A phrase often spoken within our class, and Narrative and Technology before it, was “The medium is the message”, coined by Marshall McLuhan. One can certainly debate whether that is true for all scenarios or not, but nothing describes better Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope than that phrase.
If you read the descriptions of the project shown in the web application, it talks about subliminal imaging, where images are show too fast to be technically registered by the human brain, and yet through afterimages of both the screen the image is being shown through and the human eye, the picture can still be seen, and sometimes understood, despite the miniscule timeframe for which the picture was actually visible.
Project for Tachistoscope tells a story, a very dry and news report like story at that, about a bottomless pit. One word is shown at a time, written in black font. Behind each word is a white image. The white images shown behind the text about the pit are entirely unrelated to the “story” being told. Sometimes a third layer will be shown on top of the other two, either a white word or a colorful picture, that disappears even faster than the “main story” or the “main pictures”. Finally, there is a music track that plays the entire time, with musical shifts occurring on occasion in points that undermine the emphasis the musical shift would have caused in the text.
The many layers of information Project for Tachistoscope throws at you in split second intervals seem to be entirely unrelated, and yet, they’re all discrete and concrete. The human brain can connect the words to chain a story, identify the images as they come, and understand the overall mood of the music, all at the same time.
Each fragment of the project has a “message”, in the sense that the human brain can take in an image and associate it with some meaning (what houses or padlocks are), but as they are unrelated, it is clear that the message is not the message, so to speak. It’s medium is one of technology, and of the human brain. The experience a person has viewing Project for Tachistoscope changes each time one watches it. Twice, when viewing it in a browser, it sped up to such a degree that the white background images just blurred together and the text about the pit completely disappeared. However, in this viewing, the secondary text that would pop up, which seemed to disappear too quickly to read them when viewing at a normal speed, were easily legible.
The Project for Tachistoscope is comparing itself to technology, specifically in regards to the internet and networks, in that both appear to be a bottomless pit, but one which appears to be somehow overflowing with information. Each time one interacts with it (the project or network-based technology), the experience is different, the user is at a different point from where they were previously, but there is no beginning to technology, nor can there be an end, in a sense. The project is still running when my computer is shut off, as are networks. And both will continue to change, and grow, as time goes on. The code for the project is still the same, written in 2005, and yet, I cannot imagine how it came across on cathode ray tube monitors and Pentium 4 processors. Nor can I imagine what will look like even 5 years from now. But now that it exists, it will continue to exist, mutating as the medium does, seemingly independent of human hand.