DIGITAL VERTIGO

Bridge_vertigo_1It is 2020 in San Francisco. We -- you and I -- are on Baker Beach, the little sandy alcove on the Pacific side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

What can we see?

We see a fat man on a beach. With his rolls of flab and his shiny bald head, he resembles Alfred Hitchcock. But it isn’t Hitchcock. His name is Palomar. He is sitting on Baker Beach and gazing out, westward, at the limitless promise of the Pacific Ocean. From his pocket, Palomar retrieves a titanium case half the size of a paperback book. It is his iGod, the celestial media player of choice for 2020’s always-on consumer. A combined satellite networked computer, interactive television and creative media studio, iGod, provides immediate and immaculate wireless access to every single movie, song or book ever created.

Palomar is stealing an afternoon from his real life as the founder of a Silicon Valley technology start-up company. He is in the security business, supplying small enterprises with peer-to-peer software that guards against identity theft. But the identity theft market is a crowded space, it hasn’t been a great sales quarter and he’s flying out to Las Vegas the next day for a series of investor meetings. Palomar needs an afternoon to himself. The poor guy is under huge pressure. He wants to remember how to dream again.

It’s movie time. Palomar is in the mood to watch some moving pictures. Given that iGod can access any movie ever made, his biggest problem is that he has too many choices. He contemplates switching on the machine’s proprietary “Mooviemood” ™ software feature, which selects a movie that it knows he is in the mood to watch. But that would involve connecting the player to his frontal lobes.

“Blast,” he mutters under his breath. “I left those damn wires in the car.”

As Palomar wirelessly contemplates his options, he shifts his gaze eastwards, from the Pacific Ocean to an equally panoramic view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the grand edifice linking the San Francisco peninsula with northern California. Set against the deep blue Bay Area sky and sea, the old bridge appears still, like a framed photograph. This vision triggers two memories in Palomar’s mind:

  • He remembers a scene from the Alfred Hitchcock’s old motion picture Vertigo filmed at Fort Point, beneath the bridge.
  • He remembers an afternoon in his life long ago when he had taken a young blonde woman called Kay to a rock and roll concert held at Fort Point.

The first memory gives Palomar an idea. Leaning over iGod, he speaks gently to it. As if he’s talking to a friend. “Bring me the bridge moment in Hitchcock’s movie Vertigo,” he requests. “You know, the scene of the attempted suicide.”

iGod’s voice recognition software interprets Palomar’s command and delivers his wish. Still seated on Baker Beach, with the screen on his lap, he begins to watch Vertigo. Shot from underneath the south-east corner of the bridge, this is the scene when Scottie Ferguson swims to Madeleine Elster’s rescue after she has thrown herself into the Bay. To Palomar, the meaning of this scene is intimately bound up in his own memories of the gig he had attended with Kay all those years ago.

Palomar watches the scene several more times and, in spite of the brilliant broadcast quality of iGod’s high-definition screen, each viewing leaves him more dissatisfied. To him, the scene is incomplete. Palomar hungers for more a personalized media experience. Watching the movie has made him want to be Scottie Ferguson. His desire is to be rescuing the beautiful Madeleine from the Bay. Palomar wants to get into the movies.

“Go to my digital locker,” he instructs iGod.

Palomar selects a digital image of himself taken fifteen years earlier. He then drags and drops it onto a static Jimmy Stewart icon. Now he is watching an alternative version of Vertigo with himself as the hero. iGod broadcasts a younger and slimmer version of Palomar bounding down the step toward the ocean and throwing off his hat before diving into the water. Palomar thinks the scene is realistic, particularly at its climax when having pulled Madeleine out of the Bay, he carries her back to her green Jaguar and whispers (in Jimmy Stewart’s voice), as she lies in his car:

“Madeleine, oh Madeleine.”

The next step is personalizing the audio. Palomar switches on iGod’s digital microphone and, leaning toward the machine, begins talking.

“Kay, oh Kay,” he says.

At first it sounds as if he is saying “okay, okay.” But after several more takes, he makes a recording that sounds as if it comes from his heart. He then drags and drops this audio file onto the movie, replacing Scottie Ferguson’s voice with his own.

The increasingly personalized scene satisfies Palomar for only a few moments. Something is still not quite right. As he watches the scene again, he hears the problem. He doesn’t care for the music. The original score 1 is too creepy, too lacking in melody for him. The movie needs some more cheerful music, he thinks. It needs his music. Palomar wants melodies that remind him of that moment with Kay, back in 2006, under the bridge. Nostalgic music. He closes his eyes and transports his mind backward. It must have been around 2006, he figures. The band was U2, whose socially conscious, spiritually exuberant rock music helped the younger Palomar shape his sense of justice about those less fortunate than himself.

“Search,” Palomar instructs. “Search U2 concert.Golden Gate Bridge. Twenty oh six.”

iGod immediately replies with electronic access to thousands of electronic commentaries known, in 2020, as CiVis (Citizen Videos), the personal digital broadcasts that came to replace the older network television news shows. He scans the CiVis of U2 fans who had attended the Fort Point concert in 2006. Some commentators spoke only about Bono: his media ubiquity; his relationship with Steven Jobs; his recently awarded Nobel prize; the successful “Bono Digital Living Room” suite of products and services; his speech about the African crisis given on the morning of the concert to world leaders in the Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco.

Other CiVis, made after 2006, review U2’s history retrospectively. The metaphor of the bridge is used frequently – broadcasters describing U2 as the band that bridged the physical and digital ages. There is much commentary on U2’s historic 2007 decision to allow all their music to be freely distributed in the public domain. Some suggested this was the birth of U2 as an independent marketing company; other said it marked the end of the conventional record business and the birth of what one CiVi called:

“The commoditization of music and the swallowing up of autonomous culture by the advertising industry”.

Mostly, however, the CiVis concentrated on the music. The high-point of the concert, it is generally agreed, was the first song of the evening, “Vertigo”: Hello, Hello, being the two words Bono simultaneously used to welcome the crowd and to launch into the first great hit of the digital age.

Palomar orders iGod to play U2’s “Vertigo”. On its embedded high resolution surround-sound loudspeakers, the music sounds alive. As if Bono and U2 really is on the beach with him:

Hello, hello
I’m at a place called Vertigo
It’s everything I wish I didn’t know
Except you give me something I can feel.

He remembers dancing with wild abandon that night with Kay under the bridge. As U2’s “Vertigo” plays, Palomar activates the motion sensor setting on iGod’s three chip miniDV camera, The fat man then gets up and begins to move to the music. He remembers an old television commercial for the Apple iPod music player, a primitive version of the iGod. The commercial featured a svelte, silhouetted version of Bono dancing crazily to U2’s “Vertigo”.  Palomar wants to replicate this. He dances to become Bono.

The camera follows Palomar as he gyrates alone on the empty beach in San Francisco. The jiggling of his body contrasts with the calm water on the Bay. As he dances, he takes big noisy gulps of oxygen from the air. His heart pounds against his chest. Sweat drips from his face onto the sand.

When the song ends, he falls to the ground. He lies there breathing loudly, not entirely unlike a beached walrus. It takes him several moments to recover. He then goes back to his authoring -- dragging and dropping the digitalized audio file onto the movie. U2’s “Vertigo” is now the soundtrack for Palomar’s version of Vertigo.

As he finishes, the video telephone on iGod buzzes. The screen identifies the caller with a photograph. It is Kay, his wife. Palomar directs the camera to remain focused on him. In spite of his sweaty body, he wants her to see him on the beach and he wants to see her.

“Hello hello Kay, honey,” he greets her image which is relayed to him in high- resolution real-time video and audio.

In Palomar’s eyes, Kay looks even better than the technology broadcasting her image. She looks fabulous, pretty much perfect, he believes, for a woman in her late thirties. Her hair appears as blonde as it was in 2006, her eyes just as blue and her skin equally unblemished.

She’s a movie star, Palomar thinks, possessively, as he consumes her image on the screen. His movie star.

Kay is calling from their home in the Santa Cruz mountains, just north of Monterey. She is speaking to him on her own iGod, a device identical to Palomar’s except that Kay’s is a red Stanford University edition, the color of blood.

“Hi, honey,” she greets him. On the real-time video, her voice synchronizes perfectly with her lips. “The Bartons just called. They can make it tonight. Can you be home by six?”

He nods. “Kay, you remember that U2 gig we went to under the bridge before we were married?”

“Sure.”

“I’ve created one of my special movies.” He grins. “You want to co-direct?”

As a hardware device, iGod contains two layers of LCD screen, one built beneath the other, thereby giving the viewer the three-dimensional spatial depth to watch two sets of images simultaneously. So Palomar can look at Kay on the video phone and, at the same tiem, watch the movie running behind the digital image of his wife. 

Kay is laughing at Palomar’s work. “Stick it on the server,” she tells him. “I want to play too.”

Having accessed the movie from their digital locker box, it doesn’t take long for Kay to become as creative as her husband. She drags-and-drops a younger and blonder image of herself as a replacement to the grey suited, blonde Kim Novak. So the romantic scene is now made up of Palomar retrieving Kay from the Bay and then carrying her to the green Jaguar. Kay makes other changes too. She washes the technicolor from the scene and remakes it in the shadowy black and white of a classic 20th century movie like Citizen Kane (1941). Most dramatically, Kay replaces Palomar/U2’s “Vertigo” with a Vertigo soundtrack of her own.

Kay is a professor of Comparative Media at Stanford University. She specializes in the work of W.G. Sebald, a late twentieth century writer with a not insignificant literary following. Ever since Sebald died in a car crash in England in December 2001, his artistic work has grown in stature. Some critics -- such as Kay Palomar and her Stanford colleague Anne Barton -- have acclaimed Sebald as a significant figure in the canon of western writers. His unusual voice has been compared to the Argentinean Jose Luis Borges, the Frenchman Marcel Proust and the Czech writer Franz Kafka. As Palomar and Barton wrote:

“Sebald makes non-fictional events appear memorable. His memory turns the Technicolor of day-to-day life into the black and white verisimilitude of actual experience…. Sebald transforms the easy transience of life into the hard truth of a story.”

Sebald’s first book, Vertigo, is – amongst other things – the memories of a trip the author made in Venice during the Eighties. Although the published version of Vertigo is long out-of-print in 2020, its digital issue sells consistency well. In 2020, Sebald’s Vertigo is #101,204 on the Long Tail, a few thousand places below his most popular work, Austerlitz.

Accessing the digital version of Sebald’s Vertigo is child’s play for iGod. Kay has chosen to replace Bono’s song with a passage from Part II of the book, a section entitled All’ estero (which iGod automatically translates into English as “abroad”) . She then uses the media player’s text-to-speech function to turn the book’s words into speech using the synthetic voice of Sebald himself. The words are broadcast with the accent of a scholarly European gentleman: an authoritative, Dirk Bogarde Death in Venice sort of voice:

When the train had arrived in Venice, I first went to the station barber’s for a shave, and then stepped out into the forecourt of Ferrovia Santa Lucia. The dampness of the autumn morning still hung thick among the houses and over the Grand Canal. Heavily laden, the boats went by, sitting low in the water. With a surging rush, they came from out of the mist, pushing ahead of them the aspic-green waves, and disappearing again in the white swathes of the air. The helmsmen stood erect and motionless at the stern. Their hands on the tiller, they gazed fixedly ahead.

To most people, the combination of the dreamy Venetian narrative and the movie image of Palomar carrying Kay out of the San Francisco Bay might seem strange. But media, particularly the personal media of 2020, is all about interpretation and Palomar loves what he hears.

He closes his eyes and smiles at the self-made production. He hasn’t read Sebald’s Vertigo, but he knows why Kay has chosen this particular passage to overlay the movie scene.

It is because of Venice.

Palomar and Kay honeymooned in Venice and the city held a special place in their collective hearts. In addition, he suspects that Kay remembers he is flying to the Las Vegas Venetian Hotel and Casino the following day for his important investor meeting. It is her way of wishing him luck, her private message to him.

Palomar now had a taste for Sebald’s Vertigo. He wants to know more about this dead European writer’s interest in Venice. He wonders too if there are any other strange Vertigos out there, waiting to be discovered. But before he can ask Kay, she is gone from his screen, back, he assumes, to her academic research.

“Search Vertigo,” Palomar orders iGod.

The media player provides him with all the “Vertigos” ever created. In addition to Hitchcock, U2 and Sebald, this includes Paul Auster’s 1994 novel, Mr Vertigo, Bernand-Henri Levy's 2006 travelogue American Vertigo and a post on the obscure The Great Seduction blog entitled "Digital Vertigo."

Palomar who, like most men, fancies himself as a great seducer, him, is intrigued by such a provocative title.

“Bring me Digital Vertigo,” he instructs iGod.

The iGod's text-to-speech software is on random, but the voice broadcasting from the media player sounds to Palomar like that of the sales director at his Silicon Valley start-up, an Englishman called Smiley. As Palomar listens, a feeling of deja-vu creeps up on him. He’s seen this scene before. Somebody is stealing his identity. They are describing him without his knowledge:

We saw a fat man on a beach. With his rolls of flab and his shiny bald head, he resembles  Alfred Hitchcock. But it isn’t Hitchcock. His name is Palomar.

Palomar tries to hold in his belly. Fat? He isn’t fat. A tiny bit chubby perhaps. Kay always said he looked “distinguished”. But fat? No. That is untrue. A false version of the real world.

“You aren’t seeing me right,” Palomar says, to nobody in particular.

He hears the tinkle of laughter. His eyes dart around the beach, but it is entirely empty. He hears the laughter again. It’s no more than a mechanical sounding giggle. It originates from close by. His eyes scan the scene on the beach. But all he sees is the blank screen of iGod, his personal media player, waiting impassively for its next command from him.

To Palomar, the only possibility is an impossibility. He looks sharply at iGod. What if the celestial media player really has a mind of its own, he wonders. What if it observes him and records him? What if iGod authors Palomar without his permission?

Worst of all, at least in Palomar’s mind, what if it represents him as a fat man?

“That would be a nightmare!” he blurts out. To be watched all the time. Like a picture in a museum. Like being in somebody else’s movie.”

Palomar remembers a book by an English writer that he read as an undergraduate at Stanford. It was Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell, like Sebald, a dead European writer.  Palomar remembers Nineteen Eighty-Four to be about a place where there is no privacy, where nobody can escape the all-seeing eye of the camera. He is tempted to request iGod’s help in remembering more about the book. He resists for a few minutes, suspicious that the celestial media player will play more creepy tricks on him.  But, in the end, Palomar’s reliance on the all-knowing machine is so complete that he feels lost without it.

He picks up iGod and holds it close to his sweaty face. “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Palomar orders. He no longer sounds as if he’s talking to a friend. “Take me to Nineteen Eighty-Four.