Future Shock, Postmodern Nostalgia, and Uncanny Technologies

by David Banash

28 July 2010

From Videodrome (1983) 

From the Static of Technologies Past, An Image Appears

Static is not the only moment of a televisual future and a postmodern nostalgia. Early television depended on test patterns, both to help engineers and those at home properly tune and adjust their televisions, but also to avoid the static of dead channels. Though some test patterns were produced as large cards to help calibrate early television cameras, most of the broadcast images were created electronically. The most famous is the 1939 RCA Indian Head, generated by the TK-1 monoscope, a sealed vacuum-tube focused on a small metal plate with a carbon etching of the test card art.

The TK-1 broadcast image is ghostly: a glowing white background overlaid with black gridlines which are interrupted by a series of concentric circles, gradients, and scales. Center top, the profile of a Native American in an elaborate feather headdress seemingly floats above the grid, looking to the right. It is tempting to say he is looking towards the future. Many television stations used the Indian Head test card between 1947 and 1970. After the end of the broadcast day, the image of the test pattern would mark the place of the station, accompanied by an invariable 1000 hz tone. Often broadcast throughout the night, the test patterns seemed decidedly occult, charged with a kind of technological magic. This utopian magic explains why the figure of the Indian should be the emblem of an emerging modernity.

Seemingly innocuous test patterns revealed the terrifying power of television, marking its presence in our very homes—we are connected, something could appear.

As a Rousseauian fantasy, the Indian figure marks a romanticized form of existence, and early pioneers of television hoped their achievement would foster far greater connection and a better world. Yet the gaze of this Plains Indian seems almost mystic, looking to a spiritual rather than a material horizon, and so the figure becomes uncanny, disturbing. Most test patterns share something of this, and their uncanny power is, I think, much like Gibson’s image of static. The patterns marked a potential. They completed the broadcast circuit, but they utterly negated the banality of actual television programming. Instead, they simply made present the terrifying power of television, marked its presence—we are connected, something could appear. This is their utopian aspect—since they demonstrate the technological power as a pure form, the viewer of the test card confronts the sheer power of the medium without the reassuring or depressing banality of actual programming.

Not surprisingly, there are devoted collectors of television test patterns. For some collectors, the test pattern represents a straight-forward nostalgia for their own youth, as many boomers still remember the ubiquity of them broadcasting just after midnight and often running until the early hours of the morning. Some collectors make a fetish of their own cities and the changing patterns and logos over the years. However, these collectors are in the minority. In fact, most collectors of television test patterns collect every pattern they can find from around the world. They are less interested in a specific pattern than the very phenomena of test patterns. This kind of nostalgia is not that of one’s own youth, but a nostalgia for the mark of the medium’s pure form—the moment of its unrealized future.

Collecting test patterns must be thought of in a relative sense. Strictly speaking, what television audiences saw were not objects but electronically generated simulations. Most of the rack-mounted generators that produced them were discarded years ago, and as several sighing commentators have noted, presumably the tiny aluminum plates etched with carbon are still sealed inside those tubes, lost forever in slowly disintegrating scrapheaps. Some collectors, like retired television engineer Chuck Pharis, have actually salvaged and revived such generators. Pharis even found the original paintings, the master art work used to create the plates, discarded when the Harrison, New Jersey RCA tube factory was demolished in 1970.


Steampunk TV by © dj_design found on Gadget Porn.com

The utopianism of these obsolete technologies is, however, deeply connected to the uncanny. While Gibson uses static to invoke a future in Neuromancer, Hooper’s Poltergiest figures this same static as a gateway to a horrific past. Yet both uses are fundamentally the same, as the technological medium presented without content signals potential connections, promising to bind people and events to one another in ever more intimate ways. Indeed, perhaps Surrealists like David Lynch and directors of B-horror films have best understood how the promise of technology becomes uncanny.

Uncanny objects inspire a kind of unease, as Freud explains in his essay, “The Uncanny”. He points out that what we are at home with also conceals—that underneath the most banal and habitual might lie something not quite known. As he puts it, yesterday’s familiar god is tomorrow’s repressed and terrifying demon. Technologies of communication, in particular, have always been so powerful they inspire unease, so when they become obsolete it is something like Freud’s demonic powers that are suddenly revealed in them. That power could be a utopian hope that obliterates the banality of their actual content or a terrifying realization that this same connective power unleashes unconscious desires. Indeed, it is only their rote integration into our lives that tames the wonder and horror of our phones and screens. This is a great part of director David Lynch’s particular style of unease.

In films like Eraserhead, the uncanny is produced by a decaying world of steam pipes and florescent lights, but I think of Lynch as the poet of the phone. Phones, that most occult and ubiquitous of communication technologies, exist as pivot points in almost all of Lynch’s films. We should be at home with phones, but Lynch shows us their hidden face; a vast, repressed network of illicit connections, conduits of desire for conspiracy, sex, and murder. Telephony once represented absolute modernism, but the clunky, scratchy and screeching phones in Lynch’s works seem connected directly to some unbelievably powerful, demonic past—but in fact they are pale versions of the seemingly unlimited powers of our cellular lives. Particularly in Wild at Heart and Lost Highway phones appear as menacing objects, a repressed series of connections, made most evident by the resonate, piercing ring of mechanical bells tripped by pulsing electric currents.

Early in Mulholland Dr., a series of phone calls leads down from a sealed executive suite to a dimly lit apartment. In the secluded and obsessively clean room where we begin, an executive speaks into a tiny headset. His phone is a seamless piece of technology, a perfect match for the clean room, allowing this shadowy figure to project itself out through Los Angeles, uncontaminated. The camera, however, lingers on the penultimate caller’s phone, a wall mounted, yellow Western Electric rotary model, perhaps from the ‘70s. The phone is attached to a dingy wall, its case stained, and a wire projects from underneath, suggesting the phone has been hacked.

This suspicion is confirmed by the caller’s use of it, dialing too few numbers and depressing the cradle twice. Clearly his movement through the network is somehow illicit. The phone is lit by a Dazor lamp with a round florescent bulb, also attached to the wall. It seems old, greasy, and out of place. It’s the sort of lamp one would more likely see attached to a drill press in a prewar factory. Framed by an aura of ghastly light, the phone is associated with production, the hidden transactions and connections powering the seemingly clean world of the executive. The yellow phone is uncanny, an ordinary object associated with our homes suddenly revealed as a frightening conduit of dangerous desires.

As Gibson himself says of the static that begins Neuromancer, the technological image is a door that swings both ways. It propels us to imagine an unrealized future, and indeed comes to stand for an open, seemingly infinite potential. Yet, those very potentials also open our unconscious, bringing us back to a past’s desire for its own future—one perhaps quite different from our oblivious embrace of contemporary banalities.

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