Saturday, December 05, 2015

Carl Sagan Contact, Chapter 24 - The Artist's Signature


This is the an excerpt from Carl Sagan’s novel ‘Contact’. The novel differs from the film in several key respects. The character of Theodore Arroway, the father of the central protagonist Ellie Arroway still dies in the book. Although Ellie has a mother and she remarries a man, John Staughton, whom Ellie grows to despise. When she returns from her mission to meet the senders of the cosmic message, Ellie devotes her time to deciphering more of the message received from space. This is done using a computer to run different pattern recognition algorithms.

SHE RUSHED up the steps of the nursing home and, on the newly repainted green veranda, marked off at regular intervals by empty rocking chairs, she saw John Staughton--stooped, immobile, his arms dead weights. In his right hand be clutched a shopping bag in which Ellie could see a translucent shower cap, a flowered makeup case, and two bedroom slippers adorned with pink pom-poms.

"She's gone," he said as his eyes focused. "Don't go in," he pleaded. "Don't look at her. She would've hated for you to see her like this. You know how much pride she took in her appearance. Anyway, she's not in there."

Almost reflexively, out of long practice and still unresolved resentments, Ellie was tempted to turn and enter anyway. Was she prepared, even now, to defy him as a matter of principle? What was the principle, exactly? From the havoc on his face, there was no question about the authenticity of his remorse. He had loved her mother. Maybe, she thought, he loved her more than I did, and a wave of self-reproach swept through her. Her mother had been so frail for so long that Ellie had tested, many times, how she would respond when the moment came. She remembered how beautiful her mother had been in the picture that Staughton had sent her, and suddenly, despite her rehearsals for this moment, she was wracked with sobs.

Startled by her distress, Staughton moved to comfort her. But she put up a hand, and with a visible effort regained her self-control. Even now, she could not bring herself to embrace him. They were strangers, tenuously linked by a corpse. But she had been wrong--she knew it in the depths of her being--to have blamed Staughton for her father's death.

"I have something for you," he said as he fumbled in the shopping bag. Some of the contents circulated between top and bottom, and she could see now an imitation-leather wallet and a plastic denture case. She had to look away. At last he straightened up, flourishing a weather-beaten envelope.

"For Eleanor," it read. Recognizing her mother's handwriting, she moved to take it. Staughton took a startled step backward, raising the envelope in front of his face as if she had been about to strike him.

"Wait," he said. "Wait. I know we've never gotten along. But do me this one favor: Don't read the letter until tonight. Okay?"

In his grief, he seemed a decade older. "Why?" she asked.

"Your favorite question. Just do me this one courtesy. Is it too much to ask?"

"You're right," she said. "It's not too much to ask. I'm sorry."

He looked her directly in the eye. "Whatever happened to you in that Machine," he said, "maybe it changed you."

"I hope so, John."

She called Joss and asked him if he would perform the funeral service. "I don't have to tell you I'm not religious. But there were times when my mother was. You're the only person I can think of whom I'd want to do it, and I'm pretty sure my stepfather will approve." He would be there on the next plane, Joss assured her.

In her hotel room, after an early dinner, she fingered the envelope, caressing every fold and scuff. It was old. Her mother must have written it years ago, carrying it around in some compartment of her purse, debating with herself whether to give it to Ellie. It did not seem newly resealed, and Ellie wondered whether Staughton had read it. Part of her hungered to open it, and part of her hung back with a kind of foreboding. She sat for a long time in the musty armchair thinking, her knees drawn up limberly against her chin.

A chime sounded, and the not quite noiseless carriage of her telefax came to life. It was linked to the Argus computer. Although it reminded her of the old days, there was no real urgency. Whatever the computer had found was not about to go away; would not set as the Earth turned. If there was a message hiding inside, it would wait for her forever.

She examined the envelope again, but the echo of the chime intruded. If there was content inside a transcendental number, it could only have been built into the geometry of the universe from the beginning. This new project of hers was in experimental theology. But so is all of science, she thought. "STAND BY," the computer printed out on the telefax screen.

She thought of her father. . . well, the simulacrum of her father ... about the Caretakers with their network of tunnels through the Galaxy. They had witnessed and perhaps influenced the origin and development of life on millions of worlds. They were building galaxies, closing off sectors of the universe. They could manage at least a limited kind of time travel. They were gods beyond the pious imaginings of almost all religions--all Western religions, anyway. But even they had their limitations. They had not built the tunnels and were unable to do so. They had not inserted the message into the transcendental number, and could not even read it. The Tunnel builders and the inscribers were somebody else. They didn't live here anymore. They had left no forwarding address. When the Tunnel builders had departed, she guessed, those who would eventually be the Caretakers had become abandoned children. Like her, like her.

She thought about Eda's hypothesis that the tunnels were wormholes, distributed at convenient intervals around innumerable stars in this and other galaxies. They resembled black holes, but they had different properties and different origins. They were not exactly massless, because she had seen them leave gravitational wakes in the orbiting debris in the Vega system. And through them beings and ships of many kinds traversed and bound up the Galaxy.

Wormholes. In the revealing jargon of theoretical physics, the universe was their apple and someone had tunneled through, riddling the interior with passageways that crisscrossed the core. For a bacillus who lived on the surface, it was a miracle. But a being standing outside the apple might be less impressed. From that perspective, the Tunnel builders were only an annoyance. But if the Tunnel builders are worms, she thought, who are we? The Argus computer had gone deep into this puzzle, deeper than anyone on Earth, human or machine, had ever gone, although not nearly so deep as the Caretakers had ventured. This was much too soon, she thought, to be the long-un-decrypted message about which Theodore Arroway had told her on the shores of that uncharted sea. Maybe this was just a gearing up, a preview of coming attractions, an encouragement to further exploration, a token so humans would not lose heart. Whatever it was, it could not possibly be the message the Caretakers were struggling with. Maybe there were easy messages and hard messages, locked away in the various transcendental numbers, and the Argus computer had found the easiest. With help.

At the Station, she had learned a kind of humility, a reminder of how little the inhabitants of Earth really knew. There might, she thought, be as many categories of beings more advanced than humans as there are between us and the ants, or maybe even between us and the viruses. But it had not depressed her. Rather than a daunting resignation, it had aroused in her a swelling sense of wonder. There was so much more to aspire to now.

It was like the step from high school to college, from everything coming effortlessly to the necessity of making a sustained and disciplined effort to understand at all. In high school, she had grasped her coursework more quickly than almost anybody. In college, she had discovered many people much quicker than she. There had been the same sense of incremental difficulty and challenge when she entered graduate school, and when she became a professional astronomer. At every stage, she had found scientists more accomplished than she, and each stage had been more exciting than the last. Let the revelations roll, she thought, looking at the telefax. She was ready.

"TRANSMISSION PROBLEM. S/N<10 .="" by.="" please="" span="" stand="">

She was linked to the Argus computer by a communications relay satellite called Defcom Alpha. Perhaps there had been an attitude-control problem, or a programming foul-up. Before she could think about it further, she found she had opened the envelope.

ARROWAY HARDWARE, the letterhead said, and sure enough, the type font was that of the old Royal her father had kept at home to do both business and personal accounts. "June 13, 1964" was typed in the upper right-hand corner. She had been fifteen then. Her father could not have written it; he had been dead for years. A glance at the bottom of the page confirmed the neat hand of her mother. My sweet Ellie, Now that I'm dead, I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me. I know I committed a sin against you, and not just you. I couldn't bear how you'd hate me if you knew the truth. That's why I didn't have the courage to tell you while I was alive. I know how much you loved Ted Arroway, and I want you to know I did, too. I still do. But he wasn't your real father. Your real father is John Staughton. I did something very wrong. I shouldn't have and I was weak, but if I hadn't you wouldn't be in the world, so please be kind when you think about me. Ted knew and he gave me forgiveness and we said we'd never tell you. But I look out the window right now and I see you in the backyard. You're sitting there thinking about stars and things that I never could understand and I'm so proud of you. You make such a point about the truth, I thought it was right that you should know this truth about yourself. Your beginning, I mean.

If John is still alive, then he's given you this letter. I know he'll do it. He's a better man than yon think he is, Ellie. I was lucky to find him again. Maybe you hate him so much because something inside of you figured out the truth. But really yon hate him because he isn't Theodore Arroway. I know.

There you are, still sitting out there. You haven't moved since I started this letter. You're just thinking. I hope and pray that whatever you're seeking, you'll find. Forgive me. I was only human.

Love, Mom

Ellie had assimilated the letter in a single gulp, and immediately read it again. She had difficulty breathing. Her hands were clammy. The impostor had turned out to be the real thing. For most of her life, she had rejected her own father, without the vaguest notion of what she was doing. What strength of character he had shown during all those adolescent outbursts when she taunted him for not being her father, for having no right to tell her what to do.

The telefax chimed again, twice. It was now inviting her to press the RETURN key. But she did not have the will to go to it. It would have to wait. She thought of her Fa... of Theodore Arroway, and John Staughton, and her mother. They had sacrificed much for her, and she had been too self-involved even to notice. She wished Palmer were with her.

The telefax chimed once more, and the carriage moved tentatively, experimentally. She had programmed the computer to be persistent, even a little innovative, in attracting her attention if it thought it had found something in? But she was much too busy undoing and reconstructing the mythology of her life. Her mother would have been sitting at the desk in the big bedroom upstairs, glancing out the window as she wondered how to phrase the letter, and her eye had rested on Ellie at age fifteen, awkward, resentful, rebellious.

Her mother had given her another gift. With this letter, Ellie had cycled back and come upon herself all those years ago. She had learned so much since then. There was so much more to learn.

Above the table on which the chattering telefax sat was a mirror. In it she saw a woman neither young nor old, neither mother nor daughter. They had been right to keep the truth from her. She was not sufficiently advanced to receive that signal, much less decrypt it. She had spent her career attempting to make contact with the most remote and alien of strangers, while in her own life she had made contact with hardly anyone at all. She had been fierce in debunking the creation myths of others, and oblivious to the lie at the core of her own. She had studied the universe all her life, but had overlooked its clearest message: For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.

The Argus computer was so persistent and inventive in its attempts to contact Eleanor Arroway that it almost conveyed an urgent personal need to share the discovery.

The anomaly showed up most starkly in Base 11 arithmetic, where it could be written out entirely as zeros and ones. Compared with what had been received from Vega, this could be at best a simple message, but its statistical significance was high. The program reassembled the digits into a square raster, an equal number across and down. The first line was an uninterrupted file of zeros, left to right. The second line showed a single numeral one, exactly in the middle, with zeros to the borders, left and right. After a few more lines, an unmistakable arc had formed, composed of ones. The simple geometrical figure had been quickly constructed, line by line, self-reflexive, rich with promise. The last line of the figure emerged, all zeros except for a single centered one. The subsequent line would be zeros only, part of the frame.

Hiding in the alternating patterns of digits, deep inside the transcendental number, was a perfect circle, its form traced out by unities in afield of noughts.

Behold, I tell you a mystery;
we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.


The universe seems ... to have been determined and ordered in accordance with number, by the forethought and the mind of the creator of all things; for the pattern was fixed, like a preliminary sketch, by the domination of number pre-existent in the mind of the world-creating God.

Arithmetic I, 6 (ca. A.D. 100)

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A flatlander's song sung in Plato's cave (part 1)

To be or not to be 
That is the question
Whether t'is nobler to be more inclined to be inclined on the incline
Or must we decline to be declined too declined?

Whether t'is nobler to consolidate the solution to the problem
By taking up arms against the enemy.?
Or must we always suffer to understand the consequences?
These then are the questions
And the sight of victory has no end
Because we can see no end of victory in the fight.
Victory becomes the mere sign of victory
So in our timidity we reframe the question and ask
Whether tis nobler in the mind to slow the descent of time to a halt?
Or to resolutely quicken our pace so as to hasten the arrival of the inevitable?
Leaning into, or against the shoulder of another incline or decline,
I see the silhouette of humankind endlessly striving or diving
Always between the curves of an endless sine wave, 
always oscillating between zenith and nadir In the unceasing push and pull of life. 
We are Sisyphus without the rock.
It’s bullshit basically!

Yet in this state of 'no thingness',
The completion of the task we have set for ourselves
Is postponed rather than abandoned, or deferred.
And I find that even in the depths of my timidity, 
I still have the temerity to ask, 
'To be or not to be?'
For only then do I see in the same light of immaculate perfection that Hamlet saw
To be or not to be
The root of his own musings and his own dilemma.
The choice was always as hard for him as it was for me.
This is the case now, as it was then, as it forever will be.
Yet when we turn away from the present,
What forms of fantasies or nightmares will come in that undiscovered country
That we are always sailing to.
Will we  face the same problems there as we do here. 
But this time with either more ornament and less brutality than before? 
Or more control and less brutality and ornament?
They are the same problems in other words (always)
A thousand times amplified but equals in the same measure
An endless cycle of endless taking and giving;
The stuff of both nightmares and dreams, dreamt almost at the same time.

But for now I grow tired
Aye and there’s the rub; because in spite of all the respect that understanding can bestow, 
It is, in the final analysis, is the very same disrespect.
That through our interest or obedience makes fools of us all.
And yet it is also in the disrespect that life shows itself to itself
As death shows itself to itself in the contempt for everyday things and human sized problems
Every time a victory is won in one arena, 
a defeat is registered in another.
And thus the net reduction in suffering in any scenario is reduced to zero.
‘we were made to suffer, it’s our lot in life’
But tor whom or for what would I want to bear the whips and scorns outrageous fortune, endlessly and outrageously?
I may just prefer lose myself in the jungle gym of some narcotic oblivion
Or chase down the endless shock corridors of madness in some asylum.
‘bashing in veins or brains for some kind of peace'.
(for the good of humankind and all that)
The endless search for an inevitably elusive destination is the very definition of seeming. 
And I am still won’t to mistake the mirror for the horizon; the map for the territory; the unified theory of everything for the truth and walk determinedly backwards into every future imaginable.
So then the inquiry must once again turns again inward.
To be or not to be.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Art of Second Living A communication-theory approach to the virtual world of Second Life

The Art of Second Living
A communication-theory approach
to the virtual world of Second Life

This is an ethnographic study of ‘Second Life’ and of the interaction of ‘avatars’ within this 3D online environment from the perspective of communication theory. Participant observation was conducted between 2007 and 2012, focusing on a particular online community and on a small number of its members. It explores the affordances of the medium for online lives and relationships. Research into virtual environments has been dominated by experimental approaches, the goal of which has been to measure the ‘effects’ of the medium. Such approaches have been organised around the concept of presence—the experience of being in a place other than that in which one is physically situated. While researchers have considered how people adapt their communication practices to accommodate the affordances of the medium, the dominant assumption has been that the medium has a shaping influence over those practices. However, such researchers do not concern themselves with the actual experiences of people who spend time in virtual worlds and insufficient emphasis has been placed on the role that social codes and situational rules play in organising the social construction of virtual existences. As a contribution to communication theory this study argues that the realism of such online worlds is derived not from the adequacy with which the ‘delivery mechanism’ is perceived to create a realistic computer-mediated environment but rather from the ongoing communicative achievements of the participants.

Key words: communication theory, ethnography, participant observation, virtual worlds, Second Life, computer-mediated communication, communication practices, avatars, affordances, social constructionism.   

Friday, July 12, 2013

Closure of the Scala Cinema

So now the Scala Cinema is being mythologised as England's First Grindhouse Cinema and quite right too. It was a great experience being at a Scala all nighter, trying to watch the films and tune out the sound of the underground trains running underneath. 

However, as the Scala's legend grows so too no doubt will the legend of its closure for it is often reported that their screening of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange led directly to the cinema's demise. 

This is not exactly true. In the 1990s I was a regular contributor to the alt.movies.kubrick newsgroup and also the curator of the Kubrick Site (taken over from Geoffry Alexander). I caught quite a bit of flack from Michael Brooks for disseminating that rumour. Michael was I believe the manager of the Everyman Cinema in London and was an active poster on alt.moveis.kubrick and other movie fora in those days, as well as writing most of the entries for the IMDB which at that time was run out of Cardiff, UK.

Anyway, I archived the message which I have reproduced here in full.


From - Thu Jun 10 02:46:04 1999
Xref: alt.movies.kubrick:33391 uk.politics.censorship:9629
From: (Michael Brooke)
Newsgroups: alt.movies.kubrick,uk.politics.censorship
Subject: The Scala Cinema closure (was: Sex And Censorship)
Date: Wed, 9 Jun 1999 22:56:55 +0100

Klingsor wrote:

> In article, Michael Brooke writes
> (x-posted to alt.movies.kubrick to start yet another thread about how the
> Scala cinema was closed down after showing it ;) )
> The number of times I've seen that ludicrous claim mentioned in print
> (i.e. as opposed to Usenet) has nearly reached double figures!  If
> anyone wants to know why the Scala *really* closed, I'll be happy to
> tell them - but it's a long, depressing saga in which 'A Clockwork
> Orange' played a very minor and largely irrelevant part.
> This is something I've always been curious about; I remember the

> kerfuffle (sp?) when they showed in, and the appeal for money for their
> legal expenses (which I contributed to). Then soon after the cinema
> closed anyway when the lease ran out (or something).
> So what did happen?

Loads of things - in fact, it's a miracle the Scala survived long enough
to show 'A Clockwork Orange' at all!

But the main factors were as follows:


The Scala was located bang in the middle of one of the nastiest parts of
London - and a part of London that deteriorated noticeably over the last
decade of the cinema's life: it was a well-known haunt of junkies and
prostitutes (many of whom, I imagine, were Scala regulars!).  Regulars
like me didn't mind this, but it made it very hard to attract new
customers - all too often, unwary punters would travel across London to
see a rare screening, only to take one look at the inside of the cinema
and a typical Scala customer and vow "never again".


Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kings Cross was earmarked as
the site of the international rail terminal (which eventually opened at
Waterloo).  As a result, a huge chunk of the area was permanently under
threat of redevelopment, and there was a great deal of uncertainty as to
whether the building would survive more than a few years.


Throughout the 1980s, video hit cinemas hard - they only started to
fight back when multiplexes offering substantially higher levels of
presentation and service were developed.  The Scala had even more
problems on that score because the kind of sleazy exploitation films it
specialised in were increasingly going straight to video, with no 35mm
prints being imported into the country at all (that's a major reason why
the price of their legendary all-day all-night horror festivals shot up
in the late 1980s, because prints had to be imported specially).  And
this problem was compounded still further by the fact that many of the
prints of the Scala's staple repertory ('Thundercrack!' in particular)
were deteriorating badly, to the point where just getting them through
the projector was a real struggle - and these were irreplaceable.


The Prince Charles cinema changed its programming policy in the early
1990s, offering second run features for a knock-down price - typically
around half of what the Scala was charging.  This had a massive impact
on the Scala, because it meant they could no longer be competitive with
recent titles like 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer' and 'Reservoir
Dogs': the Prince Charles was much cheaper and much more accessible.  It
also had better equipment - the Scala was notorious for its lousy sound
(if they were ever showing a 16mm print, it had to be something I
*really* wanted to see before I'd take a chance, as dialogue was all but


In the early 1990s, there was a substantial increase in the number of
foreign/arthouse/culty titles available on video.  It seems hard to
credit, but as recently as 1990 it was almost possible to count the
number of subtitled videos on the fingers of both hands.  By 1993 the
situation was dramatically different, with many titles that had been
Scala staples - Pedro Almodovar films, for instance - becoming freely
available from your local video shop.  And the economics were
unanswerable - even *buying* a tape was probably a better deal than two
or three people travelling to the Scala to see it, and the number of
titles that could *only* be seen at the Scala began to dwindle rapidly.


In 1992, leading British distribution and production company Palace
Pictures, which also owned the Scala (indeed, the Scala used to house
the Palace offices!) went rather spectacularly bankrupt, thus cutting
off any source of emergency funding.  In fact, Steve Woolley (ex-head of
Palace) used to come into the Scala and remove the takings in order to
fund the start-up costs of his new production company, ironically named
Scala Productions (which is still going, incidentally).


These were the killer blows - in early 1993 the Scala lost its
late-night party licence as a result of complaints to Camden Council,
thus removing one of its few reliable sources of income.  And in
September 1993 the cinema would have had to renew its cinema licence,
which would have meant a thorough inspection by the council.  A
conservative estimate reckoned that the place needed a million pound
cash injection just to meet minimum inspection standards, and there
wasn't a hope in hell of that happening (even the most eccentric
millionaire would probably baulk at funding a building in an area
threatened with redevelopment!).  So in June 1993 the Scala management
decided to cut their losses and close. 

Although it got more publicity than anything else the cinema did in the
last years of its life, the 'Clockwork Orange' saga was a fairly minor
blip.  The only genuinely negative side-effect was that Warner Bros
banned the Scala from booking its films between the screening in April
1992 and the trial a year later - which killed off the legendary 'Mad
Max'/'Blade Runner' all-nighters - but this was more than offset by a
vast amount of publicity: the Scala's image was boosted no end by being
described as this wild outlaw cinema that dared show 'A Clockwork
Orange'.  And in the event, they were fined the lowest amount they were
expecting, and had raised enough thanks to the appeals mentioned above
to cover it. 

So in the light of all the other things conspiring to close the Scala
down, the 'Clockwork Orange' screening had hardly any impact at all -
and I'd dearly love to know if Tom Dewe Mathews (the source of most of
the 'Clockwork Orange closed the Scala' stories: I've seen at least five
in print under his byline) ever bothered to talk to any of the Scala
staff before going into print.  My sources, for the record, were Scala
staff at all levels from management (including the general manager and
its last two programmers) to ticket-tearers - some of the ushers at the
Everyman also did shifts at the Scala, so were a useful source of

       a lavish tribute to the cinema's wildest imagination

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Horror Stories for Boys and Girls

I have just inherited  a copy of Boys' and Girls' book of the Year, 1935, published by Express Newspapers (full citation at the bottom of the post). It is a fascinating cultural document of the inter-war years. I will try to post a pdf of the entire book at some point. Anyway, flicking through the pages, I came across this gruesome cartoon.

The story is about a boy called Conrad who persistently sucks his thumb. His mother warns him if he continues to do this the scissor man will come and cut off his thumbs. It is part of a collection called 'StruwwelPeter' (Shock Headed Peter). According to the Wikipedia entry these were German children's stories by Heinrich Hoffmann. Each story contained a clear moral that demonstrated the disastrous consequences of misbehavior in an exaggerated way--I guess when they say exaggerated they mean as in a scene from Hostel.

Given that there is an ongoing moral panic about the potential damage of 'exposing children to violent media' i.e. videogames and the internet, I felt that it was salutary to remember that such a diet of horror is not a new development in relation to children. This observation (which has been made before) helps to counter the fear generated the the scholarly rhetoric of proponents of the media effects tradition. But what I find interesting is that these stories showed up in a British Children's annual, which demonstrates their diffusion outside of Germany.

Express Newspapers (1935) Boys' and Girls' book of the Year. London & Edinburgh: Morris And Gibb Ltd.

see more lurid images from StruwwelPeter here

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Collection of Stances

Every problem needs a stance (or a attitude that a person, group or culture takes towards that problem). I have listed some common stances below. Some are more embedded in the events they describe, while others are more reflective of them. I would guess that in human culture we are broadly moving away from reflective stances towards more interconnected ones.

  • The everyday stance – 'What problem?'
  • The reflective stance (Cartesianism) – ‘Let’s step back from the problem and be objective about it in terms of what we know.' (Both idealism and empiricism are contained within this stance).
  • The reflexive (postmodern) stance– Include yourself and your ‘stepping back’ in your consideration of the ‘problem.’
  • The emotional/impulsive stance – ‘Let’s get upset about the problem!’ Emphasises its affective dimensions and the victims whilst demonises its perpetrators (rhetoric).
  • The active/impulsive stance – ‘Let’s just do something!’
  • The hedonistic stance – ‘Fuck the problem; let’s partaaay!’
  • The cynical stance – ‘Were fucked, the universe is fucked: don’t get worked up trying to solve it!’
  • The stoic stance – Don’t get upset about the problem. (‘It’s not really a problem; it’s an opportunity for growth, etc.’)
  • The pragmatic stance – ‘What can we do to salvage something from this mess!’
  • The interconnected stance (Heideggerian /ecological /networked-self)– there is no immediate problem, it is symptomatic of a wider and more deep seated malaise. This stance emphasises the universal interconnectedness of all things and the unforeseen consequences of actions—‘a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil….etc’

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Music in Video Games

I have placed online the chapter on videogame music that I wrote for the 2007 book 'Music, Sound and Multimedia: From the Live to the Virtual'. You can access it here

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Inspiration for the Holodeck

In 1965, Ivan Sutherland imagined the goal of virtual reality with his 'ultimate display,'

The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter….With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked.
Sutherland 2002, 256 

Many people might have assume that Sutherland’s  was the inspiration for the ‘Holodeck’ featured in the television series, Star Trek the Next Generation. However, according to the Wikipedia entry for 'Holodeck,' this is not the case. Gene Dolgoff, the inventor of digital projection, claims to have suggested the idea to Gene Roddenberry in 1973, when the two spent the day together. The source for the Wikipedia article linked to a netcast for a show called ‘Home Geek Theater,’ where Dolgoff made that claim, but I could not find the actual mention of holodecks transcribed anywhere. So I decided to rectify that for other net surfers who may travel the same journey as I did.

(It would be nice btw, it the person who provided the account of the meeting of Roddenberry and Dolgoff would add a citation for the source of their information).


Transcript (49:51 – 51:46)

Scot Wilkinson – So I’m just gonna ask you one more question about 3D and that is the future of 3D. I know you wanted to spend a lot of time on this and we don’t have a lot of time, but I would like to get you hit on, um, ah, you mentioned we would eventually see our 3D displays go towards holography and this is very exciting to me. Of course I watch Star Trek and most of our audience probably does and they know of the holodeck, where you go in and it looks like you’re actually in an environment which is holographically generated, ah, I don’t imagine we’re gonna see that any time soon, but, ah, ah, I have seen some prototype holograph displays that were not very impressive, they were like just line drawings or dot drawings. You seeing the potential for something better than that in the foreseeable future?

Gene Dolgoff – Yes, let me first say that the Holodeck was my idea.

Scot Wilkinson – What?

Gene Dolgoff – Yeah, I worked with Gene Roddenberry, ah, back in ’73, I think it was.

Scot Wilkinson – No kidding!

Gene Dolgoff – Um yeah, I showed him holographs, I told him all about holography and I specifically explained to him, when he had the first Star Trek, ‘Look, this is the future and the future’s gonna have holography and you’re not depicting it in the show, that’s not right.’ And so I spent a lot of time brainstorming with him and, er, we came up with the holodeck idea. Er, I took it further and I said, ‘Not only that all the displays of the ship should be holographic.’ He said ‘yeah, but how we gonna show that on the show?’ So it just stayed the holodeck the way it is, the way you go inside it you see another reality, but yeah that was my development.

Scot Wilkinson - That’s incredible, that’s incredible.


Sutherland, I. E. (1965). ‘The ultimate display.’ In Packer, R., & In Jordan, K. (2002) Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality. New York: Norton, pp. 252-6. Available online from:

Wilkinson & Dolgoff (2011) ‘3D Mayhem’. Home Theater Geeks Episode 74: Retrieved 06 06 13 from