The World as Data
What is it like to be a human?
One of my favorite living filmmakers is this guy who goes by the name of Rambalac. Rambalac lives in Tokyo, and posts hi-def walking videos of various Tokyo neighborhoods and other Japanese locations to YouTube. I can’t quite explain the effect these videos have on me. They are more like walks than movies. Even at their most sublime, they are pedestrian. They are opportunities to stretch your legs, clear your head, to gather your thoughts, or let them go. And yet, somehow, I do find them, frequently, sublime - haunting, exquisite, overflowing with the kind of holy moments that give cinema its sacred power.
These videos exist within a genre, a somewhat tacky genre that uses cutting-edge camera tech to create virtual tours of beautiful places. But I’ve tried the others and they don’t work for me. There’s something about the urban terrain of Japan, especially Tokyo, that is an essential component of the beauty of these videos. And, even more so, there’s something about Rambalac himself, and the decisions he makes, both in terms of presentation (no titles, no edits, no talking), and in the moment-to-moment flow of the walk - what he looks at, where he goes, the way he navigates social and physical space.
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Rambalac does everything he can to avoid intruding on the world he is observing, to be, like the character in Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin, “a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” But occasionally we catch a glimpse of his reflection in a store window or elevator mirror – oh, he’s not Japanese! And in every frame we feel his presence – quiet, sweet, and a little sad, stopping to watch a black cat thread its way across a cluttered stoop, showing us the label of the green tea he’s bought from a vending machine, looking away politely from a fellow pedestrian, or standing still, on a rainy night, before the red gate that marks the entrance to a Shinto shrine, entranced.
Caught up in this strange dimension, somewhere between the first-person journey we can never escape and the second-person stories that let us try, we feel like hitchhikers, riding along in someone else’s car, turning the world’s surplus of generosity and loneliness into free momentum, and, like all hitchhikers, a little lost.
I often listen to dub techno while watching Rambalac videos, which amplifies their chill, phenomenological trippiness, and makes me feel like I’m experiencing a mutant artform invented by William Gibson. An artform I call consciousness porn.
A thought that occurred to me, late one night, while watching Rambalac videos, is that they would be ideal for training a machine-learning model of Tokyo. So much raw data, an overwhelming flood of high-resolution details, light and shadow, spaces, surfaces, people, words and images, vehicles, buildings; rich examples of the world’s generative logic, its physical laws, its overlapping design patterns – architectural, social, technological – all of it entangled with the data of Rambalac’s attention, the rhythm and shape of his gaze, a kind of swirling, ubiquitous ground to Tokyo’s glittering, multi-faceted figure.
“I want to be a machine,” whispered Andy Warhol to his camera. And now the camera is whispering back.
What makes something consciousness porn? Well… I know it when I see it. But here’s another canonical example –
The Backrooms is a YouTube folk genre, a collaborative fictional exercise, something like a cinematic version of the SCP Wiki. The entire genre sprung from a single image posted in 2019 to a 4chan subreddit. In the same way that the seven seconds of the amen break gradually unfolded into the entire musical sub-genre of drum and bass, this simple jpeg of a bland, vaguely unsettling interior has initiated a process by which a vast, multi-dimensional complex of liminal spaces is actively bootstrapping itself into existence around us. Talk about worldbuilding!
Like a lot of teenage pop culture, much of the beauty of The Backrooms is in its minimalist structural recipe, and YouTube is full of Backrooms videos that embrace its formula, not out of lack of imagination, but for the pleasure of submitting to a collective aesthetic and iterating on it together. There is, however, one Backrooms video creator whose work has risen above the ocean of pale yellow polygons: Kane Pixels, whose videos are good enough to have landed him a deal with A24 at the ripe young age of 18.
Rambalac and Backrooms videos both produce, in me, a kind of ASMR of the soul. Both are versions of anti-cinema, defined by a particular kind of emptiness - the absence of fistfights, car chases, love scenes and gun battles. Like life itself, they stretch out before us with the promise of nothing much happening, creating a vacuum into which your own apparatus of attention and awareness is thermodynamically compelled to expand.
But Rambalac videos are about the solid and reliable spaces of the mundane world, whose generative logic is anchored in a deep web of stable algorithms, a web that is especially tightly-woven and self-correcting in the densely-packed and lovingly-tended back streets of urban Japan. Backrooms videos are about the impermanent and unreliable spaces of the imagined world, whose flaky algorithms are disconnected from any stable meaning or purpose. This is the blender world of empty churches and abandoned shopping malls; the shifting fenlen space of forgotten convention centers; the half-baked horror of cookie-cutter architecture, suburban clichés whose formulaic artificiality whirred, mechanically, into focus right after you
bought your first video camera made your first mod and smoked your first joint.
Rambalac videos are old, and sad, and Russian, like the very beginning of film. Backrooms videos are young and dumb and full of computers, like its future. But both of them are consciousness porn. Both of them are the internet, slouching towards us, trying to understand the work of art in the age of mechanical subjectivity. From its side. As we try to figure it out from ours.
I’m sure you can think of plenty of examples from your own life, but let me give you one last one from mine –
OK, let me state, up front, that MonsterTrack, the illegal bike race, is illegal. It is also dangerous and bad, it subjects random civilians to unnecessary risks, and is, obviously, morally indefensible. It is also maybe the greatest thing on YouTube. Remember all that stuff about anti-cinema I said before? This is the opposite of that. This is the futurist’s high-speed dream of pure cinema, it is like being inside of a fistfight love scene that is also a car crash gun battle. I pity the people who have to make expensive action movies in a world where this exists.
Consciousness porn is always in dialogue with videogames, because of their relationship to first-person perspective and simulated environments. But it’s important to note that, of the three examples I’ve given, this is the only one that actually is a game. And so much of what’s great about it, so much of its joyous, overflowing beauty, comes from it being a game, a real game, a bottom-up, player-driven, extreme sport. Like all televised sports, it offers the viewer a cocktail of pleasures – the satisfaction of figuring out how the game works, the suspense of not knowing who will win, and, throughout, an open-mouthed amazement at outrageous technical skills. All shaken up and served over a tall, icy stack of the full-body tingles.
I miss New York. And this particular video hit me hard. It is, perhaps, the greatest representation of New York in the history of film. When you live there for a long time, you end up visiting almost every block of Manhattan for some dumb reason or another. And you end up with a patchy mental model of the whole thing, every neighborhood, every square foot. But to see it like this – skitching along with the filmmaker, Terry B – sailing through these neighborhoods at a continuous speed that would be impossible to achieve by foot or car, is to experience the jumbled, half-remembered details of Manhattan re-assembled into a coherent whole of extraordinary beauty. It is a view I could only have from a distance, through someone else’s eyes, and I am deeply grateful for it.
It might seem like this reckless rush is the opposite of Rambalac’s polite and deferential relationship to the urban logic of the city, and yes, these guys do, occasionally, rudely interrupt the traffic they encounter, but hear me out – as you watch, you gradually realize that what they are really trying to do is move through the city without disturbing it, to understand and predict the flow of people and vehicles so well that they can weave through it without affecting it. This is their ultimate goal, their lives depend on it and, more importantly, so does winning.
If the mind we occupy in a Rambalac walk is the absent mind, absorbing and absorbed by the solid facts of its environment, and the mind we occupy in a Backrooms video is the skeptical mind, incapable of making sense of the arbitrary facts of its environment, then the mind we occupy while watching MonsterTrack is the mind as pure agency, free energy, completely engrossed in the act of reverse-engineering its environment, understanding its environment as a process that produces facts. This is thought and action at the limit of the possible, a mind re-making itself into a real-time model of the city as an intricate machine that creates the world, a machine of which it is, itself, one single gear. The city waking up, as the electrical signals that evolved to carry pizza and contracts and celebrity photo magazine covers discard these tasks and self-organize into a city waking up into a dream of itself, into a dream of glass and circuitry and concrete and flesh, waking up and asking – where am I?
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