“the Unbearable Lightness of Being Unknown”
(Feature Story), Entertainment Tonight, February 14, 2000
Camera pans slowly across a windswept moor, the sky the color of ash. Briefly we hear the first few melancholy bars of Largo, from Bach’s Musical Offering, which fades down leaving the sound of wind whipping the microphone. Pan across a frigid Atlantic upon whose rocky shores stands Scott Rettberg, wearing a wool sweater, spectacles, rugged trousers, and boots. He stares across the water for some time before he turns to face the camera, and begins to speak:
“It is hard to write and code at the same time.
But it is harder still to write and not code at the same time.
I think that every writer, at some point, dreams of writing a work that is patently not in code - that transmits some exact experience of an experience had by the writer to the reader. A completely error-free transmission, without noise or static.”
To demonstrate this, Scott removes his backpack and pulls from it a transmitter radio. He turns it on. Static. He nods deeply and tosses the radio into the crashing surf. He begins to walk along the shore.
“It never happens that way. Every sentence is loaded with interference. To be a human reader is to distort. The art of writing literature is in transforming this rudimentary code of simple symbols into something that has *some* meaning to some unknown other.
There’s a difference between what I’m trying to get at here and mimesis. Maybe the dream I mean is that of phenomenological intention. I want you, reader, to experience something *like this* and not something *like that*. We enter into these general agreements about the code we share. Love to you is something different from love to me. But we can agree that it is something much different from hate. I would like for you to feel the love the way I feel it. I will settle for your approximation, your knowledge, at least, that love is not hate.”
The camera zooms out into the foggy water, zooming in on two fishermen in a skiff, one of whom is smoking a pipe gently. Cut to Chicago, Publishers Row, a busy street with taxicabs. Pedestrians glare at the camera as they sidestep it. A car hurls by blasting salsa music.
Scott Rettberg, wearing a suit and tie, steps in front of the camera.
“the greatest works of literature, in my view, are those that make me laugh or make me cry. I’ll make time for those that simply make me think; that’s no mean feat in itself. But the toughest task is the belly-laugh or the eyes brimming with tears. The point at which the code becomes transparent is the apex of the literary experience.”
He pauses to wipe away a tear. Cut to the Damen Brown Line EL stop. Scott Rettberg passes through a turnstile and approaches the camera from afar, walking through a concrete corridor. His laugh echoes as he speaks.
“Those dead bastards I admire, they are the ones who make me look silly on a train, laughing inexplicably at a code of squiggly lines, or those who make a gray day seem far bleaker.
Maybe this is why I grew tired of theory in my mid-twenties. Theory did many things to me, but it never made me laugh; never made me cry.”
His lips move as he continues to speak, but his speech is rendered inaudible by a passing train. He stops speaking and stares into the camera meaningfully.
Cut: Scott Rettberg is standing in front of a ruby iMac. Brian Hagemann, seated at the computer, is struggling to smoke a roach without burning his fingertips. “Ouch” mutters Hagemann. “Sh...” says Scott, and begins to speak, placing his right hand on the computer monitor, as if on the shoulder of a trusted friend.
“Browsers read differently as well. The <H3> tag will read differently on Netscape and Internet Explorer. The <font=”sans-serif”> tag will produce a different typeface on Macintosh than it will on Windows. In coding for the Web, we write in approximations. We cast our intentions to cyberspace, we throw our code into a network of other codes which will reinterpret it, or writing to the writing of an army of faceless others who have written the medium through which that “original” writing is interpreted and transmitted for reinterpretation yet again when it finally reaches that other human at another node on the network. You know.”
Behind Scott, Hagemann, grinning surreptitiously, calls up a pornographic website. “Scott, this is perfect for the Unknown’s Hard_Core project. Check the streaming java video.”
Scott turns away from the screen.
“I am not a computer programmer, but by 1998 I’d been wallowing around in HTML for several years. My programmer friends tell me that HTML isn’t really code, it’s just markup. But even within that simple markup language, there opens up a whole layer of possibility opens, one that was not available to generations of writers working in paper-based text.”
Hagemann, irritated, interrupts: “What? The <blink> tag?”
Scott, unfazed, nods, and continues to speak:
“The link. How simple and how complex. It’s like a period, or a comma, or a semicolon, or a line-break. As a writer, I think what most excites me about the link is its simplicity. Its simplicity makes it more flexible, more filled with variant potential for complexity; it is a new grammatical unit.”
Hagemann, obviously annoyed, stands up and leaves, walking between Scott and the camera, tripping on a cable, causing the camera to jerk. Scott smiles. And continues:
“The Unknown project started out as a simple exploration of the link. The first few pages of The Unknown were more indicative of the substances that William, Dirk and I had ingested than they were of anything that the story would become. We were in enough of a fog that the simple idea that we could move from the midst of a sentence to another page, that we could code that readerly movement into the text itself (as the text’s authors) was a “trip” in and of itself.
The first page of the Unknown was “the Unknown:<unknown.htm>”
Scott leans down to look into the computer monitor, expecting to see a page from the Unknown, and instead the camera pans in on the blinking text “XXX ADULTS ONLY.”
Cut. Scott, wearing a turban, is standing in the desert, holding the reins of a camel. The camel stamps restlessly. In the background is the great pyramid of Cheops. Scott speaks, and his nouns are all capitalized:
“there are simple Links from Sentence to Sentence. From Ignorance to the Indescribable to Language Games to Knowledge to Pain to Joy to Frontiers to Spaces between to Thought Process to Scale to Politics.
I return to that page again and again when I think of The Unknown because, in some way, whatever the work became (and did not become), it all contained within itself the text’s “seminal” moments. Dirk, William and I wrote that page together, and though, in itself, it contains very little meaning, it became a kind of touchstone for the alternately silly, ambitious, and serious work which would follow.”
Scott reaches into a leather shouldersack and withdraws a steaming cold can of Berghoff. He cracks it and takes an earnest swig. The camel extends an enormous tongue and licks Scott’s face, knocking him over.
Cut: Scott is wearing a white lab coat and goggles, the camera precedes him down a long corridor. He clasps his hands as he speaks:
“This summer, in June 2000, the Human Genome Project announced the completion of a working draft sequence of the 3 billion-some base pairs of the human genome. By 2003, the Human Genome Project expects to have a finished quality map of the human DNA...”
He pauses where two corridors intersect to glance questioningly to his right and left, and admits:
“I don’t quite understand what this means.
I do understand that it will result in a deeper understanding of our possible biological differences. That is, that there are a limited, but multitudinous, number of possible differences. These differences break down to one of two choices made by the random merging of sperm and egg or the hand of God.”
There is an ominous thunderclap.
“Mapping this sequence will give science the power not necessarily to make those choices, but to recognize which ones have been made. Scientists can already read embryos.”
Cut. Scott is sitting at his computer at a desk in the woods. In a glade beyond him, deer are grazing. Scott, facing away from the camera, is manipulating his mouse intently:
“Right now I am downloading Laurie Anderson’s “Language is a Virus” from Napster. I don’t know the song. I assume it is a takeoff on William S. Burroughs, who said that language is an alien virus from outer space, among other things.”
From the computer emerges the opening beat of the song, and Laurie Anderson’s words:
“Paradise is exactly like where you are right now, only much, much better.”
Scott presses [stop].
“Laurie Anderson is now commenting on this text as I write it.
Other people from all over the world are scanning my shared “My MP3” folder for songs that they like.
This is my first night on Napster. A friend talked me into it. It’s exciting. I don’t feel bad at all. The Unknown is available for free. And Phil Ochs is dead, and so he isn’t missing out on any royalties. I’m downloading Phil Ochs’“Outside of a Small Circle of Friends” at the same time as I download Laurie Anderson. I got Fulsom Prison by Johnny Cash and several Beatles tunes already.”
Scott suddenly turns in his chair to face the camera. The deer, startled at the motion, bound away. Scott frowns:
“Screw Michael Jackson, or whatever corporation owns the Beatles now.”
He lights a cigarette. An owl hoots. He continues:
“the Internet is a good place for people to systematize the selective saying of “Fuck You.” Yahoo! is a great example of this. It started out as a kind of “fuck you” to people who didn’t think the Web was anything but a nerd depot. Yahoo! said fuck you to that and fuck you to chaos. Then they started a corporation with a silly name that ended up completely distorting the world economy.
The virus metaphor works well for the Internet. I just read a book, a kind of book I would have never thought of reading three years ago, a marketing book by Seth Godin called “Launching the Ideavirus.” I read the book because I liked the way it was distributed. Godin put the e-book up on the Internet for free download. The “manifesto” that is the core of the book is available for free on the web. And the kicker was that Godin sent me the book for free. And his bald head sat on the cover of his book around my office for a month. Then I read the book.”
A squirrel appears behind Scott on his desk, and begins to scrabble through the ashtray, scattering butts and ash across his keyboard.
“It wasn’t great literature, but I don’t have much reading time lately and it was short. The basic idea of the book is that the best things in life are available for free before they make money. Or don’t make money. But the things that get known get known because they are easy, they are catchy, they are like a virus and they replicate.”
Cut to a close-up of a cash register. As Scott continues to talk, a hand operates the register and makes many transactions. There is the sound of a cash register, but not in sync with the video. Scott is barely audible:
“I like to think The Unknown was like that. I guess it is like that. It was free, it was catchy. It got passed around and now it is known. Not that viruses get spread without some effort on the part of the virus. Marketing is a little like science, or philosophy. I don’t know.”
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