Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Hello people. Here's an image I just did for the New York Times travel section about how many fancier hotels treat WiFi as an added expense, while most travelers consider it as important as electricity and running water. WiFi sure helped me out when I was in L.A. two weeks ago. But as you can see, I had to resort to a hopefully recognizable glyph to represent WiFi because it doesn't actually look like anything. That's the trouble with modern technology: it doesn't look like anything. Take music. When I was a kid, music was purchased in the form of polyvinyl chloride disks. Before that the disks were made of shellac, wax and other groove-holding media. And before that, music was sold in the form of do-it-yourself instruction kits called "sheet music." But before that, what happened? Granted, I'm talking about quite a while ago. Musical notation dates back to 2000 B.C. somewhere near Baghdad. But before that, the only way to preserve songs was to listen carefully to the person performing and remember it so you could perform it for someone else. A song wasn't any physical object of any kind. Just a complex thought. So back to polyvinyl chloride disks. Moving forward, people started buying magnetic tape cassettes. And then came what really seemed like the medium of the future to me: compact discs. They are futuristic because they are shiny and make rainbows and you need a laser beam to play them. How cool! Then came the MP3, or more precisely, Moving Picture Experts Group-1: Audio Layer 3. Talk about futuristic! I bet you didn't even know its full name! An MP3 uses a lossy compression algorithm, and has many other confounding details I won't bother you with. But what is it? What does it look like? How do I represent one in an illustration? Suddenly, commercial music has once again become as elusive a form as the lullaby Hammurabi's grandmother used to sing him. Arthur C. Clark, the guy who came up with the idea for the geostationary communications satellite, as well as the homicidal computer HAL 9000, once wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The only difference between Lord Voldemort and your iPod dock is that the spell cast isn't Avada Kedavra, but rather a series of ones and zeroes. And you can only put binary code in illustrations so many times before you go insane. That's all I've got.