Laurence Scott:


"The Four-dimensional Human" (Norton, 2015)

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This is an interesting artifact because on one hand it is an extraordinary flight of erudition and on the other hand is the kind of book that a machine can write: you just piece together perfectly valid sentences that are loosely related and you end up with passages that sound like the hermetic thoughts of a very erudite multi-disciplinary scholar. One of the chapters is titled "Style after Substance" and that could be a better metaphorical summary of the book than a literal summary of its contents. The bottom line is that i don't really know what Scott was trying to say, but he said it very well.

The reader is bombarded with endless trivia ranging from cinema (Irvin Yeaworth's "4D Man/ The Evil Force/ Master of Terror", Wes Craven's "Scream", Rian Johnson's "Looper", Drew Goddard's "The Cabin in the Woods") and television (the inevitable "Star Trek") to literature (Virginia Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway", Henry James' "The Portrait of a Lady", Seamus Heaney's poetry, Elizabeth Bowen's "The Heat of the Day", Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray", Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher", Jonathan Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close", Forster's "Maurice", Iris Murdoch's "The Unicorn", etc) and science fiction (Edwin Abbott's "Flatland", Robert Henlein's "And He Built a Crooked House") and theater (Sophocles' "Oedipus" and Shakespeare's "Hamlet") via art (Marcel Duchamp's "Etant Donnes", Patrick Collins' landscape paintings, Alice Goddard's photoessays, Edward Muybridge's panorama of 1877 San Francisco) and philosophy (Gaston Bachelard's "The Poetics of Space", Marshall Berman's essay "All that is Solid Melts into Air" and Georg Simmel's essay "The Metropolis and Mental Life", as well as Marx's "Communist Manifesto"). Unfortunately, you quickly realize that the associations mean very little, if nothing at all. Then out of the blue comes a clear-cut conclusion such as: "Today we allow each other to travel back and forth from elsewhere within the stretch of a conversation, moving in and out of our physical bodies before each other's eyes". Beautifully written, but what exactly does it mean?

Scott starts out by saying that we're now inhabiting space in a four-dimensional way. The fourth dimension is the one created by digital media. They enable us to be constantly "tunneling through to somewhere else". Apparently, Scott was traumatized by Microsoft's old line "Where do you want to go today?" Every moment and every object can be digitized, and in fact seem to beg to be digitized ("the moments of our lives audition for digitization"). This train of thought is quickly abandoned to talk about our fluid identities when we are online (as Peter Steiner said, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog"), and to take a detour into "browsing fantasies" apparently ignited by Google's slogan "The web is what you make of it".

Next chapter he starts with the disappearing bee colonies to talk about Wikipedia (metaphorically imagined as a beehive) and then a detour into Peter Behrens' architecture somehow leads to a discussion on the "blending of the physical senses of vision and hearing". Any novel does it, doesn't it? At the end Scott asks: "What creature has ears in its eyes and mouths in its fingertips"? A generation ago the answer would have been simple: a writer who reads a lot. But Scott wants you to believe that this creature never existed before the invention of the web browser.

Next Scott dabbles into "that silent sort of silence", i.e. "the Dionysian quality of four-dimensional sound: the roar that is also a terrible silence".

Next, somehow Scott uses Karl Marx to channel the meditation that the digital revolution will "dematerialize all sorts of objects" with consequences on our psyche. For example, the self-driving car will cause nostalgia of good old days of freedom of movement. Hence Scott views our decade as the decade of nostalgia (having witnessed the Sixties revival in the 1980s and the 1980s revival in the 2000s i find it difficult to think that today there is more nostalgia than at any other point in time). Then Scott starts a conversation about "normcore", the term coined by New York's fashion forecasting firm K-HOLE in their trend report "Youth Mode" (2013), a term that Scott equates with the motto "become mediocre", and then about "LOL-core", which someone saw as a reaction to normcore. This links with Gap's "Dress Normal" campaign and to Nietzsche's admonition to "become mediocre".

The essay on Time could be truly interesting. It starts out with a rapid-fire injection of trivia as it casually mentions Jean-Paul Sartre' "The Paths to Freedom" and Swatch's decimalized watches of 1998, but one quickly realizes that there is no point and no sustance. A sentence such as "the tendency of digital technologies to incubate and circulate a doomsday mood" sounds right on target... until you ponder that the same has been true of all technologies of the past. Scott pays tribute to Jawed Karim's video "Me at the zoo" that was the first video ever uploaded to Youtube (23 April 2005) and this could be the starting point for an analysis of how "banality" has been and is important on the way to virality and celebrity. Instead he has to quip banalities such as that the past is on tap (which is obviously not true, as most of the past is not videotaped at all and much of what is videotaped is rapidly being lost) and then launch into the usual free-association delirium: what have Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time", Philip Roth's "American Pastoral", fashion designer John Galliano, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, James Lovelock's Gaia, TV celebrity Katie Price, Herbert Wells' "The Time Machine" and pornography in common? Absolutely nothing. Just the fact that Scott dumped them into the same chapter without really explaining what the logic was. We learn that Blaise Pascal was horrified by Galileo's telescope and that's another cute piece of trivia. Scott correctly points out that news-media technologies tend to produce melancholy and unease, but then doesn't elaborate how digital technologies are different from old ones. He mentions that the digital age exposes us to "two infinities of horror": personal tragedies and political crises. But how is that different from the invention of the newspaper or the radio?

One chapter after the other flow in the same elegant nonsensical fashion, dealing with horror in the context of mundane digital life and with the sacred ascetism of early Christian hermits in the context of the sterile uniformity increasingly forced upon the citizens of the modern state. For a fleeting moment we catch a glimpse of an interesting story of the Internet as a bustling boomtown but that is soon dwarfed by the usual maze of literary and cinematic detours.

This book is a tour de force of style after substance.