In the Waves and Radiations chapter of DeLillo's White Noise, one morning, Jack, the novel's protagonist, walks to the bank to check his balance. The image suggested by DeLillo is one which sees a man, a machine and hidden flows of data which had been retrieved and organised to appear, in a readable form, on a screen. In this scenario, the man and the machine are physical entities, the data flow and its rearrangement are instead part of an invisible system which becomes visible, or perhaps less distant, when Jack's expectations match with the data on screen, that is their new visual reconfiguration. They are in accordance.
DeLillo's book is a story about consumerism and the socio-cultural structure behind it. It is a story that points at what lies in the background of society in a specific point in time – the 80s –, a mechanically-generated mythology of signs and symbols operating as a constant sound with no pitch which goes on and on, even if scattered across different sites. The persistent reiteration of 'this sound' happens through the mass media of that time, the television for example, with its advertising slogans; through inhabiting semi-public places, such as supermarkets with their carefully arranged products with carefully designed packages; through interacting with mechanical apparatuses, such as the “automated teller machines” with its ability to reshape data.
Specifically, the interaction between men and a mythology of signs and symbols happens through passages, and DeLillo's excerpt well depicts this: from “a room in some distant city” to the cash machine at Jack's bank in a September's morning, just at the start of a new school year, in North America. And this interaction, this movement of signs across spaces, becomes understandable to the human mind (or eye) when a sense of correspondence occurs, when one grasps their (visual) essence through “being in accord[ance]” with them. Thus this correspondence seems to happen more on a personal and mental level, rather than a tangible one. The visual appearance of the reconfigured signs and symbols remains somewhat different and distant from its distributive channels, “the networks, the circuits, the streams, the harmonies”. There are the flow of data which remains hidden and part of the invisible system, the final figure,which is the visible outcome, the machine and card which are the objects that make the transaction possible. But this feels somewhat removed from Jack's actions, almost disconnected as happening like a moment in which it all magically comes together.
What would this “pleasing interaction” now be? How does our contemporary mythology of signs and symbols occur and manifest itself?
Thirty-odd years after White Noise was written, there are new modes of interaction between men and invisible data flows, men and systems of reorganisation. These modes seem to be less about disconnection and magic comings together of disparate formal elements, and more about active involvement and reception. Flows of data have become a rather normal way in which cultural material, factual accounts and stories reach us, who consequently have begun to act as prime and direct 're-configurers' rather than inactive observers.
The contemporary setting of consumerism might be described as that of information consumption which we promptly seek out through our web journeys, journeys during which we experience moments of reiteration, processes of transformation, modulation and re-arrangement. In these journeys we interact not via enacting physical gestures, but via moving through material spatially configured for being displayed on specific web-based platforms. And this interaction seems to happen under the aegis of convergence, rather than magic correspondences between given data forms and our expectations.
Media scholar Henry Jenkins1 defines convergence as “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behaviour of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experience [consumer experience] they want”. Comparing this to Jack's idea of fortuitous coming together brings about two differences: a flattening of the distance (or difference) between the forms in which flows of content (or data) reach us and a new characteristic in the behaviour of the receiver, pro-activity. We are currently seeing a standardization of forms for which signs and symbols almost translate seamlessly from one medium to another, even when scattered across different sites, and this is often understood as “a pleasing interaction” between a flow of data, a machine and a man's action. As a consequence of this, there has been an array of discourses, from artistic to economic and technological ones, discussing correspondence (or accordance) in relation to the idea of seamless transformations from one medium to another, and also from one site to another; discourses which encompass notions of the end of medium specificity, as well as changes in socio-economical patterns, all of which have risen in the past twenty years.
Because it all appears to be converging (or, better still, has to be converging) – thanks to the perpetual interconnection of our devices – then it seems that all is translatable, and produceable as an endless loop of transformations and comings together. But this is probably only an impression, the superficial (and economically-induced) consequence of current times.
Things exist in accordance to their site, and even though they might often seem to seamlessly translate from one medium to the other – let's think of books and the mutations the publishing industry has been undergoing since the inception of Amazon for example –, things do undergo changes. This is because of the processes of translation inherent in transmitting information – let's think for example of popular story-telling and the variations on a theme that are inherent to this 'older' form of distribution – and because of the specificity of the ‘situation’ which brings such things into being.
One question remains: how in a time which praises convergence and translatability as the essence of contemporary consumption of information, one might understand the “being in accordance” with the invisible system generating our contemporary mythologies? How might one re-think the possibilities inherent to the passages between sites and the meanings which lay between them?
Text by Marialaura Ghidini
1Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 2008. New York: New York University Press