aesthetic conventions whose full genealogies would seem to originate much earlier in the century, perhaps with the widespread introduction of neon signs and outdoor electrical lighting into urban environments -- " . . . like city lights, receding."
That the cyberspaces of both Neuromancer and Tron (as well as other cyberpunk productions such as the short stories in Gibsonís "Burning Chrome" anthology or even the 1981 animated feature Heavy Metal) are artificial alloys derived of complex cultural skeins may seem an obvious point, but it is one that is often lost in audienceís enthusiasm for the work. Consider the speculative writings of the so-called digeratti, that loose clique of artists and public intellectuals who have emerged over the course of the last decade with some of the most widely-read accounts of the future of human-computer interaction. A touchstone would be Michael Benediktís anthology entitled Cyberspace: First Steps, published in 1991 by the MIT Press. Prefaced by Gibson, the volume contains fifteen essays, notable today, less than ten years later, for how literally they read his novels as starting points for actual research agendas in interface design and related fields. All of the essays oscillate between tacit recognition of the preliminary and tentative status of the actual technologies on the one hand, and a willingness to talk about cyberspace as though it were already an observable phenomenon on the other. Some contributors simply choose not to acknowledge this as an issue; Marcus Novak, for example, does not hesitate to inform us that, "The function of [cyberspace synthesizers] is to receive a minimal description of the cyberspace, coded and compressed, and from it to render a visualization of that space for the user to navigate with" (233). The problem here, of course, is that in an essay filled with many similar gestures, Novak is assuming that cyberspace is subject matter evocative enough for the reader to suspend disbelief and benefit from a putatively sober description of a technology that does not in fact exist. Other contributors are more circumspect, such as David Tomas, who asserts the following: "Although cyberspace has been popularized by Gibsonís books, it is neither a pure Ďpopí phenomenon nor a simple technological artifact, but rather a powerful, collective, mnemonic technology that promises to have an important, if not revolutionary, impact on the future compositions of human identities and cultures" (31-2). This has the appearance of a balanced assessment, yet it is clear that when Tomas talks about cyberspace as a "technology" he cannot mean technology in the sense of any specific hardware or software implementation -- a meaning he hastens to jettison by preceding his reference to "technological artifacts" with the qualifier "simple" and by placing the whole of the phrase in parallel with the equally ineffectual notion of cyberspace as a "pure Ďpopí phenomenon." Cyberspace, as it is invoked here, can only be a technology in the sense that the word itself, or more precisely, the idea of cyberspace mimics the behavior of certain material technologies, functioning as a "powerful, collective, mnemonic," or in other words, as a shorthand for a whole range of communicative agendas given depth and form by a shared aesthetic.
To come to the point in a different way, nowhere in Benediktís volume, which is replete with blueprints for cyberspace decks, lyrical evocations of virtual skylines, and attractive CAD-rendered illustrations and visualizations (all of which look a great deal like the sets in Tron), have I been able to locate a single sustained discussion of the more-than twenty-year-old ARPANET, the backbone of the Internet and graphical World-Wide Web as we know them today. From this it is perhaps not too tendentious to conclude that in 1991 the discourse of cyberspace (at least as recorded in the Benedikt collection) was still a world apart from the nascent telecommunications infrastructure of a global computer network that already included electronic mail, electronic news, networked file transfers, remote systems logins, and a good deal more; while today, as anyone exposed to the popular cant of the Information Superhighway knows, terms such as "cyberspace," "surfing the Web," and "getting online" all arrive and depart from the same vague notion of universal electronic telepresence. The vocabulary that once belonged exclusively to an aesthetic conceit has been superimposed, by both the popular media and the digeratti, over the hardware and software associated with client-server computing -- though of course the average Web site looks nothing at all like the fanciful renderings in the Benedikt book (figures 3 and 4), and neither tabloid talk of "Predators stalking our children in cyberspace!" nor John Perry Barlowís libertarian "Declaration of the Independence of Cybersapce" have much resonance with Gibsonís "fluid neon origami trick" and the other original epithets of the matrix.
But the visual aesthetics of information do not descend solely from William Gibson and early-eighties science fiction, nor is the process of cultural diffusion always one by which a fictional device becomes subsequently identified with functional technologies. Sometimes the reverse happens, as is the case with desktop publishing and current "post-alphabetic" trends in graphic design, which in large part stem from a single technological event: the 1984 mass-market release of the Apple Macintosh. Critics such as Richard Lanham have commented before on the implications of desktop publishing and digital typography, noting that the creative control afforded by the font libraries and clip art galleries at every userís fingertips contribute to the breakdown of traditional distinctions between reader and writer while dramatizing the malleability of words and images in a digital environment. Here I want to argue that graphic design is actually possessed of a deeper and much more specific import for critical observers of the new media: that it is in fact the single most important arena in which the public learns to recognize the look and feel of information qua information. Though it would be historically incorrect to equate the current post-alphabetic style of graphic design with the Mac itself (significant experiments in non-linear design were underway almost a decade earlier in such disparate settings as Detroitís Cranbrook Academy of Arts and the underground poster art of the London punk scene, to say nothing of loose but obvious associations with avant garde movements such as Fluxus, Situationism, Dada, and Futurism), it is correct to say that the Mac invigorated the desktop publishing industry and made it a practical reality. Perhaps most importantly, the early limitations of the Macintosh (its low-resolution VDT display) were quickly enlisted by type designers such as Emigreís Zuzana Licko -- who began working seriously with the Mac within weeks of its debut -- to provide the basic components of an electronic graphical identity. Licko says of this process:
I started my venture with bitmap type designs, created for the course resolutions of the computer screen and dot matrix printer. The challenge was that because the early computers were so limited in what they could do you really had to design something special. . . . it was physically impossible to adapt 8-point Goudy Old Style to 72 dots to the inch. In the end you couldnít tell Goudy Old Style from Times New Roman or any other serif text face. . . . It is impossible to transfer typefaces between technologies without alterations because each medium has its peculiar qualities and thus requires unique designs. (18, 23)
What began as a material limitation in the mediumís underlying hardware and display technologies was quickly accepted, adopted, and adapted as an integral aspect of the mediumís aesthetic identity, an identity which has remained iconically intact and recognizable (think jaggies) even today, long after the technological base has shifted beyond the crude conditions Licko describes above (figure 5). By way of reverse contrast, it is useful to note that computer modeling tools have only been capable of replicating some of the most basic aspects of Gibsonís imagining of cyberspace, and functional virtual reality systems (helmets, goggles, data gloves and the like), which have been under investigation in one form or another since the late sixties, are still in their most primitive state. Yet both the techno-will-oí-the-wisp of Gibsonís "lines of light" and the obsolescent jaggies of the early Emigre fonts both persist as among the most influential artifices of information.