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Everywhere all the time
Of course too much information is better than no information but information glut has its own hazards


August 29, 2005

A couple of weeks ago I was lounging in a theater, eagerly awaiting the start of the movie when I found myself a captive audience to one of those pre-movie slide shows with the trivia and silly quotes from movies stars and celebrities running in a loop ad nauseam (who said "Well, this is the LAST TIME... "? Dramatic fade out, fade in: Superstar comedian Jim Kerry in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Jim will be appearing next in The Loony Guy).

I was still shaking my head at this bit of silliness when the next slide flashed by: 36000 liters of soft drink is dispensed annually from pop machines in this theater alone. I wondered why the theater management or the folks at the Ministry of Silly Quotes deemed it necessary to inform me of this particular statistic. Was this a clever ploy aimed at enticing me to run to the concession stand and get my customary vat of pop to go along with my basketful of popcorn? Or perhaps, concerned that I might be bored, they felt obligated to provide me with some mean to fill the "dead time" before the entertainment began.

In a moment of supreme lucidity, it occurred to me that these days there is hardly any public space where I am not constantly bombarded by information. I was riding the elevator the other day and there it was: a small closed-circuit LCD screen flashing the usual mix of international headlines, baseball scores and celebrities de jour factoids. The buses and subways have long been colonized by Gap and Nike and television more than ever is little more than an extended infomercial. Is it chunks of entertainment between the commercials or the other way around? That distinction though, is passé in the current zeitgeist, too 1950s, positively pre-Pop, too pre postmodern.

The commercials, sitcoms, cop shows and rock videos borrow from each other and ape one another to such a hall-of-mirror dizziness that it's increasingly difficult to know what is what and which is which (try it sometime, just turn on the TV and make a guess what you're watching. It makes a nice party game).

European soccer stadiums have for some time now fashioned LED (Light Emitting Diodes) banners along the field where painted signs used to be, cleverly increasingly their advertising revenue manifold. The viewers obviously have adjusted to the constant flicker of the banners twitching, switching, flashing product placements on an average of one per three seconds.

An intense war is going on, indeed, out in the public space for my eyeballs and ear drums and now with the advances in digital technology and miniaturization of communication media there is very little one can do to escape it. It's not enough to just turn off that TV as they used to say anymore, it won't be long before 3-D holograms occupy plain air. The Japanese, a nation of gadget freaks, have already started the ball rolling on hologram technology.

Back to the movie theater. I kept mulling over the "36000 liters of pop dispensed in this movie theater alone", or the banal quotes from celebrities and superstars (megastars, supernovas, übercomets). Alas celebrity quotes are not what they used to be. "Frankly my dear", said Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind, "I don't give a damn." "Fasten your seatbelts ...", uttered Bette Davis famously in All About Eve, "it's going to be a bumpy night!" Blame this on the increasingly pedestrian quality of movie dialogue in American cinema.

Jim Kerry and Angelina Jolie can't compete with the immortals of the past. They don't have the writers. Words and images used to have weight and tragic dimension, these days though, well, they are more often than not flat, lack depth; they swim down the same data stream as gossip, news, cooking recipes, weight loss testimonials,... all part of the same glut of facts and tidbits.

To experience the contemporary information whirlwind is like sitting in the first row of an old fashioned movie theater, the ones with 30-foot by 70-foot screens: you are so overwhelmed that you can hardly make out the image from the shimmering silver grains. Nostalgic? No, just disappointed. Well, maybe a little.

Going to the movies is not what it used to be. I remember when I became old enough to venture out of the old neighbourhood on my own and go to the Baharestan district in central Tehran. Baharestan was an exotic area, with its herbal stores and Armenian-operated coffee shops and fabulous bakeries that served far-out goodies like meat and jelly Piroshky doughnuts (souvenirs of contact with the Caucuses).

Not far from Baharestan, Lalehzar was the old theater district in Tehran (I'm writing strictly from memory but I think the geography is accurate). By the time it became my stumping ground, live theater was long gone from Lalehzar, and the mostly derelict buildings were converted to second and third run movie houses (double and triple bills, even after the revolution, for ridiculously low ticket prices).

You bought the ticket from some toothless old man behind the glass and entered the lobby. The walls were lined with movie stills and the sound seeped from the show room into the cool semi-dark hallways (no matter how crumbling the structures, these theaters somehow managed to have impeccable air-conditioning, definitely a bonus in the murderously hot summer afternoons in Tehran). And more than anything, the theaters, like a medieval church in Paris, were hushed. The semi-literate owners and operators of Lalehzar seemed to have a reverence for the movies akin to a mosque.

So you entered the screening room and found yourself a seat in a corner (once in a while when an adult sat too close you got up and discreetly changed seats. Pedophiles and pederasts seemed to lurk at every corner in the Tehran of my childhood), sank in the seat and waited for the crackle of the projector to signal the commencement of the show.

I don't know about other people but back in those days one of the most exciting things about going to the movies for me was the minutes before the curtain actually opened (yes, there was still the odd theater with curtain). Sitting in the cool dark theater I was filled with anticipation. Watching a movie wasn't just about the movie; the experience itself was dramatic and stimulated the imagination.

Although movie watching is a collective experience, one enjoyed in the company of others, when the lights are dimmed, you are alone within yourself (that is if you're not itching to make your move on your date, but that's another story). As if in Plato's Cave, the white screen in front of you (and the emphasis here is on white as in blank) becomes a shadow play for your desires and fantasies.

To paraphrase film editor Walter Murch one looks into a movie as opposed to looking at it, which is the experience of watching television. The movie screen "possesses" deep focus and invites participation, whereas television screen is flat. That sense of being within oneself in an unoccupied space to reflect, dream and contemplate is essential to a healthy psychic and intellectual life.

Renaissance scholar, Montaigne, once wrote "We must maintain a place for ourselves alone, a free zone where we can cultivate our liberty and our peace of mind and our solitude... In solitude, be a world unto yourself." I wonder what he would have thought of the hyperreal, information-crazed contemporary society where every inch of public and private space is cluttered with streams of data that are, unless one has the tools to sift through and mine it, depressingly uniform - the proverbial 500 channel universe broadcasting the same game shows, sitcoms and reality shows.

Of course too much information is better than no information but information glut has its own hazards. Too much information can become obscene and pornographic; it could overwhelm its subject by its sheer weight. When information assumes the dimension of spectacle, it can render its subject impotent. Turn away, tune out, turn off the TV, close the curtains, turn off the computer (like the one I'm writing on at this moment) you say, but unless one is willing to run to the wilderness, you can't get away from information.

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