Viola and the Triumphant Porcupine

Bill Viola’s essay, “Will there be condominiums in data space?” examines the sacred and the profane in…well, in data space, in visual art, in electronic art and media, in mantra, in life as a whole.

We were challenged to reflect on Viola’s enigmatic parable of the porcupine trapped and defensive in a car’s headlights (more on that in a minute) but also to think about how data space could be diagrammed or envisioned.

This brought me back to seventh grade, and our year-long assignment to illustrate history from the perspective of an animal. At the conclusion of each unit–I remember Greek and Roman history the best–we had to write our chosen critter into history, using their perspective to explain and interpret the events we learned about. I chose the housefly as my animal, for obvious reasons. While my fellow classmates struggled to work in how kangaroos and bears might peek in on Caesar Augustus, my fly was able to get in anywhere (though not always with a warm welcome). At the end of the year, we were to put all of the pieces together, and my brilliant mother, who had something of a Macintosh addiction, came up with the idea of teaching me to use the brand-new HyperCard application and to turn in a HyperCard “stack” as my final project. This was really a precursor to the way the modern World Wide Web works: you view a static image, representing an index card. However, you can include images, words, or whatever that, when clicked, play a sound, take you to a new card, or allow something to otherwise pop up or change. Links!

To plan out this epic project, my mom had me plot out the stack and how it would branch using actual index cards on the living room floor. It really took me a while to “get” what this was doing and why it was interesting. Now, this seems intuitive–I click on something online, something happens. But it was not at all clear to me then how or why anyone would do this or why I should care.

While I am sure a copy of my fly-on-the-wall stack exists on a floppy in my parents’ house somewhere, there are other, more famous “stacks” if you care to take a look. I am pretty sure we owned a copy of the famous The Manhole game for children (I know, this does not sound like it is for children–go tell the developers), though I do not remember if I played it to completion. Another famous example is the game Myst, which I also owned but never completed myself, though my roommate and this guy she was crushing on stayed up all night to finish it back in 1996. Unfortunately, they had to use my behemoth desktop Mac clone to do so, which made it hard for me to sleep. Ah, the things we do for love (and roommates)!

Alas, Apple withdrew HyperCard in 2004, because, basically, “What was this thing?” venture entrepreneur and coder Tim Oren wrote. “Programming and user interface design tool? Lightweight database and hypertext document management system? Multimedia authoring environment? Apple never answered that question.” HyperCard’s inventor lamented that he’d missed the mark:

If only he had figured out that stacks could be linked through cyberspace, and not just installed on a particular desktop, things would have been different…”I grew up in a box-centric culture at Apple. If I’d grown up in a network-centric culture, like Sun, HyperCard might have been the first Web browser. My blind spot at Apple prevented me from making HyperCard the first Web browser.”

Read more about HyperCard and try out some data viz circa 1991! 

I feel like I got a little off-track, so back to the porcupine: the poor porcupine, dazzled and defensive, has her view of the world as full of startling monsters and sudden attacks. The driver has his or her point of view–seemingly omniscient, but still lacking in perspective no matter what method s/he tries. And that whole condominium thing? Must have been some leftover animus about little boxes. That’s all I got.


Viola and the Triumphant Porcupine