DEAR DIARY…

HAPPENING


Budapest has a show of interactive computer art until May 25th (open every day noon to 8pm at the C3 media centre on Orszaghaz utca in the Castle District) called ‘Kalendarium’, one of the Hungarian words for ‘diary’.

This is the work of two Hungarians, Miklos Szalay, and – again – Robert Langh, who was also a codesigner of the ‘Smalltalk’ chatterbots show earlier this year.

Visitors operate a red ball to move the screen cursor and hit a handsome red button to ‘click’ on-screen.

They call ‘Kalendarium‘ a “work in progress” – as diaries are, by and large – but the screen suggests a life of such richness and multifaceted multimedia gorgeousness that it is hard to see _how_ the work could ever be successfully finished.

The aim is to build up a collaborative approach – someone English might call it a ‘scrapbook’ – from different contributors, so as to describe time, the passing of time around the year, through the metaphor of the calendar or diary.

“We want to stop time.” “We would like to see.” The artists explain that the ever-moving passage of time confuses us, and makes time hard to look at, stops us from seeing life itself as time constantly buzzes past.

As you move the cursor on the screen (they want this work to ultimately be a CD-ROM), little windows on different themes flicker open and closed wherever the cursor goes.

Meanwhile the revolving paper diary, the book with pages splayed open, revolves in 3D in part of the screen, as if floating in space. The writing on at least three pages is visible and readable.

I got quite a thrill when I found that by moving the cursor past the revolving diary I could actually change the speed and orientation of the little spinning paper token of passing time and personal life. In fact I could sometimes whisk the spinning virtual booklet to a different part of the screenaltogether, almost as if (in the form of the cursor arrow) I had flicked past the pages with my fingertips. Visitors should definitely try to do this, since the actual windows are a little too small to read from where you have to stand, so the flickering multiplicity of possible lifestyles is only really clear to see on the lovely information card given away at the exhibition.

The small revolving book suggested a curious paradox.

On one hand, the idea of freezing time and seeing lots of lifelines at once is ideally suited for multimedia, whether on CD ROM or the Internet. The very idea of interlocking trees of destiny sounds like a model of the World Wide Web.

Yet at the same time (pardon the pun) diaries and calendars are attempts to impose order which put lives into book form, a highly traditional medium which stubbornly continues to appeal to us. As the little appointment book revolves on the screen, it is hard not to notice how it is the most attractive object there. I bet most visitors will play more with the book, and less with the pop-up miniscreens.

The idea of time dried, folded, and pressed into familiar book form is alluring because it offers what we all want our lives to have: a narrative. A proper storyline with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Direction. One or more happy endings in the light of which our previous suffering and sacrifice can retrospectively make sense and fit into place.

The very multiplicity of multimedia seems to defeat a deep yearning most people have for a story. Recent films (such as the recent, multi-ending German movie ‘Run, Lola, run’) may change this, but there is still something amiss with a project about diaries which is so many-branched.

Our own diaries reveal our own lives to be frustratingly and stubbornly single-branched by contrast.

And if diaries are to be stories we tell ourselves about our lives, who are the intended readers? Some as yet unborn family member in the future, curious about us after our death? Not an uncaring, inquisitive snooper, for sure.

For the other break with diary tradition in multimedia is the concept of privacy. The idea of participating in a huge scratchpad of joint consciousness is deeply appealing at one level.

And yet curiously few people choose to use the Internet like this – despite the claims of some early prophets of hypertext that our scribblings would fuse into one big, shared palimpsest. Even on the Internet, the self-centred individual ego seems very much in evidence – if anything _less_ restricted within communal forms of expression than on old-fashioned paper.

‘Kalendarium’ may produce a fascinating scrapbook of meditations on time, but I expect it to be (a) less comprehensible, and (b) less personal than any traditional private journal – and as a result may be a document rather like a visitors’ book into which many people write but out of which very few read. Most of the information people value about themselves and others is confidential, and we are all far more excited to be allowed access to something someone did not want us to see than something that was always intended to be public.

And can anything ever be truly private on the Internet?

A completely different event asked just that question on April 19th inside the British Embassy. The British Chamber of Commerce in Hungary held an evening panel discussion to explain e-mail encryption and digital signatures to lawyers and accountants.

For business, on-line privacy means money.

Rather than blurring of dividing lines around the edges of narratives, they want to _avoid_ the blurring of lines around the edges of bank accounts. Just a decade after Zimmerman defied the US intelligence community by uploading his Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption software to the Internet in 1991, digital signatures and e-certificated documents are the stuff of big business. And when anything new happens, Europeans naturally start thinking of how to control it with laws.

The plan? In Hungary, as in most European countries, the plan is to have a law which places firms which give e-certification to other companies under the supervision of a state e-regulator, the Hungarian Communications Authority (HCA).

So I asked them my question. Why would customers believe that the HCA had not used its power to obtain backdoors or master keys (purely for ‘national security’ purposes of course) to the commercial encryption software used by the e-certificators it supervises?

The panel were hurt and embarrassed. What a suggestion! The new system would require a major commitment to trust! What kind of government would do such a thing as pry into the private code of its own e-certificators?

As one shocked American official said when British Intelligence showed the US the contents of the Zimmerman telegram (another Zimmerman, oddly) between Germany and Mexico in 1917 during World War I – “a gentleman doesn’t open other people’s letters”. Perhaps those were more innocent days, before a later US government prosecuted the later Zimmerman for releasing PGP.

Might some intelligence agencies not love to have access to e-certificators’ encryption software – if only to have their very own licence to print e-money? Separate from the government’s licence to print paper money? Or even out of just sheer nosiness?

If it’s really important to you no-one reads your diary, perhaps best not to write it down at all.

Text: Mark Griffith From Live Budapest

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