You who are blessed with shade as well as light, you who are gifted with two eyes, endowed with a knowledge of perspective, and charmed with the enjoyment of various colors, you who can actually see an angle, and contemplate the complete circumference of a Circle in the happy realm of the Three Dimensions--how shall I make it clear to you the extreme difficulty which we in Flatland experience in recognizing one another's configurations?
- A. Square, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes presents an unusual view of the history of human nature: “the primeval man was round, his back and sides formed a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast.” Zeus, threatened by these children of sun, moon, and earth, splits them in two so they “will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers.” In this story Aristophanes locates the origin of love. He could just as easily locate the origin of inscription media.
In this dossier we look at flatness not solely as a tactile characteristic—our walls, floors, and desks reveal that to be thriving—but as a characteristic of organization. The two dimensional perspective of the torn human, realized in the initial single planar creation of tablet, scroll, and maps, defies Zeus by evolving into the multiplanar media of the codex and the globe. This media not only recreates the multi-directional, 360o view but expands it to include innumerable steradians. The speedy tumbling ideal of pre-humanity, lost to direct human physiology due to the wrath of the gods, is regained through speedy three dimensional searching. The dominant paradigm of single plane inscription designed the way information was organized, causing a world view that was flat. Three dimensional representation of information broadened this perspective to encompass a new complexity. No longer a necessity of mediatic representation flatness has since become a aseptic value that works to persevere the functionality of three-dimensional representation.
Bodies of Inscription
The flatness of the initial inscription bodies—clay and stone tablets—delineated the boundaries of thought, leading to a flatness of perspective. Some of the oldest written records Mesopotamia contain information about agriculture and “later tablets contain information about the social structure of the Sumerians” (Jean 13). These tablets were both unitopical and one sided. The press of weight from the heavy objects made double sided inscription difficult, and the limited space made multi-topical exploration literally unthinkable.
The transition to flexible inscription mediums, papyrus and later parchment in Egypt and paper in China broadened the capabilities for inscription. However these capabilities did not initially broaden the single planar mind set. Papyrus scrolls varied in length and size, but not in readings method. "The Latin or Greek volume was read from left to right, and when the scroll was held in the hands, the already-read portion was often rolled up in the left hand while the still-to-be read text was unrolled from the right, not unlike the way we handle the pages of a book being read today" and "when a scroll was finished it would have to be rewound to be read again very much as with a modern videotape after it is viewed" (Petroski 25). Scrolling on computer screens is a remediation of this physical movement. Text was written in a series of columns, a format used today in newspapers publications; thus the physical medium also imposed a specific graphical structure of the text. But just as clay and stone restricted space, scrolls restricted searchability due to the arduous nature of physically wrapping and unwrapping to reveal the contained text.
Whether on parchment and papyrus, scrolls provided a clear recording medium. However, labeling and storage presented difficulties. Meta-text was attached to the ends of scrolls “with tags or tickets, not unlike modern price tags, which were marked to give the necessary information, such as descriptive words, author, and the like" (Petroski 25-26). Easily detached, the loss of these tags easily led to confusion about the contents. Although storage was easier than with stone, scroll storage was not unfettered. A multi-scroll document would be kept upright in a box or gathered in a shelf cubby, with the limit on the latter that too great a weight from the top would crush the scrolls, which fell to the bottom. Slate or wax writing tablets offered an additional convenient option, particularly for note taking, but each lacked permanence as inscription mediums.
"The codex evolved during the first century AD and was the predecessor of modern book structure…The codex comprised two boards enclosing sheets and the whole structure was sewn at the back" (Marks 10). In the poem Apophoreta Julius Ceasar’s contemporary Martial “is at pains to commend the form of the parchment codex to a public unaccustomed to it, pointing out, for instance how convenient such a book is for the traveler, or how much space it saves in the library when compared with the role” (Roberts 25). The transition from scroll to codex was not immediate; “the codex emerged as an acceptable form only after a long period of gestation” (Roberts 32).
The bound codex, with double-sided sheets, layered in multiple planes, and later the book as we know it, provided greater sophistication as a resource for both organizing and locating previously recorded information. “Where an entire scroll might have to be unrolled to find a passage near the end, the relevant page could be turned to immediately in the codex. Also, writing in a scroll was normally on one side only, whereas the codex lent itself to the use of both sides of the leaf” (Petroski 29). As a result of the increased functionality already established fields, such as law, became more intricate in their operations. "A new way of binding or of writing things down, a change in the way data are collected, affects the legal framework. It is only in such a diachronic description that the discourse of the law assumes its specific appearances. Only then, by turning into parchment codices, string-tied convolutes, or standardized chrome folders, do files acquires face, form, and format" (Vismann xiii). This ability to search and to tie separate thoughts physically together leads to an increased complexity of the thoughts themselves; the medium shapes the message. In his work on Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett, Hugh Kenner emphasizes how these authors embraced the physical structure of the book. Before them, "It is the books of reference that think to make use of leaves, sheets, numbered pages, and the fact that all pages of all copies are identical" (Kenner 59). The flimsy meta-text of the scroll becomes an integrated part of the object, with titles living on spines and indexes and tables to direct a search.
With the death of flatness, text itself has expanded in ways that no physical page could realistically support. While this idea was experimented with by some writers, the practical implementation of this came about electronically with the idea of hypertext. With hypertext we were finally able to achieve, in Ted Nelson's words, a "non-sequential writing, a branching text that allows the reader to make choices…" (Nelson). This causes the words in a text to move away from what was once an obvious sequence into a intricate three-dimensional web which allows the reader to navigate freely
Flatness lacked this freedom in a very explicit way. Reading before hypertext produced a very strict "Cake Mix" of ideas. The reader was forced to follow a very strict path of ideas to an inevitable conclusion. With hypertext the path and conclusions drawn from any text is only limited by the volume of ___ available to the reader. Only the reader's desire for agency, and not her absolute agency, limits the way ideas can be formed.
Maps and Globes
Maps and globes are technologies of representation, sharing the human sensory experience of the outer physical world. While the earliest maps expressed spatial knowledge of a specific place, subsequent versions overlay other relationships. Two dimensional maps that display geographic information in graphical detail are still utilized today, but the mindset of their origin is no longer dominant.
While it is difficult to pinpoint when map making truly began, it has roots in many ancient civilizations. The British museum has an example of a 5th century BCE Babylonian clay tablet that displays that civilization’s belief that the world was round--but not spherical--surrounded by an ocean (Tooley 3). As Crary points out in Techniques of the Observer, both the map and the globe provide representations that give the user more information about the world beyond what their sensory information could provide. The map and the globe are used as tools to extend our own vision and allow people to think about the “crucial feature of the world, its extension, so mysteriously unlike the unextended immediacy of their own thoughts yet rendered intelligible to mind by the clarity of these representations, by their magnitudional relations” (Crary 46). Scale is an issue in understanding the world. The curves of the earth's surface appear to be flat because of our vantage point on the massive globe. The flatness of a single-plane medium like a map, mirrored early concepts of the world as a whole that were based on limited sense information.
The earth as a plane was debated during the Hellenic time period, leading the Greeks to make globes in tandem with maps. In addition, renowned polymath Ptolemy drafted maps and developed the concepts of longitude and latitude (Tooley 5). Globes provide a way to view the world’s geography without distortions. Modern maps are actually projections of the globe onto a flat surface, in contrast to earlier map making. Therefore when flatness is filtered through the lens of the global our representation of the world is more accurate.
But, while geographers utilize the knowledge that the earth is a sphere to make the most accurate maps, globe gores have been used since at least the 1500s in the production of globes (Stevenson, p. 202). As seen in "Picture 1," gores are maps of the Earth printed in flat, roughly triangular sections. Because of the difficulty of printing or engraving the maps onto a surface that is not flat, these flat maps are attached to a sphere made out of wood, brass or some other medium. Therefore the flat characteristic of a map is remediated in the globe. Some modern globes are still constructed in this way. But many are composed of plastic that has dye directly applied to the sphere itself.
Needless to say, flat media are still in existence; however, now flatness is created as an aesthetic choice. Because flatness has become an explicit choice and not a necessary element in the creation of media, this is a different phenomenon than the flatness previously described. The term ‘deliberate flatness’ can be used to call attention to this aesthetic choice in either the medium or the content of a medium. In either case the use of deliberate flatness is recognized and considered for its effects on the way in which we interact with any medium.
By calling attention to itself as flat, deliberately flat media are created with an acknowledgement that flatness has become part of the functional nonsense of media. That is, we use flatness now as not just something that is a given in media, but that by having flatness within media we are able to produce a very specific message. Deliberate flatness is rarely the content, but the form media take. This is use of deliberate flatness will only work so long as it remains obvious that flatness is a trait of the medium.
Deliberate flatness in media does not actually produce flat media. Many modern media that are made to appear flat have complex content which produces a juxtaposition within the user of the media. In this way, deliberate flatness can be thought of as artificial simplicity. The effects of this are to either produce a metadialogue about the media or to avoid that kind of discussion as much as possible. Effectively, this choice comes to whether or not media producers want their consumers to be dazzled by their creations or to consider them as creations.
Deliberate Flatness in Art
While flatness has always been a trait of painting, it is only with Modernist painting that we begin to see painting’s flatness as something to be aware of. In his essay Modernist Painting, Clement Greenberg describes flatness as one of the distinctive features of pictorial art. Flatness, for Greenberg is also the thing that all Modernist is commenting on and bringing to the front. This is a drastic parting from older traditions which “acknowledged [flatness] only implicitly or indirectly” (Greenberg). Flatness was not something that had to be worked around by a painter any more, it had become something to cherish. With this new freedom artists then were able to abandon the illusion of space produced by art to force their audiences into thinking about the art’s flatness. This turns the discussion of work of art into a discussion of art itself.
With all of this revelry in flatness, Greenberg also acknowledges that with any sort of brushstroke on a canvas there is the distraction of flatness. When a Modernist painter makes anything she produces a “strictly optical third dimension” which “can only be seen into; can be traveled through, literally or figuratively, only with the eye (Greenberg). This turns painting into a purely visual medium with any kind of escapist ability, once again bringing the art back to being in many ways a commentary on itself.
So here within art, maybe one of the most complex modes of mediation, deliberate flatness is produced, but it is created with a purpose. By using flatness Modernist painters were able to make deep commentary on not just the techniques of art, but on art as a way of seeing the world.
Deliberately Flat Technology
While it could be seen as a purely practical use of flatness, the way in which data is stored for computers has become increasingly flat. While machine-readable data was stored on something flat, these things never seemed flat to us thanks to the surface of the medium itself, such as the grooves of the vinyl record. Flatness was never an issue with records because the text of the record was within the grove, thus making flatness into blankness. And in other forms of machine-readable data, such as magnetic tape, flatness existed, but in a similar fashion to the scroll as a fundamental quality of the medium. Both media paradigms make flatness seem strange to even consider.
With the introduction of the compact disc flatness suddenly was brought to the front of media. The CD changed the way information was stored and, with this change, turned flatness into a language. Of course, this is not technically true. CDs have very small impressions on their surface, but to the unaided human these impressions are impossible to notice (Pohlmann). While the use of machine-written storage media had already created a public comfortable with machines that could “read themselves” as representing technology, the media before CDs were still reading a text which, even if not quite perceivable, was at least connected to a cinematic understanding of media (Gitelman 64). The CD then was hailed as revolutionary because of its deliberate flatness while changing the way we think about memory. To remember something requires a way to see patterns in a place where there is no visible pattern. It is as if all the marks ever made on Freud’s magic writing pad could only be seen on the bottom surface and never the top. To read the pad one would have to know how to lift the top layer and read carefully the constantly written over indentations. This turns flatness into a barrier that must be lifted before memory (much less the memories content) can be revealed.
This deliberate flatness makes things look like they are much simpler to understand and operate though. So much so is this the case that other forms of media are working toward flatness as a way of manufacturing a flatness that represents simplicity. Probably the most recent example of this is the Apple iPad. While a highly complex piece of technology, it is leverages its flatness as a way of making the public more comfortable with using it. Deliberate flatness for the iPad is used in a way to exceed our understanding of how it works in order for it to seem “magical” (iPad). As the iPad’s advertisement even says, “It is hard to see how something so simple, so thin, and so light could possibly be so capable” (iPad). The iPad, like most other consumer electronics, is flat to give the machine’s functions a sense of great depth of wonderment while creating a black box which protects the consumer from being forced to know just how anything works.
Face Value etymology
Face value was used first around 1878 to describe the value expressed on bank notes and postage stamps. The word 'face' is from late 13th century French from the word Facia which means "appearance, form or figure" and secondarily "visage, countenance." The noun could be related to 'facere' which means "to make."
Gitelman, Lisa. Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines. Standford University Press: Stanford. 1999.
Greenberg, Clement. Modernist Painting. Forum Lectures. Voice of America: Washington D.C. 1960.
iPad Video. Apple. Accessed April 10, 2010.
Pohlmann, Ken C. The Compact Disc Handbook. A-R Editions Inc: Middleton. 1992.