Sunday, August 26, 2007

A True Name, A Name To Conjour With

There is a line from Neuromancer, I can't remember it exactly. Case is talking about names with one of the AIs, Neuromancer probably. At some point the idea comes up that if Case had the AI's name, he could wield some power over it.

An idea Gibson probably gleaned from watching early computer operators playing with command line interfaces on old time-share mainframes. The operator traces a thin green string of characters in an arcane language, maybe something like "ls -al|grep config," unreadable to those who have not been trained in the art, across a black screen, and in response to his utterance, his magic spell, the machine-demon jumps to life, does the bidding of its master. A magic language for postmodernity. Words made electrons made actions. A semiotic conundrum.

And nothing new. After all, in the beginning there was the Word...

Command lines are buried now, lost behind the flash of modern graphical operating systems. Windows, especially, has only the faintest traces of old DOS - its command line ancestor - left. My little MacBook, with its spiffy OSX, actually has a bit more command line there if one should want it, and it even responds to incantions in UNIX, the same ancient magical tongue (more or less) that the mainframe operators of yore summoned their creatures with. But I rarely invoke this feature. The graphical age does all I need it to. Sometimes I play with the command line, just for fun. Just for the feeling (an illusion, in my case) of having "bare metal" mastery over my machine.

But the age of Google has brought about a new form of the Digital True Name. The search string. Take for example, my search this evening for a long lost old friend. I tried to google his real name, but to no avail. Then several pseudonyms I knew him to write fiction under. Still, no dice. Finally, I entered the name of an old cable access television show he and another friend had produced, long ago.

And there he was, or at least, some aspect of him, conjured into being by my utterance of his name. One of his names. The right one. He had, as I suspected he would, succumbed to the temptation of dropping his old cable access show onto YouTube. He had also uploaded some more recent work.

So, despite the years and miles between us, despite our long ago falling out, despite my terrible suspicion that sending any message to him would just reveal there was nothing for us to say to each other anymore, I was able tonight to see the current face and hear the current voice of my old friend. Just by guessing the right name to call him by.

McLuhan said that communications technology would both "extend" our nervous systems and expose us to "auto-amputation" of senses and other capacities not carried by the media we relied on for this extension. I am reminded by this by my episode with my old friend tonight, and even more so by my experience lately with some more recent friends, who have just moved some distance away and thus retreated into the electronic ghost-hood that characterizes long-distance friendships in our electronic age.

I'm grateful for the "magic" technology that allows us to remain, at least in some tenuous way, linked to each other, but at the same time frustrated by the high-speed, instrumental, capitalist system that seems to insist that we must all remain in constant motion, always shedding our friends, never having the chance to build lasting communities, if we wish to "succeed."

What to do about it, though, is a question I can't find a search string to answer.


dr alex said...

how. weird. I just (really, like an hour ago) had an extended conversation about McLuhan with a new colleague, sparking spirals of thought connecting my work, my upcoming continuance of the job search, and my new status as geographically distant from the folks near to my heart. funny how that seems to happen sometimes, several encounters occuring at once that set me on a path of thought I'd sort of forgotten existed.

dr alex said...

"electronic ghosthood."


themikedubose said...

Of course, I flashed back to the Snowcrash idea of working in flatland instead of within the interwub (or whatever he called it)...and that doing so made him feel like a technological priest.

The search string is a great way of democratizing that.

There's something to be done about this, but I've been in conferences all day and just do not have the mental energy to pursue this down its rightful path.

kelly said...

Wireless networks can have their SSID broadcast, or not. If it's not broadcast, well then, the name's the thing.

I've never understood the line about "a rose by any other name"... names are so much more important than that.