Lightness of Being Unknown
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 Bachs 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
It is hard to write and code at the
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
Theres a difference between what Im
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
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. Ill make time
for those that simply make me think; thats 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
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
Unknowns Hard_Core project. Check the streaming java video.
Scott turns away from the screen.
I am not a computer programmer, but
by 1998 Id been wallowing around in HTML for several years. My programmer
friends tell me that HTML isnt really code, its 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
How simple and how complex. Its 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
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 texts authors) was a trip in
and of itself.
The first page of the Unknown was the
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
texts 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 Scotts
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 dont quite understand what this
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 Andersons
Language is a Virus from Napster. I dont 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 Andersons 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. Its exciting. I dont feel bad at all. The
Unknown is available for free. And Phil Ochs is dead, and so he isnt
missing out on any royalties. Im downloading Phil OchsOutside 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
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
didnt 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
A squirrel appears behind Scott on his
desk, and begins to scrabble through the ashtray, scattering butts and
ash across his keyboard.
It wasnt great literature, but
I dont 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 dont 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 dont know.