I remember Wired publisher Louis Rosetto, back in the heady days of "the multimedia computer" and "the dot com boom", using a phrase borrowed from biology to describe the way the web was aping previous media forms one by one. "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," he solemnly informed the audience at a digital media conference in Amsterdam ten years ago. The web, like a foetus in the womb (according to 19th century biologist Ernst Haeckel, anyway), was taking on the characteristics of ancestral media forms even as it transcended them on its way to becoming, inevitably, the index of all indices and the medium of all media.
It would be easy to portray the progress of computers (this year they can do type! Now the web's doing radio! Hey, it's eaten TV!) as something rapacious, a sign of the enormous ambition of digital culture to be our number one metaphor for reality, our window on the world. And rapacious it certainly is, putting entire media industries out of business, stripping away craftsmen and middlemen alike. But that doesn't prevent digital media from exhibiting a certain nostalgia for the very things they're replacing. For instance, I've noticed computers getting strangely tender, lately, about paper.
Marshall McLuhan, were he around to witness it, would be nodding his head sagely at this weird digital nostalgia for the pre-digital. One of McLuhan's big ideas was that every medium, at the peak of its power, is inclined to forget that it's no more than a metaphor, a representation of reality. In its hubris, the medium wants to be reality. At the same time, it wants to portray all previous media as "just media". Arjen Mulder, writing in Mediamatic in 1999, described the process like this:
"New media derive their right of existence and power of persuasion from the fact that they seem to make possible a more direct perception and experience of the extramedial reality than all previous technological equipment. As soon as a new medium comes on the market, it exposes its predecessor as just-a-medium, while itself it is more than that, namely an open window on the world outside. Photography is nice, but film moves. Film is nice, but television is live. Television is nice, but the Web is interactive. Every new medium attempts to deny itself as medium and at the same time show up all other media as medium and nothing but medium. Every new medium wants to be transparent, invisible, and everything else is opaque. With new media, you look through them to see reality; with old media, you see only their mediality, their technological limitations."
This may sound like hubris and hostility, but it can contain a surprising tenderness and nostalgia for the outstripped media. If transparency is all about power and ambition, opacity (the "revelation" that former media were in fact limited, metaphoric, media-like) can be winning, cute, full of flavour. For what is flavour but limitation? What is flavour but situation; the refusal to be everywhere, the failure to represent everything? The consolation prize for not being the Universal is getting to be the Particular. The consolation prize for not having power is having flavour. The consolation prize for not being transparent is being opaque. Just as photography freed painting to do what it did bestbe paint on canvas rather than a "window on the world"so computers are freeing paper to be white stuff with marks on it. Paper is getting to "spend more time with its family".
I remember the first time I noticed paper coming back as a sort of small, particularised, opaque digital ghost of itself. It was in 1996. There was much talk, at the time, of "the paperless office". People were beginning to refer to paper mail derisively as "snail mail". But computers, as if they felt sorry for the displaced and humiliated paper, began to find other roles for the stuff. More ornamental, decorative, playful roles. I visited the studio of graphic artists Kuntzel & Degas in Paris. On a Mac some kids were playing a Japanese CD-ROM called Pop-Up Computer, a series of games, scenarios and puzzles immaculately and playfully rendered by creator Gento Matsumoto as an A-Z pop-up book.
The following year a Sony Playstation game appeared called Parappa The Rapper. Creator Masaya Matsuura was making a play on words when he combined the phrase pera pera ("paper thin" in Japanese) with the word rapper. Character Parappa moved through a 3D landscape but was himself, cutely, paper-thin. Parappa was followed by other paper-like heroes, notably Nintendo's Paper Mario (2000), a self-consciously retro version of Super Mario. The website of 2004 game Katamari Damacy has a page where you can download pdfs of the charactersa chunky cat, for instancewhich, printed out, can be made into 3D paper models thanks to Tamasoft's Pepakura Designer software, a way to reverse-engineer origami from computer data (the Japanese company's slogan is "Let's make paper craft model from 3-dimentional data!") In late 2003 Masaya Matsuura followed up Parappa the Rapper with Mojib Ribon, a game featuring a calligrapher-rapper called Mojibri who raps texts you enter with your calligraphy brush.
It's not just Japanese computer games which have gone all retro-sentimental with the traditional paper metaphor. Flash games on websites are doing it too. Hokusai Manga Construction Kit is a drawing game based on the wood-block prints of ukiyo-e artist Hokusai (1760-1849). You can place pre-drawn elementspopular actors from the Floating World, courtesans, houses, bridges, mountains, lettersand make your own mangas. Perhaps best of all is OSUG, a very tactile Japanese calligraphy game. I promise you'll have hours of fun splashing "ink" around on its "paper"... or should I say its paper metaphor? The real thing, tired of trying to represent the whole world on its frail white pages, is currently having a great time just being itself. Paper has retired and is finally getting to spend some quality time with its family. And meanwhile we're paying warm tribute to its unique, irreplaceable qualities in the very medium that emulates and replaces it.