Project for Tachistoscope

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.

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4 Responses to Project for Tachistoscope

  1. festsjester says:

    The comparison between the bottomless pit and technology is interesting, and I hadn’t quite considered that parallel when I played it and wrote about it. It seemed to me less like a message about technology itself than a strange experiment about subconscious affectation, but when I wrote my own blog post I wasn’t as primed to think about the affiliation with networks as we are currently in the class. However, having read your argument, it seems like a valid comparison, and a good one at that. In conjunction with the kinds of subconscious messages and history of subliminal messages I thought about after finding my way through the program, it makes me think of the kinds of messages being presented as the bottomless pit as a joint metaphor for technology with our own subconscious mind. Perhaps the picture of a brain as an endless network of nodes, which it in fact is…


  2. epiratequeen says:

    My understanding of McLuhen’s argument actually grew from reading Project for Tachistoscope and the materials that go with it. It was an especially interesting text because it is much further divorced from traditional literature thatn works like The Jew’s Daughter or Anchorhead. The actual text barely conforms to our understwnding of literature and even the act of reading.
    I found myself extremely interested in the science behind Project for Tachistoscope. Some references were made to subliminal messaging, which is presumably a cognitive process, but it also reminded me of the new online reading devices that show one word at a time, presumably helping you read faster. There are a number of fascinating ways to interpret this work.


  3. pmc9122 says:

    I think its interesting that you point out the code has not changed since 2005. The interface literally changes as the medium does, highlighting McLuhans point. I honestly could not stand looking at the work until I read this, because it just gave me a headache. Your break down made it possible to look at it not as a story badly told, but a message that was more than the surface. It was similar to first time Picasso’s cubism clicked with me. I never understood what he was trying to do until I realized that he wanted to just show the painting as a painting. Poundstone is doing just the same.


  4. charlenejo says:

    “But now that it exists, it will continue to exist, mutating as the medium does, seemingly independent of human hand.” This concluding remark to your post is going to stick with me, I think. The concept that code continues to run despite the absence of human intervention is particularly interesting in that it gives a clear answer to the philosophical riddle: “If a tree falls….” The implication here being that (coupled with the recursiveness of the digital loop) this always-running execution of code is something that clearly differs from print media. Granted, a printed novel still exists if we close and walk away from the book, but the narrative form remains unchanged from the moment we begin reading to when we stop, whereas the coded, layered stream of Project for Tachistoscope, as you note, is fluid and mutable–always changing start locations (and never ending). To turn to Hayles, what separates electronic from print is that the form is both fluid and disruptive of literary convention (namely of coherent narrative structures) in ways that, for instance, stream of consciousness writing never could be. The form of this work represents the “ongoingness of things as they come into being, change and go” (Hayles 71)–a form that we often want to reject, wanted instead the durability of print that we’re used to.


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